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I learned something about identity and habits.

A few years ago while giving a talk at a local Suzuki parents meeting, I introduced myself as the parent of a young Suzuki violinist. Nothing special, just an introduction. One of the parents came up to me afterwards and told me how interesting it was that I referred to my daughter as a “violinist”. She was accustomed to saying that her daughter takes violin lessons.

Recently I ran across a piece of advice that made me think back to that encounter.


Lasting habit changes always involve some kind of identity shift. Running every day stops being a grind only once you begin to feel like a runner.
- David Cain, raptitude.com 88 More Truths I’ve Learned About Life

Now I’m beginning to understand the difference between being a violinist and taking violin lessons. To be a violinist (or any musician) means taking on the identity of a musician. What do musicians do? They practice. On the other hand taking violin lessons is just something you do. Like brushing one’s teeth. No one really identifies as a tooth brusher!

It’s certainly possible to practice by sheer force of will but it’s always going to be an uphill battle. By beginning to reframe the task of practice as something that musician do and that “I am a musician.” then it’s an easier task.

How can we as parents build a sense of identity?

  • Participate actively in the Suzuki and wider musical community - Sociologists would tell us that identity is created in a social context. We know this intuitively. “Hang out with bad kids, and chances are you’ll be the same,” warned my parents. Being part of the community - in group classes, master classes, institutes helps provide the social feedback to build the child’s budding identity as a musician.
  • Introduce children to role models - Take them to live performances so they can see real grownups making serious music. Watch YouTube videos of famous performers and talk about them. “Who is your favourite violinist?” “Don’t you love her phrasing?”
  • Use the language of identity - The words we use have an enormous impact on how children see themselves. By referring to practice as a responsibility that comes from one’s identity as a musician rather than just one more chore or “work”, there’s less friction.
  • Make music the centerpiece of family life - A child’s first and closest community is her family. By never compromising when it comes to the schedule of musical events and practicing, the child takes important cues about how adults in her family view music.
  • Use symbols and celebrations - All of us represent our identity by little outward symbols that signal to others who we are and what we’re about. For example, political bumper stickers are an unmistakable clue as to the driver’s affiliations. In a similar fashion we can bolster children’s identity by celebrating and taking note of milestones like practice challenges, recitals, and graduations. Symbols like stickers, posters, plaques and trophies come to be tokens of identification with a group of children who see themselves as musicians-in-training.

The relationship between identity and practice is a virtuous cycle. Identity builds confidence and consistency into practice and performance. And the better the child feels about herself from being consistent and playing well, the stronger her identification with the art and practice of musicianship. Over time, our identities become more complex and nuanced, but early identification with music will have a lasting influence throughout the lives of our children. And given that Suzuki’s real goal was building the identities of children as peacemakers and good citizens, we could all use more of that.

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What I learned as a Suzuki parent in 2016

Approaching the end of 2016, it’s the season of annual reviews, reflections, and retrospectives. It’s also the season for hopes and plans for 2017. Since for me personally it has been an interesting and challenging year, I decided to reflect on what I’ve learned over this past year.

Suzuki talent education is truly universal.

One of our adventures during 2016 involved moving to another country. Although our move was only from the U.S. to Canada, we were struck by how universal the Suzuki experience is. At the first Saturday morning group class, my daughter walked right into the first group and started playing. Same pieces, same bowings. Everything was exactly the same. Even if she had been unable to speak the language there would have been no barrier to making music with her peers. What if we all could communicate that way!

Music can be a great source of resilience.

Over the course of a year, we moved three times. One of the few constants in our lives was music. Even if everything else changes, there’s always music.

Switching teachers can be very tough.

My daughter is very fond of her first teacher whom we had to leave behind. We found a wonderful teacher in our new community but the transition involved lots of emotion. Technical progress can always wait; deal with the emotions first.

What piece your child is playing isn’t a good measure of progress.

I’ve begun to notice much more divergence in progress as measured by where my daughter is in the Suzuki repertoire and her development as a musician. There are so many little details of expression and stylistic interpretation that can be emphasized. You can spend a very long time working out every last detail. It’s all time well-spent. Since my daughter has been playing in orchestra and now a string quartet, there are many other experiences that bear on her development as a musician. It’s pointless to look at chronological progression through the pieces as a measure of progress. The answer to the question “What are you working on now?” isn’t the Vivaldi A-minor. It’s “Being a better violinist.” or “Being more patient with myself in practice.”

Sometimes letting go is the best course of action

Because our lives have been a little disordered this year, I’ve had to let go of a rigid schedule for review. But in the process, I’ve learned that letting go of the invariable need to get every little thing done every single day can be the best course of action. Sometimes you have to “zoom out” and look at the big picture. Sometimes progress doesn’t come in day-sized pieces.

The world needs Suzuki more than ever

Suzuki’s hope was to unite the world in peace by teaching kids to be patient, gentle, kind and hopeful citizens. This past year has seen far too much crudeness, hate, and division. We desperately need more of what unites us.


What I wish I had done better

Even the most effective Suzuki family has the occasional tense or nonproductive practice. Our experience this year was not exception.

There are times that I let my own personal frustrations get the better of me.

My own personal hot button is inefficiency. Like most families, we have a busy life. Time-wasting (what my own mother used to call plain-old dawdling) is a sure way to raise my blood pressure. I’m working on turning the problem upside down. Instead of seeing it as a surplus of inefficiency, I’m trying to see the problem as a deficiency of interestingness. By making practice more interesting, then everything else becomes less distracting, relatively speaking. I’m not quite there yet, but I’m working on it.

Sometimes I struggle to stay positive and creative with practice.

When the workload looks insurmountable or I’m low on sleep and exercise, I get too “transactional” with practice. It’s best to see our work in practice with young children as a balance between organizing the material to be practiced vs. setting it up as a fun positive experience. When time and patience are short, it’s easy to push the balance toward the “work” side.


Looking toward 2017

I’ve become more and more interested in the idea of the practice of life as a series of experiments. We’re all feeling our way through the experience of life, making it up as we go. Similarly when practicing with our children at home, we are making it up as we go. I have always noticed that my daughter, now 8 years old, was more cooperative with trying new ways of playing something if I framed it as an experiment. “What would happen if you slowed your bow speed here so you stayed closer to the lower half? I wonder…”

But what would happen if we tried that sort of hypothetical stance on a larger scale? What if we decided to try month-long experiments? For example, you might decide to play a particular game every day for a month and see if our outlook during practice improves. Or we could decide to devote the entire month to trying little mini-experiments to improve certain techniques. There’s something very honest and appealing about admitting that we don’t have all the answers, but that we are willing to play around with ideas and test them out.

I’m looking forward to trying all of this out in 2017, seeing where it takes us.

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A few years ago, my wife, a surgeon, told a story about a medical student who rotated on her service. When she asked him what he had hoped to learn on the rotation, he said that he was hoping to “learn some tricks.” I’m not exactly sure what surgical “tricks” are but I assume he was referring to little shortcuts or efficiencies that you gradually learn through practice. The story bothered me slightly for reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

But now I think I understand why. And it relates to what we do in Suzuki talent education.

It bothered me because, however innocently, it implies an expectation of unearned knowledge - a desire to advance one’s practical knowledge without going through the practical part.

Learning to play an instrument at a high level is arguably one of the most skillful tasks that humans undertake. Naturally, when we see an expert player we might wonder what the trick is. What’s the key that when found unlocks that level of playing?

So in music, what is the trick?

Well, the trick is to realize there isn’t a trick at all. There are still endeavours that are simply impervious to tricks. You can’t tweak your bow hold slightly and suddenly play the Paganini Caprices. You can’t stare at the score long enough and suddenly play the Rachmaninoff piano concerti. Learning to play well isn’t like that at all. It is more like building a 747. I’m not an engineer and I know nothing about how a 747 is actually built. But I’m pretty sure it starts with one piece of metal and a rivet. The result is not the application of a trick. It’s the sum of millions of small tasks. The same as learning to play.

The trick of learning to play beautifully is not a trick at all. It’s just accepting that some things can’t be rushed. It’s coming back to practice every day. And for the thing done well, its price is time itself.

From time to time I have the opportunity to interact with other families who are trying to decide on whether to start music lessons for their children and how to go about it. Notwithstanding the enormous influence that Suzuki has had in dispelling some of these myths, many persist. In this post, I’d like to do my own myth-busting about children and learning to play a musical instrument.

None of the arguments for starting music lessons holds any value until parents understand the value of music in their children’s lives. The neurocognitive benefits of musical training are well-documented. And done well, learning a musical instrument early in childhood teaches a host of life skills that equip children to be kind, compassionate, patient, and persistent. I’m also wildly biased about music because I think that’s it’s a wonderful gift to children on its own merit.

“Forcing a child to take music lessons is a recipe for strife and hatred of music”

Well, that’s statement with which I’d agree. To a point. The problem with the claim as worded is the “forcing” part. Children and most of us adults have a natural oppositional stance toward expectations that aren’t immediately enjoyable. Skilled parenting requires adults to find creative ways of implementing expectations without explicitly forcing the child into compliance.

Growth

From a very early age, parents have to become inventive in order to set up habits that are good for their children. They play games with their children to get them to try foods that they might otherwise not attempt to eat on their own. They create fun rituals around bath time. None of these methods is explicit “forcing.” Instead, they are about reducing the friction of implementing reasonable expectations.

To understand the difference between the authoritarian style of forcing children to comply with expectations and the authoritative style of openly communicating family expectations, it may help to think about parenting styles on two axes, responsiveness (or warmth) and control. Parents who have a high degree of control but are receptive toward their children typically find ways of gaining cooperation through rational explanation and listening. The idea of forcing a child to take music lessons is an authoritarian concept. There is absolutely nothing wrong with expecting a child to study music if it is important to your family. But this also requires a high degree of investment in finding creative ways to make it enjoyable and rewarding. This the role of the authoritative parent.

One of the reasons that Suzuki’s approach to talent education is so successful with young children is that it capitalizes on the creativity of caring authoritative adults in a child’s life to create enjoyment around an intense learning experience. It only works when the parents are highly involved. Anything less than that begins to resemble “forcing” when the inevitable difficulties start to come up.

“Musical talent is mostly inherited anyway; and I have no talent”

Of course, musical ability seems to travel in families. Children of musicians are more likely to be musicians themselves. But that’s hardly definitive evidence of a genetic predestination. You have to take into consideration the cultural influence in the family. If the child of a musical family hears music constantly, then he’ll clearly move toward the family’s center of gravity.

We also know much more than ever about the role of intentional practice in shaping ability. High ability in any discipline is more a function of dedicated practice rather than innate ability. Children of all kinds of parents can learn to play a musical instrument well.

“Maybe music isn’t my child’s passion”

True, maybe it’s not.

The problem with this myth is two-fold. First, is the myth of The One True Passion. Then there’s an implied misunderstanding about how real passions develop.

Many people believe that everyone has a singular passion locked inside of them just waiting to be discovered. In this way of thinking, only a fortunate few manage to discover it and go on to be highly accomplished people. The rest of us are left to wander about perpetually seeking our One True Passion. This, of course, is nonsense. None of us has such a thing. Instead, passion or intense interests develop as virtuous cycles. A young child begins an activity at the behest of his parents. In the course of participating in that activity, the parent is an enthusiastic helper and cheerleader, always finding something praiseworthy in the smallest achievement. The child, in turn, endeavours to keep trying because the genuine approval of his parents is more precious than any possession. More effort, more feedback, and more desire to invest effort. And on it goes.

No child develops an intense enthusiasm (aka “passion”) for something without his parents investing time and effort and endlessly cheerleading. A passion is an action, not a fixed state of being. Picasso said that “Inspiration exists but it has to find us working.” The same is true of passion. It has to find us working, exploring and learning.

“Children who are meant to play an instrument will eventually ask to take lessons”

Maybe. Maybe not. Are you willing to take the chance?

Regrets about not starting or continuing with musical training are among the top regrets of adults. And although it’s never too late to start music lessons, there are data showing that musical aptitude reaches its adult plateau level around age 12. By age 8 or 9, a child’s ability to discriminate between pitches (up, down, same) reaches the level at which it will remain for the rest of his life. By age 12, his ability to distinguish between harmonically consistent and inconsistent pitches reaches adults levels. Children may not necessarily ask to take music lessons until some of these windows are already closed.

“I’ll try a few lessons and see if he takes to it”

This myth is rooted in the same misunderstanding of The One True Passion. The idea behind this myth is that a handful of music lessons will be enough to see if this can unlock that hidden passion.

The answer is the same: that’s not how interests develop. At least not in younger children. Playing a musical instrument is hard. For some instruments, it can take a year or more to make sequences of sounds that most of us would interpret as definitely musical. For the overwhelming majority of children, then only the persistent encouragement from their parents and teachers can propel them over that hump.


The decision to give children the gift of music lessons has all the traits of good leadership. Parent leaders have to be well-informed about the benefits of musical training and about their role in the undertaking. They have to be 100% convinced that they are right. And they have to lead by example and by working in the trenches with their children.

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Yes, cows, sheep, chickens, pigs and cats all helped our practice.

Well, at least their sounds did.

The full story goes like this: Like many children, ViolinGirl doesn’t like to be interrupted. Since she’s not a tactile learner[1], having me reach over to fix things like bow hold and left hand position are frustrating for her. Similarly, completely stopping the piece to remind her to fix something turns out to be inefficient because sometimes it’s hard to get going again. Here’s where the animal sounds come in.

She and I decided on a repertoire of animal sounds that represent different things to work on. For example, a pig 🐖 sound means “check that your left thumb is relaxed.” A cow 🐄 mooing means “check that you are landing your fingers on the inside corners.” A cat 🐱 meowing means to check her bow hold, and so on.

All of this is much less intrusive than using words or trying to manipulate her hands directly. And it’s good for a laugh![2]

What have you done for fun in practice that’s also helped improve technique? Comment on our Facebook page


  1. Special thanks to Ms. Jennifer Burton, master Suzuki violin teacher at the Aber Suzuki Center for raising our awareness of learning styles in children. Our daughter is definitely not a kinesthetic learner. She's probably about 2/3 auditory and 1/3 visual. Thinking about learning styles and preferences has been enormously helpful in adapting our practice techniques and in understanding where things can go astray.

  2. More than just being amusing, it taps into a love of animals that my daughter has. Anything that features animals in some way readily gains her interest.

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Posted outside an institute director’s door is a quote attributed to Theodore Roosevelt.[1] It simply says: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

It’s an idea that is so completely obvious but so difficult to act on. Much of our inner monologue is about comparisons and judgments of others. If comparisons are the antithesis of joy, then why do our brains devote so much energy to doing it?

Comparisons are damaging

That comparison are damaging to young nascent musicians is nearly obvious. For some, comparison leads to a sense of defeat. When the gap in ability is large, it seems insurmountable. It may even lead to a desire to quit completely.

Faulty comparisons can also lead students to try to rush through the repertoire, failing to take in important learning points along the way. This is illogical, of course, because one learns this repertoire for pedagogical reasons not simply to get through it. After all, it’s not just “Never rest.” It’s “Never hurry, never rest.”

Eventually, learning to be musical is not solely about recreating what’s on the reference recordings but developing an authentic and individual musical “voice.” It becomes about individual artistry; but unchecked comparison with others inhibits this unique self from emerging.

Comparisons are inevitable

If comparisons are so harmful to children learning to play a musical instrument and to our own happiness as adults, why do we engage in it? The simple answer is that we, like other primates, are “wired” to do it. Comparing ourselves to others exerts a strong protective effect. Modern non-human primates and presumably our ancestors both engaged in efforts to ensure equitable distribution of resources. Group members who receive a disproportionate amount of a resource are a threat to the survival of other members. As humans evolved, we developed the same sensitivity over not only tangible resources such as food but also abstract resources like ability, status, and popularity.

Social psychologists describe this phenomenon as the social comparison theory. This theory describes the tendency of people to measure their own value by making comparisons with others. It’s just part of our operating system. As a result of this built-in tendency, we can’t help judging both ourselves and others against the benchmark of others. As we mature, though, we develop a number of mechanisms to keep overt displays of envy and pride - the result of these comparisons - in check.

Reframing comparisons

The Suzuki world is largely devoid of explicit competition. This, of course, is by design. Although some Suzuki students also participate in music competitions of one sort or another, it’s not built-in to the method. Yet because comparison is inevitable, we have to be prepared to deal with it in constructive ways.

Use the language of artistry vs the language of achievement

Suzuki violin and viola teacher and teacher trainer Ann Montzka-Smelser described[2] the distinction as the difference between the language of artistry vs. the language of achievement. The language of achievement focuses on measurable accomplishments like SAT scores, prizes in competitions, scores, marks, and what piece you’re playing. The language of artistry, instead, refers to the accumulating experience of developing as a musician. For Suzuki students, it can refer to the development of character on the road to becoming a musician. We simply have to find ways of talking about that experience that aren’t hyper-focused on where our children are in the repertoire. Some such comparisons are necessary to help place kids in compatible groups or between parents to understand where other parents are in the process. But we can minimize exposing kids to those comparisons.

Cultivate gratitude and pleasure in the accomplishments of others

As parents, we can talk positively about other children. We can teach our children to encourage and compliment each other on their playing. Very few of our children will go on to become soloists. As a result, the bigger the community of musicians, the better! It’s not a zero-sum game because there’s always more music and room for other interpretations.

Recycle comparisons into realistic personal goals

One of the ways that mature people resolve their internal tension over comparisons with others is to look at the gap between their current state and ideal state as motivation for improvement. Similarly, with a child who compares herself to another student we can help them reframe jealousy into a meaningful goal. Because we can’t control all of the variables that explain different rates of progress, this can be a process goal such practicing every day, practicing with greater focus, or listening more. Just the act of talking about the ideas reinforces that concept that progress is largely a function of effort.

Help your children understand that high accomplishment doesn’t mean happiness

The goal of all of this is to raise happy people with strong character. In making comparisons, we make the flawed assumption that accomplishment and happiness are inextricably linked. But this is simply not so. Accomplished persons are not necessarily happier than the next guy in the rankings. Gratitude also has a calming effect on these expectations. It also helps to turn the child’s attention from others to their own selves. One helpful comparison is to watch old videos of the child from earlier in their musical development. Zooming out to this historical view often induces smiles of amazement when we do this with our daughter. You can’t help but be grateful and proud of your own development when you see how far you have come.

To compare ourselves with others is built-in to our operating system, but by being clever about using those impulses constructively, we can have children who are happy with themselves and their progress, and simultaneously experience pleasure in the performance of others.

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  1. Wikiquote lists this quotation as questionable because no primary source has been found. Whether it's authentic or not, its significance to the development of young musicians is clear.

  2. American Suzuki Institute, 2016, "Change the environment not the child", Ann Montzka-Smelser

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Of all the virtues that a Suzuki parent can bring to the practice room, patience may be the most important because without patience, it’s hard to have a creative, fun, productive practice session. Impatience leads to tension, frustration, and unhappiness. And it casts an unhappy shadow on what should be an enjoyable process. Personally, I struggle mightily against impatience.

Patience defined

Patience is a willingness to overlook certain frustrating elements of another person or situation. The frustrations can come in a lot of forms. It’s the child who wants to talk about something else during practice. Or the child who dawdles about taking out his instrument. Or the crushing sense of having too much to accomplish during the day but the child doesn’t have the same sense of temporal pressure. Children aren’t born with an innate sense of wanting to practice efficiently. Unless they’re very unusual, they don’t have the sense of urgency about time that we do. (Thank goodness, too!)

Patience and the working relationship

Carl Rogers, the eminent American psychologist wrote extensively about the prerequisites for a therapeutic relationship. Although he focused on defining the characteristics of a client-psychologist relationship, they are all relevant to any helping relationship, including the parent-child relationship. In his book “On Becoming a Person” he describes three fundamental attitudes that allow a helper to have a more helpful stance toward those whom they are helping:

  1. Unconditional positive regard

    Rogers thought that each of us has within ourselves vast resources for self-betterment and that by being accepting and tolerant of where a person is on their road to personal growth we can bring out the best in them. I’ve heard the concept of unconditional positive regard described as the attitude that “this person is doing the best they can at this moment with what they have available to them.”

    In practice with children, unconditional positive regard can take the form of looking at a difficult situation with a more accepting lens. If a child is becoming distracted during practice, we can look at this as a skill they simply haven’t yet developed. Our inner monologue can be something like: “I’m frustrated by her distraction. But she is here in the practice room trying and I appreciate that. A strong intentional focus is a skill she hasn’t yet learned.”

  2. Empathy

    In a previous post I wrote about the importance of empathy in our work as Suzuki parents. Carl Rogers also defined empathy as a necessary component in a helping relationship. It’s the ability to accurately read another person’s emotional state. Importantly, empathy is a noun but it embodies actions. In other words, it is not only an attitude of trying to understand someone’s emotional state. Empathy requires a set of communication practices that guide us toward a better understanding of that state and letting the person know what our understanding is.

  3. Genuineness

    The final attribute of a skilled helper is genuineness or as Rogers put it congruence. When a helper is genuine, there is a consistency between what they say and what they do. They work with someone in a way that is not sterile and detached. It means to have an internal consistency between one’s stated attitudes and actions. If my attitude about music education is that it builds character and introduces the child to a world of beauty, then if I’m genuine, the way that I work with my child demonstrates good character and an appreciation for the beauty that comes out of her instrument - in whatever form that takes.

20 Suggestions for being more patient during practice

  1. Dial back your expectations. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
  2. Smile! It’s hard to be impatient and frustrated if you’re smiling.
  3. Focus for a moment on your breathing. Take a moment for a micro-meditation by focusing on the physical sensations of breathing. Just a moment to “reset” can change the hair-trigger impatient response into something more constructive.
  4. Switch gears. Are both of you growing impatient with the same thing during practice? A passage that doesn’t seem to be going the way you want? Do something different for a while.
  5. Run through a mental checklist of other factors that might be causing distress, both your own and your child’s. Hunger, fatigue, stress?
  6. Take a time out.
  7. Learn to read the clues, verbal and non-verbal, about when it’s time to move on to something different.
  8. Think about something positive that happened in practice and praise it.
  9. Be more authentic. Feeling impatient? Tell them. “You know, I’m really feeling frustrated right now. I’d like to have a good productive practice, though. Wouldn’t you also?”
  10. A hug can help. My daughter naturally senses when it’s time for a hug. She needs the reassurance that no matter how the music is going, we love her.
  11. Take a 30,000 foot view. Take the role of a “virtual” outside observer, or ask someone else to observe practice in order to figure out where the “hot spots” are. For me, it’s getting distracted and talking about things other than music during practice. Have your own mini-brainstorming session about how to handle it. It’s like going in for simulation training. When it comes up again during practice, you’ll know just what to do.
  12. Spend time thinking about how patience can beget its own virtuous cycle. By being more patient during practice, we keep the energy positive and model the ideal of being less reactive to every adversity.
  13. Unless there’s a musical or pedagogical reason for doing practice a certain way, let the child have their choice about the order and conduct of practice.
  14. Not everything is worth “going to the mat” over.
  15. Seek out support. Ask someone else, a spouse, partner or friend to help support your commitment to being more patient and accept their feedback graciously.
  16. Consider a more formal support system. The Orange Rhino community is dedicated to more gentle, patient parenting.
  17. Do your own rehearsal. Visualize practice scenarios in your head. Run through the scene in different ways. This is your practice for how to practice!
  18. Take care of yourself. Just as children care their worries and frustrations into the practice room, so do parents. By finding healthy outlets ourselves, we can diffuse a lot tension that we bring in also.
  19. Ask yourself: “What’s the worst thing that will happen?” Impatience and perfectionism go hand in hand. Both cause us to raise the stakes unnecessarily. What’s the worst thing that will happen if 5-10 minutes of the practice time is wasted on idle talk and noodling? Not much. Will this matter in 10 years? Nope.
  20. Count to ten. By giving yourself some space between the stimulus and the response, you can retrain yourself to react slower to problem behaviours.

See also

  1. The Suzuki Experience: Speaking of empathy - some advice on the practice of empathy.
  2. The Plucky Violin Teacher: How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk. - a review of the classic book on parent-child communication practices written from a music teacher’s perspective. Some wonderful nuggets of insight here.
  3. Zen Habits: 15 tips for become as patient as Job - short, important common sense advice from Leo Babuata.
  4. The Orange Rhino Challenge - yell less and love more. What’s not to like about that?!

Thoughts? How have you become are more patient practice partner? Comment on our Facebook page

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I recently wrote a few thoughts about dealing with perfectionism in Suzuki students. Since my own Suzuki child has her own perfectionist tendencies, it left me wondering about how my own ways of helping may be growing, rather than reducing, that tendency. A recent paper[1] on the development of maladaptive perfectionism sheds some light on how subtle differences in the way parents attempt to help their children can determine whether they become little perfectionists or more error-tolerant.

The types of perfectionism

We perfectionists come in lots of flavors.[2] Psychologists commonly divide perfectionists into adaptive and maladaptive perfectionists. Adaptive perfectionism drives people toward high achievement; but when they fail to achieve their lofty goals, adaptive perfectionists don’t suffer undue anxiety and loss of self-esteem. In contrast, maladaptive perfectionists set themselves up for failure by trying to achieve unattainable goals and when they inevitably fail to meet them, become anxious, depressed, and suffer degraded self-esteem. In other words, while both types of perfectionists try to achieve some version of perfect, the maladaptive perfectionist ends up suffering the most because they have their entire emotional health riding on their unreasonable demands on themselves.

Ideally, we’d like our children to create reasonable goals for themselves, those that stretch their abilities in constructive ways while remaining free of anxiety and low self-esteem if they fail to meet them. Since Suzuki parents are on the front-lines of personality development with their children every day, might there be certain parental behaviours that shape these tendencies? The study from Dr. Hong and colleagues in the Department of Psychology at the National University of Singapore sheds some light into the subject.

Helping without hurting

The study followed the development of 302 children recruited in 10 primary schools in Singapore. Investigators observed the interactions between parents and children over a 5 year span and measured the development of perfectionistic traits using standard measures.

At the initial evaluation children were asked to play a board game in which the goal was to win. The investigators classified parental behaviours during the game into intrusive and non-intrusive actions. An example of an intrusive action is one in which the parent sought to correct an errant move by the child.

Over the course of the next 5 years of the study, children whose parents exhibited more intrusive behaviours, developed more characteristics of maladaptive perfectionism, and endorsed more symptoms of anxiety and depression. Notably, many of the parents’ actions were quite innocent and well-meaning.

The study sheds light on one of the reasons why musicians are so prone to perfectionism of the worst kind. Practice, after all, when done well is a deliberate attempt to develop more consistency and drive away mistakes. And the Suzuki parent’s role in practice is to help the child develop methodical habits, and serve as a surrogate for the teacher, making sure the teacher’s is present in absentia in the practice. But this study, and even perhaps our own intuition, tells us that there is a subtlety in how we as parents handle mistakes. In this sensitive period, it seems, we have to avoid confronting errors head on and allowing the child some latitude in finding her own mistakes and correcting them. This process goes hand-in-hand with the child’s need to take progressive ownership of the music. Some ways of helping that are less intrusive:

  1. Fix errors indirectly

    For my part, I need to become more skilled at fixing my daughter’s errors indirectly. Instead of “That D♯ wasn’t low enough.”, I should say: “What did you think of that last D♯?”

  2. Praise effort and progress that still falls short of the goal.

    Verbally supporting genuine progress (and effort!) that still falls short of the goal can also help diffuse some intrusiveness. Instead of “That’s still not quite right.”, a less intrusive/confrontational approach would be “It’s getting better; should you do it again?”

  3. Let go of control.

    As I read this study, I felt that there was an unmentioned subtext about the parents who were the most intrusive. Almost certainly, they were perfectionists themselves who couldn’t bear to see their children make an error as they went about their work. Some authors have described a form of perfectionism in which the sufferer demands for perfection are made on others rather than himself. I wondered if some of the parents in this study might have fit this description.

    Sometimes I have an impulse to fix the way my daughter, now 8 years old, marks up her music. She writes in reminders about points that her teacher has made. Sometimes she writes them in a somewhat haphazard way and I have to suppress my urge to fix it and make it neater. I have to remind myself that when she marks up her score it means that she cares about the outcome and it’s an early sign of ownership. Why would I want to intrude on that just to make it neater?

My true confession this week is that this is very hard for me. I’m intrusive. But I’m learning. May we all be a little less intrusive and a little more helpful. Peace.


  1. Ryan Y. Hong, Stephanie S. M. Lee, Ren-Ying Chng, Yuqi Zhou, Fen-Fang Tsai, Seok-Hui Tan. Developmental Trajectories of Maladaptive Perfectionism in Middle Childhood. Journal of Personality, 2016; DOI: 10.1111/jopy.12249

  2. Others, notably Pavel Somov divides perfectionists into different categories. In his synthesis, perfectionists can be categorized as: 1) Neurotic perfectionists, 2) Narcissistic perfectionists, 3) Principled (Puritanical) perfectionists, and 4) Hyper-attentive (compensatory) perfectionists.

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Last night, my daughter was helping me sweep the driveway. Storms and high winds had left lots of debris in the driveway and she came out to help me clean up. With only a few minutes to spare before bedtime, I told her that we should take care of part of the job and leave the rest until tomorrow. Her response?

“No, it has to be perfect.”

If the driveway has to be perfect, imagine what a violin piece has to be?

“No, it has to be perfect.” of course is the mantra of every perfectionist everywhere. Ask me how I know…

Perfectionists can be incredibly endearing because they are so responsible. Give them a task and they’ll do it to, well, perfection. They throw themselves into the task at hand with every bit of energy they can muster. But perfection is an impossible and unsustainable standard. Eventually something must give under the weight of all that perfection. By the time most of us reach adulthood, we learn to moderate our perfectionist tendencies somewhat. The impossibly unsatisfiable mutually exclusive constraints of life prevent us from holding ourselves to the universal standard of perfectionism. However, along the way, many succumb to anxiety, low self-regard, and procrastination as a way of dealing with the need to be perfect. Since parents shape their children’s way of being in the world to such a great extent, we can help avoid perfectionism in our children or at least help them moderate their tendencies.

Why is perfectionism detrimental to musicians?

Musical performance is an inherently subjective and interpretive act. On that level, perfection is unattainable simply because no standard exists. Certain facts about stylistic interpretation of the composer’s intent are simply not known. But most young musicians are more concerned about the technical aspects of performance they develop in the practice room. There, practice is at first an exercise in learning the notes. Later it is an exercise in achieving a high level of consistency with the performance. Most perfectionism strikes here. As pieces grow longer and more complex, errors are statistically more likely. At the same time, opportunities that rely on auditions raise the stakes for performance errors.

All musicians have some performance anxiety while some have more than others. One of the most virulent forms of performance anxiety, though, comes from mistake-avoidance because it is such a tension-inducing condition. Perfectionism can also lead to unhealthy practice habits such as over-practicing and practicing repetitions beyond the point of fatigue, risk injury in the process. Ultimately, perfectionism can be associated with low self-esteem, procrastination, anxiety, and self-harm.

How do I know if I might have a perfectionist for a child?

Perfectionists aren’t too hard to recognize. Child counselor and teacher, Leah Davies has written about perfectionism in children has outlined some of the comment features of perfectionists:

  • They are unusually self-conscious and easily embarrassed*.
  • They are very sensitive to criticism and react negatively to feedback.
  • They may tend to procrastinate, dawdle, or avoid doing tasks.
  • They often have low self-confidence and may be socially inhibited.

And of course, they set high standards for themselves and are critical of others who don’t meet them.

How can parents avoid teaching their children perfectionist traits?

Some of the elements of perfectionism are genetically-inherited. A child’s tendency toward positive or negative emotions and their anxiety levels are inherited to a great extent from her parents. Sorry, you can’t choose those…
But many of a child’s personality characteristics are learned. Even those that are innate can be modulated up or down by the parent’s interactions with their children.

Some ways of interacting with children that can reduce perfectionist tendencies:

  1. Avoid modeling perfectionism

    Since children often learn that perfect is the only acceptable standard from parents who demand the same from themselves, we can be better role models by replacing the standard of “perfect” with “perfectly acceptable.” The standard we should be interested in is the standard of working toward excellence. It isn’t a perfect outcome we should be interested in. Rather it’s the honest effort at achieving excellence. Did you work hard and give it your perfectly human effort? Then you did a perfectly acceptable job!

  2. Make praise specific and low-key

    The risk of over-praising kids is that they begin to associate a specific action with a global state of being. For example, if the child plays a passage and the parents says: “Oh, you’re awesome!” then the child connects playing with a trait that they must possess. It’s better to say: “I really liked how you remembered the bowing pattern that time.” Low-key and specific.

  3. Avoid comparisons with other children

    By comparing rates of progress, kids sense that parental affection is tied to progress and they will do everything they can to hold onto that. Since the rate of progress is related to so many variables outside of their control, this sets up an impossible standard to meet. Most parents are circumspect about making direct comparisons. But we all succumb to more subtle versions of it by talking about who is in which book and who’s on what piece.

  4. Embrace and teach a growth mindset

    In some ways a growth mindset is the perfect a really good antidote to perfectionism. (See what I did there?) The growth mindset refers to an orientation toward competence as growth rather than fixed, innate ability. By emphasizing this orientation and the idea that growth and mistakes go hand-in-hand, parents can diffuse some perfectionist tendencies.

  5. Point out the cognitive dissonances of their faulty logic

    Perfectionists mentally raise their own tightropes to very high levels. Even when the stakes aren’t very high, they raise them. With perfectionist performance anxiety, we can ask them questions that point out the discrepancy between their fears and the actual outcome. Imagine this conversation between a parent and a child:

    (Before a recital)

    Parent: “I see that you’re anxious about you’re recital. What’s the worst thing that could happen?”
    Child: “They would laugh at me.”
    Parent: “I’ve never seen audience members laugh at performers. How likely do you think that is?”
    Child: “Very”

    (After the recital)

    Parent: “How was it?”
    Child: “It was OK but I forgot to repeat that one section.”
    Parent: “So you made a little mistake. I bet almost no one noticed. Did they laugh at you?”
    Child: “No.”
    Parent: “Remember you thought it was very likely that they would laugh if you made a mistake? Sometimes we think bad things will happen and they almost never do.”

    This simple before/after interaction is a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy that plants the seeds of how children (and adults) can begin to test their assumptions about feared outcomes.

  6. Love and respect should be unconditional

    What happens in the practice room stays in the practice room. Imagine a firewall between the practice room and the rest of the house. If things don’t go well in practice, in a lesson, or a performance, let it go. If conflict arises in practice, let it stay there. Withdrawing love and respect on account of something that happens with their playing is a recipe for perfectionism and other neuroses.

  7. Teach kids step-by-step problem solving and goal-setting skills

    Perfectionists expect immediate results. Playing a musical instrument doesn’t work that way. Starting out, the teacher and parent work on bite-sized chunks to work on. Later, children learn to do that themselves. The more visible we make that process, the more control they feel and the more success they will have in practice. By working on smaller parts of a piece and setting progressive goals, they’ll learn that mistakes and progress are best friends.

  8. Teach children to use positive self-talk and ways of coping with negative self-assessment

    The negative emotions that accompany perfectionism can be overwhelming. The running monologue in our heads can be tamed and filtered by pushing it in a positive direction. Children can be taught to identify negative self-talk and put it into the mental wastebasket. We can also model non-judgmental speech as a way of helping children avoid negative self-talk. We can catch ourselves using judgmental language in many situations and restate it in a neutral way.

  9. Involve children in a range of activities, not only music.

    The most resilient people don’t define themselves solely by success in a narrow discipline. They involve themselves in a variety of interests and outlets so that if something is not going well in one area, they have others to draw on. The purpose isn’t to give kids a host of other pursuits at which they can be perfect. And they should be overwhelmed by endless shuttling between activities. The purpose is to give them a more well-rounded range of abilities and deeper “well” from which to draw support and confidence.

There is a fine line between working toward excellence vs pushing toward perfectionism. But recognizing perfectionist traits early can allow parents to shape their language and interactions with children in ways that tone-down these tendencies. Of what value is any of this if children are so driven or paralyzed by the pursuit of perfection that they can’t enjoy it. The question they should be asking isn’t “Did I play it perfectly?” It should be “Did I say something important? Was I true to the music?”

And yes, the driveway still isn’t perfect.

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Practically every Suzuki parent must have experienced a meltdown during practice. When students begin so young, we are bound to bump up against their undeveloped emotional control. Although there are many ways that children can go off the rails during practice, many of these stem from low frustration tolerance. Understanding and dealing with low frustration tolerance is an important skill for us as parents and our kids. I confess that I’m still working on it.

“Why does my kid get so frustrated?”

Sometimes we forget that Suzuki kids develop asynchronously. Their musical abilities may be out of proportion to their emotional development. This asynchrony is a consequence of focusing on a particular skill development, sometimes long before the child has the ability to respond to challenges in an emotionally-nuanced way.

We forget too that the road to becoming a happy, self-compassionate, organized, and responsible person is long and uneven with lots of setbacks. The ability to tolerate frustration is partly an innate, genetically-determined trait. But in part it is also a skill that is honed through practice, just like music.

Certain cognitive styles, especially perfectionism make children prone to the outcomes of low frustration tolerance. When a difficult passage fails to yield to a few quick attempts, the perfectionist child is often frustrated by the inability to learn it quickly. Children who are rigid, black/white thinkers also fall into the patterns of low frustration tolerance because the world tends not to always conform to their expectations.

Finally, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder and other psychological traits and disorders may set children up for frustration intolerance.

Frustration triggers

Some children never become frustrated in practice. Some children always become frustrated with something. Most fall somewhere in between. Certain biological and other triggers can make it more likely that the child will respond adversely in frustrating situations:

  • fatigue
  • hunger
  • overcommitment
  • lack of control over the situation
  • being misunderstood

Often, just paying attention to these factors is enough to avoid a meltdown during practice. In particular, identifying peak times to practice can make the difference between success and failure.

Strategies for dealing with frustration

Like diagnosing and treating an illness, the first step is to recognize the underlying causes of frustration. Is the child tired? If so, can you rearrange the practice schedule so that she’s practicing at her peak energy level rather than at the end of a long day? Does he need a snack before practice to keep the energy level up? Beyond the basics, there are a handful of other techniques to keep in the toolbox:

  1. Play for the same team

    Some of the triggers of frustration involve the child’s sense that we’re not all on the same side. On a team, there’s a cooperation, give-and-take, and work toward a common goal. The more we can align ourselves to a common goal even with just the use of language, the more likely we are to avoid situations where the child is frustrated. Difficulties are easier to face when we have the sense that someone is on our side.

    To keep things light and diffuse tension, sometimes I’ll say:

    • “Silly double stops! Why does that have to be so hard?!?”
    • “Who came up with this rhythm anyway?!?”
    • “Why does this piece have to be in such a weird key?!?”

    In these simple statements, you can show that you recognize the difficulty and with some dramatic embellishment you can provide a little comic relief.

    The principle is to come alongside the child so that you aren’t engaging in a tug-of-war. We all succumb to a built-in opposition at times. In my professional career as a physician, I spent much of my time counseling people about changing behaviors that adversely affected their health. The most successful attempts at changing health behaviors came from using language that emphasized partnership in tackling a difficult task. You can do the same with frustration-derived opposition in practice.

  2. Be the world’s best model of frustration management.

    It goes almost without saying that modeling frustration tolerance can provide a positive example for our kids. When the practice begins to go off the rails, skillfully guiding it back on track without losing our cool, finding creative solutions along the way demonstrates a constructive way of channeling our frustrations.

  3. Setup the practice for success.

    Ability improves by working in a narrow zone between competency and difficulty. If you don’t stretch the limits, then the child makes no progress. If you stretch the limits too much then the child ends up frustrated and discouraged. The key then is finding the sweet spot for improvement. This is what the teacher is doing when giving assignments. One of the most helpful things that both teachers and parents can do is to build “ladders” to help reach new heights. To climb onto the roof of a house, you can’t leap there. You can only reach the roof using a ladder. Each rung of the ladder brings the climber one step closer to the destination. Using the roof as the metaphor for mastery of a piece, each rung of the ladder is a component skill. And each builds on the one beneath it.

    For example, in violin Book 4, the third of the Seitz concerti has an extended double stop section just before the end. It is difficult to master because it requires accurate coordination in the left hand. The book gives two preparatory exercises to begin work on these double stops.

    seitz1.jpg

    When we finished these exercises, integrating them into the piece still seemed like too big a stretch. So I wrote out some additional exercises for ViolinGirl to practice.

    seitz2.jpg

    She calls these exercises an “obstacle course.” By adding a few more “rungs” to the “ladder”, each practice session was more successful and less frustrating because each step was smaller.

  4. When things start to go astray, switch gears.

    Learning to play a musical instrument is a marathon, not a 100 hundred yard dash. Learn to recognize when a child is at her limits. You might be able to squeeze out another few repetitions. But it might also be the final straw that causes her to lose her cool. Looking for non-verbal signs of tension can provide clues about when it’s time to move on to something else. There’s always tomorrow.

  5. Learn and teach calming strategies.

    Frustration is unavoidable. We are all prone to frustration when faced with tasks are beyond our abilities. What can make or break a practice session are our responses.

    Deep breathing is one of the most effective ways of quickly calming anxiety. And it works for grown-ups too! For young children, you can describe calm breathing like blowing a special bubble. Have them take a slow deep breath in, hold it for just a second, then slowly blow a bubble. You can say that the bubble needs to be blown slowly or it will burst. Ask the child to feel the sense of relaxation after blowing the bubble. Have the child slowly repeat the bubble blowing exercise.

    After the child learns deep breathing, it’s time to put it into action. To do that, she needs to recognize the moments when she should use it. For that, you can teach the red light, yellow light, green light strategy.

    Green means “go”; everything is going well. Yellow means “caution”; something is going right. The child isn’t angry or acting out yet, but she may be frustrated. Some children have a “shorter fuse” than others. For them, this state is harder to catch. But with some practice, she should be able to recognize building frustration. Finally, red means “stop.” At this point, the practice is completely derailed and the child is acting out, ready to quit, or refusing to go on.

    When the child is at the yellow light stage, this is a time to use the deep breathing techniques. Stop practice for a moment while both parent and child practice deep breathing. When everyone is a little calmer, move on. At the red light stage, it may be best to wrap up practice or take a longer break rather than risk escalation. For the parent, it might be a good moment to reflect on how we could have done a better job recognizing the situation and avoiding it at the yellow light stage.

When kids are challenged with new skills, frustration is bound to arise. With time, patience, and a few techniques, we can defuse the tension and have more productive and pleasant practice sessions.

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