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.


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


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


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.


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.


    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.


    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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“I’ll never be able to do it.”

This self-defeating mantra is a staple of frustrated students. My 7 year-old is struggling a bit with double stops, trying to get the left hand choreographed so that all of the fingers land in the right place on the right string at the right time. It’s tough.

Fortunately Master Yoda comes through with some sage advice.

Yoda and Luke

Watch the video to see how Yoda dispenses important advice for Suzuki students.

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Group lists

As a Suzuki parent, whose own musical training happened to by very traditional, I’m fascinated by how effective listening can be. When kids begin listening at a very early age and continue to listen to their repertoire consistently they develop an almost “sixth sense” about playing.

But after some years of this practice, there’s quite a lot of repertoire to listen to. Although the Suzuki repertoire forms the core of listening, most students go on to learn other literature on the side. And it all adds up. I began to wonder if there might be some way of structuring the listening program to align their listening to their performance ability for each piece. In other words, evidence-based listening.

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Note taking in lessons using tablet

Since lesson notes are really the essential link back to the lesson as you practice during the week, I’m on a constant quest to do a better job of capturing all of the detail from the lessons. It’s like taking notes in school with the added twist of trying to capture the nuanced use of the body to make good music. I’ve written before about how I approach taking notes from a content perspective; but I’ve changed things up and use technology to capture more detail and nuance in our notes.

Saving trees while doing it better

We had notebooks full of lesson notes, daily practice plans, reminders, photocopies of scores. It was too much paper. It would be a shame if so many tries had to give up their lives for good music! So I began experimenting with taking notes on an iPad. I’m happy to say that it’s not only possible but in someways preferable. Not only does it save paper but there are other advantages:

  • You can mark up a fresh copy of the score each week. With complicated pieces the scores gradually accumulate a “patina” of markings and it’s easy to get lost in a sea of fingerings, bowings, dynamic markings, notes about articulation, cues, etc.
  • You can insert photographs into the notebook. It’s easy to snap a photograph of something that teacher has demonstrated and clip it into the notebook. Integrating the handwritten notes with images in this way is really effective.
  • You can integrate audio into the notebook. I’ve used this when I’m still making notes about one instruction while the teacher has moved on to another item. I’ll tap the record button and capture the audio so that I can process it later.

Although there are a lot of hardware and software choices, there are many ways to do this. What I’m describing is not necessarily what’s best. It’s just what I do.

Hardware and software

I use an iPad Pro for the note-taking platform. It’s the large format tablet and is ideal for displaying musical scores. I’ve performed using it a few times; and it’s a great experience. Because it’s nearly the same size as a sheet of paper it also feels the most natural to write on using a stylus. Speaking of styluses, the Apple Pencil is the stylus to use on the iPad Pro. It has a relatively small diameter like a normal writing instrument as opposed to some of the third-party styluses on the market. For iPads other than the Pro, There are many other styluses that are compatible with the iPad. I’ve only used a few but the finer-tipped styluses feel less “clunky” to me.

Virtual lesson and practice notebooks

For software, there is a wide variety of notebook applications. I’ve tried many of them, finally settling on Noteshelf. Among the things that I like about Noteshelf is the ability to use custom note papers which is key to how I use this method.

Using Noteshelf as a lesson note application

The first order of business is to setup one or more notebooks. I chose to create one notebook per month and then stack them by year. If you have multiple students, I suppose you go have a separate notebook for each child. Whatever division works for you.

Noteshelf papers

For taking ordinary notes, one of the standard notepapers will probably work fine. I’ve been experimenting with creating my own formats for note papers designed for this purpose with prompts for me to capture information unique to lessons. For example, I have a lesson note paper that reminds me to focus on goals for the week, questions that I need to ask the teacher, schedule changes, etc. It also includes a musical staff that I can use to annotate exercises, practice spots, bowings, etc.

Custom lesson note paper in action

If you would like to download the paper that I use, you can find it here: Lesson note paper. To use it in Noteshelf, just download it on your iPad and follow the Noteshelf instructions for installing it as a custom paper.

If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can create your own custom papers to use for lesson notes. It’s really the ideal way to organize the template you are using to record information in a way that fits with the unique structure and flow of the lesson. There are several steps[1]but it’s not difficult.

Using the annotation staff for bowing instructions

Using scores as Noteshelf papers

To most accurately capture instructions about specific passages, having the score as a note paper is indispensable.[2]

There are several ways to get a copy of the score to use as a custom Noteshelf paper:

  • You can scan pages from your copy of the book if you have access to a flat bed scanner. Or if you don’t have a flat bed scanner, I believe that the copying machines at FedEx Office locations will do this if you bring a USB flash drive.
  • You can download pdf’s of the old versions of the Suzuki books. I found all of the old books on Scribd. But beware of the differences between the old editions and the new. Many bowings have changed. In a few cases, actual notes have changed, too.
  • You could take a high-resolution photograph of the score. It’s tricky to get a straight-on photo without casting shadows but if you can arrange to have two lights shining on the page from either side, you may get a good image.

Snanning is probably the best way to get a good image to use as a custom paper.

Once you have an image of the score in your photo library, just follow the Noteshelf instructions for getting it into the application as a custom paper.

A score from violin Book 4 marked up with Noteshelf

Tagging notes

One of the features of Noteshelf is it’s ability to tag pages. My daughter’s teacher has a wealth of unique descriptive terms that she uses for bowing patterns (“Orchid bowing”) or other items she wants to emphasize (“RSM” or “Rose-smelling moment”). (The latter means take a little rubato.) I can tag those notes accordingly so they’re easier to find.

Daily notes

One of the aids to daily practice for us are our daily notes. We write out a plan for the day so that we make sure to cover what we need in a goal oriented way. We keep the daily notes in the same notebook as the lesson notes so that we can easily refer to them as needed during practice. It also acts as something of a journal of her playing that we can go back to and review later.

Getting started with using the iPad as a note taking platform is a little more work than simply taking notes on lined paper, but it has been worth it for us.


Teachers vary in their comfort level with technology in the studio; so it’s probably a good practice to ask about using any form of technology beforehand. Our studio teacher was interested to see how I was annotating the scores and taking notes. She even asked for advice about types of styluses to use.

I take a few minutes at home before we leave for the lesson to set everything up in the notebook. Having the right pages ready to go means less to do once we get situated in the studio. Getting setup for the lesson means having the custom papers we’re likely to use in the lesson, usually the lesson notes sheet, and the sheets for the current working pieces or anything being prepared for performance that the teacher is likely to request.

Some children, I imagine, might be distracted by having an iPad in use during the lesson. In that case, pen and paper may still be the better choice. Since we don’t really use the tablet for anything other than utility tasks, it wasn’t a problem for us. It goes without saying that answering emails and text messages should be avoided.

Finally, devices are prone to playing sounds at the most inopportune times! Just make sure the volume is turned off. It even be beneficial to turn on the “Do not disturb” mode to avoid any distractions.

Too much trouble?

At the end of the day, it’s really about how to capture the most accurate record of what the teacher wants the student to work on. I’ve developed a system that works for us because with a little investment in setup time, it makes my job as practice parent easier to accomplish in a more thorough way. But if it’s overwhelming to deal with this much technology, just refining your lesson note technique and having your own copy of the music in front of you is most of what you need to be successful.

  1. To create a custom paper I use Pages on Mac OS X but Word or other word-processing application would work just as well. After laying everything like I want it on the page I export the content to PDF. The next step is to size the page to fit the exact dimensions that Noteshelf wants. Currently, the application wants paper dimensions of 1472 x 1848 pixels with a 120 pixel non-writable bottom border. I do the resizing step in Photoshop by creating a document of that size and Place... the PDF in a layer in that Photoshop document. In another layer, I place a rectangle that is 1472 x 1728 pixels and align it to the top. Then make that layer semi-transparent so that it acts as a guide to where the non-writable bottom border will be. Then in the content layer, I can adjust the size and positioning of the page content using the guide as a reference. Finally, once everything is adjusted, I turn off the visibility of the guide layer and export the document as a JPG image using "File > Save for Web..." Then I email the JPG image to myself so that I can save it to the iPad photo library. If you don't have Photoshop, other image editing software should work fine.

  2. Of course, you can do this without using the iPad by scanning and printing, or photocopying the original score. Either way, I've found it nearly impossible to accurately record the instructions without having the score in front of me; and once the child is working closely with the score, it will often be up on the music stand instead of in my lap.


Even with the best of intentions, it’s easy to become greedy over the accomplishments of our children. I had not given the idea of greed and parenting much thought until I read Quanyu Huang’s book “The Hybrid Tiger: Secrets of the Extraordinary Success of Asian-American kids” in which he devotes attention to the subject. Without labeling it as either good or bad when it comes to supporting children’s accomplishments, he acknowledges that the focus on education can drive a sense of greed in some communities.

When everything is “clicking”, Suzuki kids learn their instruments well and often progress quickly. It can be like a greenhouse where everything is optimized for the growth of plants. When the humidity, temperature, and light are just right, plants grow quickly and well. Similarly, with kids, when everything is just right, when practice is fun and productive, when lessons are going well, children grow quickly. The satisfaction that we as parents take from our role in all of this is enormous. But it is easy to succumb to the risk of being greedy. Of pushing for more accomplishment, more progress, more practice.

The antidote for this is just sitting back and taking the “30,000 foot view”, surveying with appreciation what you see. A recent incident during practice with my 7 year-old brought this into focus for me.

She’s working on pieces for a wedding at which she was asked to play. It’s not until late August but being the little OCD child that she is, she’s been busy learning her music. In one piece here’s a high E at the top of an important phrase that she wants to play in 3rd position; but I think it would be better in 5th so she doesn’t have to stretch so much and can vibrate better on this important note. She disagreed and we went back and forth for a while. Finally, I just had to laugh at myself over being so insistent with her. Stepping back for a moment, I could see that she has an opinion about a technical issue related to her owing playing. This, by itself, is an enormous accomplishment. It is the seedling of musical independence emerging from the ground. In the moments of reflection about this disagreement, I also realized that rather than being insistent or frustrated, I should be more grateful that she can play in tune in upper positions that she’s got a really lovely vibrato now. I should just smile and say: “Sure, play it just like you’re playing it.”

It’s hard to be greedy and grateful at the same time.