“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.

Caveats

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.

Growth

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.

Chuck Close

I’ve always admired the work of the American modern painter, Chuck Close. When we visited the Walker Art Center I always stopped to see his paintings in their collection. As much as I admire his iconic paintings, I have an even greater admiration for the way he views work as the key to art. He sums it up in four short words:

“Inspiration is for amateurs.”

To be fair and complete, the quote is:

“Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us show up and get to work.”

While I know practically nothing about the visual arts, to the extent this is true in those disciplines, it must also be true in music. As a vestige we carry around the idea that there is an element of magic in beautiful art, a persistent belief in being touched by one’s Muse as a prerequisite. This is nonsense, of course. It is the doing of something that yields creation. And Chuck Close explains it well:

“Inspiration is for amateurs - the rest of us just show up and get to work. And the belief that things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will - through work - bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt of if you were just sitting around looking for a great ‘art [idea].’ And the belief that process, in a sense, is liberating and that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day. Today, you know what you’ll do, you could be doing what you were doing yesterday, and tomorrow you are gonna do what you [did] today, and at least for a certain period of time you can just work. If you hang in there, you will get somewhere.”[1]

Isn’t this too what is essential about Suzuki practice? "If you hang in there, you will get somewhere." Elsewhere, in a description of his daily routine, Close says: “I work every day out there [in the studio], every single day.”

Only on the days he eats? ;-)


  1. Joe Fig, Interview with Chuck Close in "Inside the Painter's Studio"

This is a super short one; but it’s good.

Dr. William Wieland, a professor in the music department at Northern State University put together a massive page of links on music theory.

This is worth diving into especially if you geek out on music theory. (I do.) I’m adding it to my links.

Although we’re generally pretty technology-light at our house when it comes to raising kids, there are a few music apps that have sneaked into our daily use during in practice. Here’s a quartet of apps that we use. I apologize that this is iPhone-centric; but that’s what we have here.

Decide Now!

This is a simple roulette wheel that the child can spin. You can use it to pick a section of a piece to work on, pick review pieces, or decide on the number of repetitions.

Here’s are two ways we’re using Decide Now!. One has the review pieces from Book 3. Each practice session, my daughter spins the wheel three times to pick the pieces to review that day. (Books 1 and 2 are on their own rotation.) Another way we use the app is to pick sections of her current piece to work on for that practice session. We have numbered sections, measure numbers and descriptive items that only we’d understand, like the “RSM” (rose smelling moment) in the Seitz 2/3.

dn_1.jpg
dn_2.jpg

Although we still use dice and other props, this has turned about to be really fun because it adds an element of chance and novelty to practice.

Counter - Advanced Tally Counter

Advanced Tally Counter app

We like to keep track of things like repetitions, pieces played, etc. There are dozens of tally apps. This is the one we use because it also has a widget on the iPhone’s Notification Center view (the sheet that you get when you pull down from the top of the screen.)

There’s something about keeping track of things - whether using physical objects or virtual tallies that really motivates many kids. I know that our musician is very motivated by numbers.

You can add as many counters as you want giving them custom colors. My daughter enjoyed finding just the right colors!

MultiTimer

MultiTimer

The Multitimer app has been in use in practice for many months now. As opposed to the built-in iPhone timer, it allows you to run multiple timers simultaneously. We practice based on time in two 45 minute blocks, morning and after lunch. We start the 45 minute timer at the beginning of the session and aim to finish by the time it’s done. But during practice, we may have challenges that last for different periods of time. For example, we do a focused form of review on a particular area that needs work (straight bowing for example); so I set another timer for 5 minutes. I also set a 15 minute timer for what we call the “Quiet Challenge” where we can’t talk about anything that’s not related to music. (You can see that we sometimes get distracted…)

This is a nice application for keeping track of things simultaneously.

Music Memos

Music Memos

This app was just released by Apple and my daughter loves it. Basically, it records you playing a melody. On playback, it analyzes the rhythm and harmony and adds a drum and bass track.

We have such a great time with it. I use it as a sort of “carrot” to encourage my daughter to get her practice done efficiently so that we can make some tracks on Music Memos. (From the screenshot, you can see that we have a child who’s obsessed with dogs!)

Have you found other applications that are useful for practice? Visit our Facebook page and leave a comment.

I change myself

This talk by Ed Sprunger is spectacular. Ed is a registered teacher trainer and a practicing psychotherapist. His training gives him very unique insights into what’s going on the minds of children and their parents in the context of Suzuki talent education.

I change myself.

Shinichi Suzuki

In the video, he relates an encounter he had with Dr. Suzuki during his training in Japan. Suzuki approached Ed as he was practicing and said: “I change myself.” Over time, Mr. Sprunger has come to understand that these words mean that the teacher or parent must strive to come to a deeper understanding of what’s going on inside of himself as a way of helping.

“If I’m working on a Telemann concerto, it’s not the concerto that needs to change. It’s my understanding of the concerto that needs to change.”

Ed SprungerThree Important Words

Before we can help or teach our young person, we have to come to understand it ourselves in a new way. You can only teach your own understanding. What is it like to be that particular child? The challenge isn’t so much to change the child’s psychology as it is to understand what is going on inside of oneself. Often we try to control some aspect of behavior in practice without first trying to understand what emotion is generating the behavior.

He talks about the need for parents to make rational use of the behaviors and their emotional causes. Using the example of a crying baby, he talks about the parents’ sense-making work as a way of transforming the baby’s cry into something that can help her. Parents of infants are effective only to the extent that they can first calm themselves before they can work rationally to help the child. In a similar way, we have to start with our inner thoughts before we can help the child. Issues like motivation, resistance, and procrastination in practice taken on a new light with Suzuki’s admonition of “I change myself.”

Complaining children

Parents deal with this constantly in practice. We can begin with our own internal reaction to their complaints. As parents, if we can catch ourselves reacting to the child’s complaints, we have the opportunity to do a “reality-check” on the situation. Is this indeed too much for the child to handle? Am I really being overbearing? Is the child getting frustrated over meeting a new challenge?

Feelings of irritation

We often become frustrated with children when they dawdle, interrupt, and ignore. One of the first things to acknowledge is that there is a separation between their behavior and your competence. Their misbehavior doesn’t do anything to your level of parenting skill. Just recognizing this fact can defuse some of the irritation and keep it from escalating.

Repurposing the frustration

When children become frustrated in practice, they are transferring the frustration to us in a sense. We can choose to take that as a clue to understanding how frustrating it is to have something to say and not have the words to say it. A 7 year-old can’t necessarily articulate the pressure she feels to perform well while watching her bow, her left hand, playing in tune, remembering to vibrate on particular notes, and play in time.

A parent who can feel the frustration [of the child] and transform it is a parent who will be able to help the child in a different way from a parent who simply relies on a rule or dogged determination to get the child to conform to this or that behavior.

Ed SprungerThree Important Words

Finally, he goes on to talk about the essential role of parents in setting expectations, help children face consequences, saying “no.” Looking inward can only complement that role.

Be sure to sign up for the Parents as Partners video series at the SAA.

Practice assistance

This is a great talk about how Suzuki parents can exercise leadership. I’ve been fascinated for a while about the ways in which good parenting and good leadership in the business and political space are similar.

The speaker, Janis Wittrig, is a well-regarded teacher in the Chicago, IL area. She asks parents to think about what they hope for their young child - what kind of grownup you want your child to become. What are the character traits you hope to foster, the habits you want to instill, and the opportunities you want them to take advantage of.

Doing this requires parents to step into the leadership role. Some principles of leadership as they apply to the role of the Suzuki parent.

Have a clear and compelling vision

If parents have a vision of the beauty and power of music, it provides a source of inspiration they can draw on as they guide their children. The goals that flow from having a strong vision provides support for consistency in daily practice and the strength to overcome obstacles. “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing that makes you good.” Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers.

Make your expectations clear

Be intentional. Parents who lead don’t cajole, bargain, or debate. It is an expectation just like brushing one’s teeth. The goal is for it to be non-negotiable. Place the practice in the structure of the day - anchored to something else that is consistent (like a meal, for example.)

Be flexible

Set the child up for success by being observant of their naturally waxing and waning energy levels. Practice when the child is at her peak. Divide the practice into shorter segments as needed. Avoid practice after sports, when the child is hungry or just before bed.

Create a positive work environment

Be firm and consistent but be positive in voice, facial expression and actions. When the teacher gives clear instructions, then the parent can pass that on to the child as: “We must complete the work that the teacher has given you.” [1] For children who need a boost in their enthusiasm, some parents use a point system.[2] The parent picks a goal number of points. During practice, points are given for focus, effort, repetitions, etc. It is all keyed to the child’s needs. Build in short breaks into the system. One of the benefits is that the parent can stress attention to detail while making the child feel good about her progress.

Use available resources

Good leaders are resourceful. They use all of the available resources at their disposal to achieve their goals. One of the major resources that parents have are the reference recordings. Your teacher is a resource. Ask questions at the beginning and end of the lesson. Be honest about how practice is going so that the teacher can be of the most help.

[Ed. This is a rich area to explore. There are so many ways that principles of leadership can be applied to parenting.]

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  1. I would just note that this reinforces confidence in the teacher in the eyes of the child and creates a more cohesive agreement about what to do.

  2. We've used a point system. I have to write about our point system someday. It's tricky to do with some personality types.

Practice assistance

Periodically, the SAA hosts a video series called Parents as Partners Online featuring Suzuki experts talking about (and often demonstrating) Suzuki concepts, philosophies and techniques. I’ve learned a host of new ideas by watching these videos over the years. If you haven’t already, you should subscribe.

This year, I’m going to post synopses of as many of the videos as I have the time to do. Please watch the videos, though; because much is lost in writing.

I’ll start with James Hutchins’ video “Guarantees for More Progress During Practice-Part 1” in which he describes and demonstrates practice techniques that have worked well for families in his studio.

The Workout

This is a practice technique designed to correct difficulties in a particular area. He gives the example of intonation problems. If the student suffers from intonation problems, the Workout consists of going all the way back to Twinkle Variation A. The goal is to play Variation A with no intonation problems. If the student doesn’t succeed, she must smile[1] and go back to the beginning of the piece. When she’s able to make it through Variation A, then she can move on to Variation B, etc. This technique is applicable to students of all levels and the student keeps going with the workout following the Suzuki repertoire. They do this every day for 3-20 minutes depending on the age of the student. It’s up to the parent to decide how lenient to be, allowing the student to correct the problem on her own before stopping her. This can work with tone, posture, anything; and it’s applicable to Twinklers through Book 10 students and beyond.

Goals and why

It’s uncomfortable to be given a task without knowing what the goals are and why it’s important. The same is true for practice. Make the process explicit. Why do we play Twinkles? We play Twinkles to work on tone. Why is that important? So that we project a big sound to the back of the hall.

Getting the most focus in practice

Get all of the busy work out of the way before practice. Let the child get everything “off his chest.” This is more than just learning to play the instrument…

Before starting the practice, talk about what’s happening after practice. That way, the child doesn’t have to think about what’s happening next during practice.

Don’t assume that 30 minutes of practice can be done in 30 minutes. No family is that efficient. Assume it will take 45 minutes. Otherwise you’re setting yourself up for disappointment and frustration.

Practice in the morning or right after school.

Make it fun!

If the practice is fun, they’re going to want to come back and do it again.

  • practice in a different location.
  • put together a puzzle while practicing; place a piece on the puzzle when they complete a pre-determined task.
  • light a candle when the practice begins and blow it out when done. When the candle is completely gone, celebrate with something that the child enjoys.
  • attend group classes
  • find practice partners - friends who play.
  • penny game: accumulate pennies for everything that goes well.

Review

Review is like the stretching before exercise. If you don’t review, you’re technique won’t progress as well. The repertoire is designed to prepare for progress; but review is essential for making that concept work.

The iPod theory

Every performance of a piece that a child hears gets “downloaded” into their mind (like an iPod) and becomes the standard by which they judge the ideal. We’d rather have them make great performances the ideal. If the child isn’t listening to the reference recordings, then their own nascent performances as they’re learning the piece becomes the internal reference. This is not ideal because it will be full of mistakes.Begin listening to a piece as early as possible - even a year or two before the student plays it.[2]

Plus 7

Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent. The more we do something, the more it stays the way it is. The “Plus 7” game is a way of encouraging correct repetitions. The practice partner selects a particular part that needs work. It should be a brief section - maybe just a measure. When the student performs a correct repetition, that’s +1 and she takes a step forward. If it’s incorrect, she takes a step back and you subtract a point (-1). The goal is to get to +7 (7 correct repetitions.) This is a way of ensuring focused repetitions while counting only those that meet the parent’s criteria. The parent can relax or tighten the criteria depending on how the student is doing.

That’s the 7 tips for more progress in practice. Be sure to sign up for the Parents as Partners video series at the SAA.

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  1. This is supposed to be enjoyable, not punitive, right?

  2. In our family, we have the reference recordings of all the books. Mostly we're listening to the current book; but I do throw in some of the subsequent repertoire for this reason.