We’ve gone through many iterations of practice organization. In the post, I’ll describe what we’re doing now and the resources we use to accomplish it.

First, we practice every day. Even lesson days, group class days, whatever. It’s a habit. We modify our routine heavily on lesson days; but we always do some warmup.

We use printed sheets that I designed to act as a guide and checklist for practice. We try to mimic the order of her lessons (sort of) when doing practice. The current sheet that I use has two sides. The front side has seven sections, one for each day of the week. Each day block has fields that I fill out based on her teacher’s assignments for the week. I usually fill them out during the lesson. The back side of the sheet is designed to structure notes during the lesson. The lesson notes are on the back side so that I can write on that side of the page and the front side of the next sheet (where I’m implementing the practice plan for the next week) during the lesson without having to flip back-and-forth.

Back side

Again, the reverse side of the practice sheet is for me to take notes during the lesson. It has fields for:

  • Date
  • Questions - I usually spend a few minutes before leaving for lessons trying to think of questions that have come up during the week. It’s a reminder for me to ask at the end of the lesson.
  • Warm-ups - Her lesson usually starts with tonalizations, scales, etc.; so I write down what she did, what needs work, and so forth.
  • Schedule - The studio teacher keeps a list of calendar items and reminders on a whiteboard. I write those down each week so that I can recall what events are coming up.
  • Notes - This is the body of the sheet, where I record comments about repertoire and what the teacher wants us to work on.
  • Assignments - When her studio teacher makes an explicit assignment, I write it here then I copy it over to the next week’s daily practice schedule.

I don’t bother to write this neatly because I’m usually the only one who reads it.

Front side

The front side is the main area to which we refer during the week. In our binder it’s the next page, again, so that I can write on both sides without flipping pages. There are blocks for each day of the week beginning with day after lesson day and ending with lesson day.

Each day’s block is divided into two sections: morning and afternoon because we practice twice a day. Morning is black and afternoon is blue to distinguish the two. We repeat some of the items such as tonalizations because they are intended to warmup and “tune” the ear before moving into the repertoire. The morning block has the following items:

  • Tonalizations - We always begin with tonalizations. Here I write down what position (1st - 4th) that we do for major (M) and minor (m). There’s not much space to write; so I abbreviate everything heavily.
  • Scale - The scale that she should work on.
  • Lesson - Refers to the lesson in her note-reading book.
  • Lines - These are the lines in the note-reading lesson that she should work on that day.
  • Fiddle 1 and Fiddle 2 - The names of any fiddle tunes that she is preparing. This is something we do mostly on our own.
  • Working - These are the current working pieces, the three most recent pieces that we play through twice each day.
  • Vibrato - Any vibrato exercises that she should do.
  • Scale book - Exercises in her scale book
  • Fiddle rhythms - Exercises from a fiddle rhythms book. This has been inactive lately.
  • Other - Anything else that we need to concentrate on.

The afternoon block is similar:

  • Tonalizations
  • Shifting Any shifting exercises that are assigned
  • Book 1 rotation All of the Book 1 pieces are on a review rotation (I’ll get to that part some other time…)
  • Book 2 rotation Same as above but for Book 2
  • Book 3 rotation Same as above but for Book 3
  • Vibrato - We do that same vibrato exercises again.
  • Ear training - We try to do some interval training exercises
  • Other/comments - This is used mainly for bits that we need to give extra attention to - audition prep, recital prep, etc.
  • Date
  • M/D - Did Mom or Dad do practice this day? Usually Dad.

As we complete each item, either ViolinGirl or I put a little red dot on the sheet. We don’t always do the items in this exact order; and the order doesn’t exactly conform to the way the lesson goes. Mainly, this sheet is a checklist for us.

I hope this has been helpful to you. I’ve included pdf’s of the front and back sides of the sheets and the original document which is in Omnigraffle format in case you want to modify it for yourself. Next up, I’ll post part II with our rotation schedule.

Attachments

As a youngster, no one really taught me how to practice. I was admonished to practice but never showed how to practice. With the pressure of time, concert preparations, and general busyness, I’ve come to develop my own techniques. Last summer, for example, I gave a performance of one of the Beethoven piano trios; and I went so far as cataloguing all of the tricky spots that needed special attention and developing a spreadsheet of those spots and the current tempo markings. This was enormously helpful because while I had a lot of practice time, it was still bounded by the demands of family life. ViolinGirl’s teacher always marks spots that need work and gives her instructions on how many times she should work on those spots before playing the piece through. This is a great way to set the stage for organized practice once she becomes more independent.

Recently, I ran across a post entitled “How to get smarter”[1],[2] on the excellent blog Barking up the Wrong Tree. The article centers around a talk given by Tim Ferriss[3] in which he talks about a series of steps that accelerate learning of a new skill. I think it has implications for designing effective practice habits. These are his steps, not mine.

Deconstruction

The first step in his method is to deconstruct an enormous task into understandable parts that one can easily handle. This can be done at any level. Want to play the violin? With Suzuki, there’s a built-in deconstruction by book - Book 1, Book 2, Book 3, etc. But the same method can be focused on a particular piece of music. With music, deconstruction can take the form of analyzing the overall structure, the key, the time signature, and so forth. It can also mean looking closely at the question “what stands between me as I play now and me having mastered the piece?”

Selection

Ferriss uses the Pareto principle[4] to decide what components are worth spending more time on. You should structure your practice so that 80% of the work is devoted to the learning the hardest parts of the piece and focusing on them.

Sequencing

The proper sequencing of practice is what I got completely wrong as a kid. The only sequence I knew was “start at the top, play it to the end, repeat.” This is one of the least efficient ways to practice. (Not practicing at all, I suppose, is the least efficient!) The way to learn faster and more effectively is to go immediately to the spots that you’ve selected as the most difficult or most important.

Stakes

Finally, if you are practicing on your own you need some incentive to keep going. After all, the accomplishment of a difficult task like learning a piece can still be weeks or months away even if you are practicing effectively. The gratification of a process well done is delayed. One way is increase the stakes of not practicing. You can commit to giving money to a cause you wouldn’t otherwise support because you have an ethical objection to it. Or you can make your goals known to family and friends so that there is a social commitment to completion. For kids, there is a built-in external pressure with parents in the practice room.

I hope this is a useful way to think about practice.


  1. “How to get smarter” (Barking up the Wrong Tree), http://www.bakadesuyo.com/2015/05/how-to-get-smarter/, accessed 2015-05-20 Link

  2. I’m always cautious about advice on becoming smarter because they are almost always tinged with implications about the instrumental qualities of intelligence. The implied advice is often “become smarter so that you can…” In music, I don’t care about what follows. I want ViolinGirl to be an excellent player because music is its own reward. But in this case, I thought the advice was interesting and sound; so here you are.

  3. Ferriss is the author of “The 4-Hour Workweek”, a book about rethinking work and retirement. He is also apparently good at learning new skills such as picking up foreign languages.

  4. The Pareto principle is widely known as the 80-20 rule. He noted that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. Similar effects are found elsewhere in the world. It’s also used to think about efficiency.

Someone published a piece in the American Suzuki Journal nearly 12 years ago entitled “20 Memos from your Child” (ASJ 21:4, August 1993.) These are thoughts that I need to remind myself of as we approach practice. I saw it published as “21 Memos from your Child” on the Berkeley Parents Network.

  1. Don’t spoil me. I know quite well that I ought not to have all that I ask for. I’m only testing you.
  2. Don’t be afraid to be firm with me. I prefer it, it makes me feel more secure.
  3. Don’t let me form bad habits. I have to rely on you to detect them in the early stages.
  4. Don’t make me feel smaller than I am. It only makes me behave stupidly “big”.
  5. Don’t correct me in front of other people, if you can help it. I’ll take much more notice if you talk with me in private.
  6. Don’t make me feel my mistakes are sins. It upsets my sense of values.
  7. Don’t protect me from consequences. I need to learn the painful way, sometimes.
  8. Don’t be too upset when I say “I hate you.” It isn’t you I hate, but your power to thwart me.
  9. Don’t take too much notice of my small ailments. Sometimes they get me the attention I need.
  10. Don’t nag. If you do, I shall have to protect myself by appearing deaf.
  11. Don’t forget that I cannot explain myself as well as I should like. This is why I’m not always very accurate.
  12. Don’t make rash promises. Remember that I feel badly let down when promises are broken.
  13. Don’t tax my honesty too much. I’m easily frightened into telling lies.
  14. Don’t be inconsistent. That completely confuses me and makes me lose faith in you.
  15. Don’t tell me my fears are silly. They are terribly real and you can do so much to reassure me if you understand.
  16. Don’t put me off when I ask questions. If you do, you will find that I stop asking and seek my information elsewhere.
  17. Don’t ever suggest that you are perfect or infallible. It gives me too great a shock when I discover that you are neither.
  18. Don’t ever think it is beneath your dignity to apologize to me. An honest apology makes me feel surprisingly warm toward you.
  19. Don’t forget how quickly I am growing up. It must be very difficult to keep pace with me, but please do try.
  20. Don’t forget I love experimenting. I couldn’t get on without it, so please put up with it.
  21. Don’t forget that I can’t thrive without lots of understanding love, but I don’t need to tell you, do I?

We are approaching four years of violin studies this fall. We just watched old videos of ViolinGirl in her first efforts. The amount of progress through our very ordinary efforts is incredible. But we still see elements of resistance crop up. I’ll call it “micro-resistance” because it’s not nearlly at the level of frustration and refusal she exhibted at first. For the first year, she would roll on the floor screaming about taking her violin out of the case. My parents, who love music and raised two musicians, were convinced we were damaging ViolinGirl’s relationship to music if not frankly torturing her. Little by little, we have come to the point where she shows none of the resistance about going into the practice room. Mostly she shows no resistance to the selection of warm-ups, scales, exercises, and review pieces that the teacher selects for her and that we schedule. But resistance does creep in when dealing with specific difficult tasks. Right now, there’s a spot in the G minor minuet in the Book 3 Bach Minuet requires more finger dexterity than she’s approached before:

Book 3 Bach minuet, minor section

This is tricky measure because the fingers must do some interesting things. The third finger should block both the D string and the A string on the first two quavers. Otherwise, the the third finger has to roll over to play the second quaver D. A little more difficult are the gymnastics of the first finger. After the F♯, the first finger has to reach behind the second finger, tucking behind it on the A string to play the C on the A string. Finally, the first finger has to end the measure, reaching back to the B♭. The tricky spot for right now is tucking the first finger behind the second but landing it on the A string. She wants to land it on the D string.

When I start with my “let’s do it 6 times, but it only counts if you do it correctly” shtick, she immediately starts to balk. She wants to get past it as fast as possible even if the fourth quaver C isn’t in tune. I’m struggline to find the right balance between being supportive of her and being demanding about accuracy. To this point in her training, her ear has sufficed to tell her when she’s playing accurately. For a long time, we haven’t had to use any kind of reward system. But this one little measure is problematic. Even the optional shifts to 3rd position are in tune and done fairly smoothly. But this measure needs some now tricks.

ViolinGirl Book 2 recital

Many Suzuki kids begin learning to play long before they have any idea whether they want to play or not. It’s the sort of substituted judgement that parents apply all day long every day; but for some reason we fret about it more with music than we other endeavors like brushing one’s teeth or going to school. When ViolinGirl began her violin studies not long after turning three, I had only a very rudimentary idea of what the Suzuki method entailed. I knew that many students started early and that parents were more involved - perhaps even required to play - than in traditional music education. So for me as a Suzuki practice parent and ViolinGirl as the student, we are both on a learning path. What I’ve learned about children, about music, and about myself through Suzuki training, in no particular order:

The Suzuki method is less about trying to achieve more at a younger age than it is about gaining fluency with music at a sensitive period for language development.

The core piece of Suzuki pedagogy is that children can learn music in the same way they learn language. In the same way that children learn their mother tongue, through gradual patient shaping of their initial attempts at imitation, Suzuki students learn music first through imitation of beautiful tones and repetition of patterned rhythms. Later they learn the formal rules of music in the same way that students learn grammar long after they are fluent in their native spoken language.

The ability to play a musical instrument well is not an attribute that’s “out there” waiting to be discovered. All children already have it.

The prevailing attitudes toward musical talent are shaped by the assumption that talent is a trait, not a state. Much research literature has now pointed to the ways that what appears to be pure intrinsic talent is really hard repetitive work. Clearly there are the wild exceptions - the children who can play Paganini Caprices at age 7. Even there, the talent is the seed of hard work falling on (very) fertile ground.

A love of classical music is developed through exposure and the parent’s interest.

If the parent listens to classical music, the child will too. And the child will learn the patterns, harmonies and structures that are part of the Western musical heritage. It’s all about intention. What develops well develops through intention.

Being a Suzuki parent is very difficult.

I don’t mean to put prospective parents off by talking about the difficulty; but it is hard. If I were younger and more self-absorbed, I don’t know how I could have done this. It is a selfless act to work with your child through the difficulties of beginning an instrument like the violin. Parents should understand that it will tax them like no other undertaking. But seeing your child on stage playing with grace and beauty is rewarding beyond compare.

Being what your child needs you to be in order to learn her instrument is incredibly rewarding.

When you and your child embark on Suzuki training, you have no idea how your child is going to respond. You don’t know what words will motivate them. Or discourage them. You don’t know what your child’s hot-button items are. Or yours. Little by little, I’ve learned to work with my daughter in a way that is productive and enjoyable; but it wasn’t always that way. Sometimes it still isn’t. But there’s a transformation that happens, whereby you become exactly what your child needs you to be. There’s nothing more personally satisfying than this.

You have to push through difficult periods. The first one is really tough.

With the violin - and it’s probably true of most instruments - getting through learning the Twinkles (Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star) is arduous. We had weeks of fall-on-the-floor tantrums. And that was just over one of the rhythmic variations. And I still remember ViolinGirl crying over how difficult it was to play “Lightly Row”, one of the earliest pieces in Book 1. I met parents who did not want to push kids over this hump out of fear of making them dislike music. This is wrong. Absolutely, positively 100% wrong. You don’t learn to love music and become a good player by avoiding pain; but by working through it. Even today, when she complains of something being too hard, I remind her of first of her earliest success and how silly it was to think of simple songs as being too difficult. Then I remind her that nothing worth doing well is easy. No one regrets having continued with music lessons. But most who quit eventually regret it. As a parent I learned how hard it is to push through those difficult spots.

Of all the wonders about the Suzuki triangle, one of the greatest is that student and parent are on parallel journeys. The student is learning how to make beautiful music and the parent is learning to be what they need to be to help the child’s potential unfold. I hope these ideas help you in some way to be a more aware Suzuki parent.

The metronome is an essential tool for practicing with rhythmic accuracy and for developing velocity in a disciplined way. In this post I’ll describe some of the pitfalls I’ve encountered as a musician using the metronome for practice and how it can be applied by us Suzuki practice parents.

Metronome anxiety

I grew up hating the metronome. The target of my disaffection was an old wooden Seth Thomas metronome that sat atop the upright piano in my parents’ house.

My teachers would urge me to solve problems with tempo, evenness, and velocity with slow metronome-guided practice. I’d give it a few tries and abandon it. During lessons, if the metronome started, I’d seize-up with anxiety. I suspect that metronome axiety is more common than teachers appreciate. A question in a piano practice forum captures the feeling precisely:

“Please advise on the metronome usage. I hate the thing! With the first sound of it I can feel my back and neck muscles tense up. How is one able to listen for the beat, concentrate on the notes, and technique for playing them, all at the same time.” [1]

I think there is a sense of being left behind when the metronome starts. If a passage is difficult, perhaps the fingering will get bungled and the metronome will keep going as if taunting the musician. Impatience is also a factor. We often don’t want to admit that achieving velocity and even execution is difficult and that it takes time. The metronome reveals that plainly to us. Whatever the cause, anxiety about the metronome is probably common. And sadly, unless the player overcomes it, he is robbed of an important tool for improving technique. When I began to play more chamber music 20 years ago, I found that I couldn’t mesh complex parts effectively without learning to play with more refined, even technique. Little by little I learned to live with the metronome and use it more effectively.

Choice of metronome

Personally, I regard the drum machine type metronomes useless for serious practice. Complex, accented rhythms are not what we need for practice. I can’t use the old pyramidal Maelzel metronomes because I constantly suspect their evenness. After several metronomes, I’ve finally found a model that I actually enjoy using, the Intelli IMT301. It’s very intuitive; and there’s no wasted functionality. (I’m not planning on trying to practice against a Bossa Nova rhythm.) This metronome is probably intended for string players; and we also use it for that too. Mostly I like it because it’s loud. I have no difficulty hearing it even when we use it in ensemble rehearsals. One minor critique is that the speaker is on the back. If you place the metronome horizontally on a surface or directly against a music stand, the sound is muffled. At the piano, I place it on the music desk upright but reclined at a slightly more acute angle than the stand so that the speaker isn’t occluded. When practicing the violin, I have it velcro’d to the top of the stand, again, so that the speaker isn’t obstructed.

I don’t like smartphone-based metronomes. None of the ones that I’ve tried have enough volume. Some have obvious issues with user experience. For example, there’s a Steinway metronome app that uses a faux analog rotary dial control to change the tempo setting. Because of the way people hold cell phones, the right thumb is used to move the control. But the thumb reaching across the phone from left to right obscures the tempo reading in the center of the dial.

Metronome practice for velocity

In the first movement of the Beethoven Piano Trio Op. 1 No. 3, there is a moderately difficult fast sixteenth note run that appears three times in two different forms:

A fast passage in a Beethoven trio

Just ignore the fingering. Even with the best fingering, at the tempo marking “Allegro con brio”, it’s fast. It also doesn’t conform to any particular known scale. It just weaves around the violin and cello parts in an agitated way. There are several places in these passages, where the second finger has to be passed over the thumb with an interval of a third. My target is about 140 to a quarter note; so how should I begin to attack this passage to achieve the desired performance tempo?

First, the choice of fingering has to be worked out before reaching for the metronome. Starting to practice with the metronome before all of the fingering choices have been evaluated will be frustrating and will lead to more metronome anxiety. At a minimum, it’s ineffective. Take time to slowly develop the fingering and write it into the score. Consider the fingering in the context of what comes before and after the passage in question. At this point, the metronome isn’t helpful; this phase is about discovery - finding what fingering works.

After you’ve found the right fingering[2], then you are ready for slow practice. In this case, since my target is 140 to the quarter note, I would start at under 70. If you can play the passage perfectly in a relaxed way with all of the decided-on fingerings, then you can advance the metronome by 5 beats per minute. I keep repeating this process, increasing the tempo at 5 bpm increments. I stop increasing when I feel the first sign of tension in the hand, wrist, or forearm. This is the point where you should dial the metronome back by 10 bpm.

Beginning from 10 bpm below the point where tension first developed, you can slowly increase the tempo by 2-4 beats per minute. You may also begin to experience diminishing returns due to fatigue. If you begin to sense fatigue, it’s best to stop and move on to a less demanding passage or a passage with different technical requirements.

I keep track of how the tempi are progressing so that I can begin each practice session with the right tempo. At the next session, I may start a little faster than 70 bpm and advance in 10 bpm up to the point where tension developed in the last session. From that point on, I will advance more slowly to the tension point, then back off again. In no case do I attempt to push the tempo beyond the point where I can play the passage accurately or the point where muscular tension develops. By practicing intentionally in this way, I can make no wasted effort in attempting to get the passage up to performance tempo and I reduce the likelihood that I’ll injure myself.

Metronome practice for evenness

Of course velocity is not the only concern. We want to be able to play passages at the right tempo and without any unmarked accents. For piano, we’re concerned about dynamic and agogic[3] accents. In other instruments, tonic accents have to be considered. In any case, these accents, if unmarked and unintended impeded the evenness of a passage at whatever tempo the performer can play.

The metronome, of course, can help with this goal also. In an effort to remove unwanted accents, I may start with an even lower metronome mark and progress more slowly, drawing my focus on making smooth transitions, especially finger crossings. With the metronome, we have to be careful though, not to actually introduce a dynamic accent on the beat in an effort to stay synchronized with it. I fight this constantly.

Other metronome tips

  • I like to turn on the feature that accentuates the first beat of each measure. For some reason I feel less of the metronome anxiety when a hear a clear downbeat.
  • There’s a risk of over-practicing while inching up the tempo. Working for too long with the metronome can lead you to practice a spot excessively. I’ve found the clue there is in the diminishing returns from elevating the tempo and in the feeling of tension. I make a commitment with myself to stop at that point.
  • Scales are a good way to gain experience with the metronome.

  1. Tech 5. “metronome hatred” Piano World Forums 27 July, 2012 Link

  2. By “right fingering” I mean the fingering that works for you.

  3. Agogic accents are those that a temporal - delays in onset or offset of a note, for example.

At ASI, I asked every teacher a question about conflict in practie. Since the beginning, my wife and I had been practicing together with ViolinGirl; but we had begun to sense that conflict during practice was the result of her being overwhelmed by too much advice. No one seemed to think it was a good idea. So we started having only one parent practice with her; and we put the responsibility on rotation.

The result seems to be much less conflict. There’s a reason that they talk about the Suzuki triangle and not the Suzuki square.