"The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge."

The remarkable Bertrand Russell[1] once wrote “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.”

In a way, this touches on the ideals of Suzuki’s philosophy. Suzuki wrote: “When love is deep, much can be accomplished.” Both Russell and Suzuki capture the way that love inspires and focuses knowledge and ability.


  1. Russell is one of my heroes. He wrote this quote in his essay "What I Believe".

"You need to work with tremendous concentration and absolute devotion and dedication whilst holding in your mind that actually none of this matters very much."

“The idea of working hard as a virtue in itself is a very interesting topic; it’s been written about many times. … You need to work with tremendous concentration and absolute devotion and dedication whilst holding in your mind that actually none of this matters very much.”

Stephen Hough is one of my absolute favorite pianists. His wide-ranging views of practice in this interview on BBC are priceless.

His opinion on “Tiger Moms” in music is essential listening:

“I’ve met a number of tigers moms over my years and I must say I don’t like what I see. Partly because I think a lot of what goes into the hard work are totally the wrong things. It’s often seeing music as a sort of success.”

I’ve always felt likewise; and I think the anticompetitive nature of Suzuki talent education gets to the same point. Playing and understanding music well should be its own goal; not a stepping stone to something else.

Jeremby Denk

Jeremy Denk on the beautifully detailed piano teaching notebook from his teacher William Leland:

“There’s a mini-narrative scattered through the whole thing. My conscious attention was the main obsession. He was a very detail-oriented teacher. Each week you see this attempt to make me more meticulous. It’s very affecting to me of this very crucial period of my life when I basically decided to become a pianist without really knowing it.”

The video and article Every Good Boy Does Fine are excellent. Very touching.

I’ve noticed something interesting about ViolinGirl and fast tricky passages. It’s interesting because I did the same thing as a young musician.

When confronted by a passage that’s fast, particularly if it doesn’t fit well under the fingers, she plays it even faster than written and blurs the articulation. I recognize it instantly because it took me years of being picky and hard on myself to get rid of my own version of the habit.[1] The only cure for this malady is to ask yourself whether you can also play the passage slower. Camille Saint-Saëns, the famous French Romantic composer and pianist said:

“One must practice slowly, then more slowly, and finally slowly.” - Camille Saint-Saëns

Sure you can play it fast; but can you play it slowly?

For me (I’m wearing my pianist hat, not my violin practice parent hat…), the telltale sign of a passage that’s fingered correctly and really learned is one that is susceptible to being played at any tempo from 0 to the final performance tempo. If I’ve begun to suspect that a fast passage isn’t quite right, I’ll slow it down considerably and listen for evenness. Sometimes, if I’ve rushed to learn a piece, I’ll find that I cannot even play it at a slow tempo. This is a telltale and painful sign that the piece isn’t really “in the fingers.” There’s a sort of automaticity that takes over at some point in learning a piece of music. But this sort of learning seems to be very kinesthetic. Once the kinesthetic and proprioceptive inputs become disrupted by slowing a passage down, it can unmask a defect. I’ve gradually taught myself that relearning is slow and frustrating work. Better to do it correctly the first time around.

I definitely wish someone would have challenged me more as a young person and said: “Yeah, that’s fast; but can you also play it slower?”


  1. I'm referring to my own habits at the piano. The same thing must also be true of the violin; but I'm not qualified to say much specifically about slow practice on the violin. Ask your teacher.

Using puppets during practice

When people ask me about whether ViolinGirl complains about having to practice, I tell them “Not really; but it took us a long time to get to that point.” Maybe it’s a matter of her realizing that “resistance is futile”, or that it’s just become an engrained habit, or a little of both. Of course doing practice and being involved in practice are different levels of quality. And that’s what I’ve begun to notice. With auditions, recitals, and group classes done for the summer, practice has begun to feel a little “bland.” I can always tell by the posture and her expression whether we have to do something to enliven things during practice. This was one of those weeks. We needed a new “trick.”

The idea that we decided to try came from a Parents as Partners online video made by Glenna Theurer and her daughter. Mrs. Theurer is a Suzuki violin teacher who talked about using puppets and stuffed animals to participate in practice with young children because it brings levity and enjoyment into practice and because it’s easier to deliver advice and critique with a more neutral third party. Mind you, with a 6 year-old, the mystery about what is animating the puppet is gone. But there is still something different about the emotional distance that comes from using a puppet.

The results have been interesting. When the puppets[1] say that they want to observe a particular technique, ViolinGirl does it beautifully. We stuck with simple items like maintaining a consistent contact point or bow hold. Now they can start to make some more complicated demands. What I wasn’t prepared for, but should have been, was how it affected our practice efficiency. ViolinGirl is an imaginative person who likes to embellish stories. For example, when she was working on “Witches’ Dance” last year, her teacher used the word “pineapple” for the triplet rhythm (pine-a-pple). Somehow, over the next days and weeks, ViolinGirl has constructed some sort of narrative about witches cooking pineapple soup! She was so excited to add onto the story that it eventually became a slight distraction during practice and lessons.[2] The same thing is happening with the puppets. Not only do they make requests and observations; but she interacts with them. If they come up with a little game, she embellishes it. But she’s enthusiastic as she always is when creating something.

Practice may be a little less efficient now with the puppets. But it’s more lively; and she’s able to play with more focused technique when they are watching.


  1. We didn't really have any puppets around the house; so I purchased some by a company called Folkmanis. There are two that participate in practce, an ostrich and a rabbit.

  2. One of the learning points for me has been about letting go of the need to control the use of our practice time too much. When she begins to digress into stories, I can start to feel my anxiety level rising. Overall, I've learned to be more patient with her and recognize that "going with the flow" is ultimately going to lead to more pleasant practice. And the more pleasant the experience of practice, the more likely that she'll continue to progress and love music. I'm trying to change my own internal self-talk about these digressions. Instead of "Oh no, there she goes again; and we have so much to do...", I'm learning to say: "Hmmm. I wonder how I can use this to bring her back to the practice." Some days are better for me than others.

Violin and piano?

The Guardian recently interviewed violinist Nicola Benedetti about parents, children, and opportunities:

“A lot of the most privileged children face far too many choices. It is almost paralysing for children. It can disorient them like a constantly faulty light, flicking on and off…I was encouraged to be consistent with something and I wasn’t allowed to change instruments.” Nicola Benedetti.

Indeed. One of the reasons I’m reluctant to accede to ViolinGirl’s occasional pleas about learning the piano. There’s is a well-roundedness that comes from being able to approach music from different angles. But depth can be lost. As a parent, I’m not against the idea of adding another instrument. But I’m wary. The timing has to be right. Practice has to be more efficient, and she needs to be at a point of more self-direction.

Benedetti’s point also has something to say about subjecting kids to too many varied unconnected activities. It’s also a problem.

I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about perfectionism lately because I think it’s a trap that ViolinGirl could easily fall into. I have that tendency too.

Perfectionism: the refusal to accept any standard short of perfection.

Picking up on cues from her teacher, we’ve started to become pickier about certain parts of practice. If ViolinGirl plays certain notes in a passage out of tune; I’ll wait for a moment to point it out to her, have her replay the passage more slowly, and move on. The same is true for rhythmic inconsistencies. I’ll point out where she’s rushing. My goal isn’t for her to feel she has to play the passages perfectly. My goal is for her to begin to notice these elements of the music so she has the basic tools for self-monitoring.

Until know, our listening practice has sufficed to have her self-regulate her rhythm and pitch. Of all the elements of the Suzuki method of talent education, this is the most remarkable. If people only knew how powerful it is… But as she’s playing more from the page, sometimes music she’s never heard, the listening practice doesn’t always help. I’ve also noticed that as she becomes more confident in her playing, she doesn’t always slow down to hear the details. Pianist Jeremy Denk wrote: “Ninety per cent of a teacher’s job is directing students to read what’s plainly on the page.”[1] Since the practice parent’s job is to be a stand-in for the teacher, the same must also be true of him.

So how picky should we be as practice parents? By being picky are we unwittingly training them to be little perfectionists? I believe that it comes down to two factors for practice parents: communication and focus on outcomes.

Communication

The work of a practice parent is full of nuance. When I put piece of advice “out there”, I’m never quite sure what the reaction will be. But I’m keenly looking at her to notice her facial expression, her tone of voice and body language. If she starts to whine and wiggle, I might push one more repetition, but not much more. Perhaps I could be accused of “going easy” on her. I see it as skillfully avoiding resistance. Once we’re not pulling on the same side any longer, it’s not productive. I believe that we lay the groundwork for pickiness-level standards vs. perfectionistic standards in the way we communicate as practice parents. If we are constantly stern and demanding about mistakes, it sets negative, avoidant emotions into play. There’s always tomorrow.

Outcomes

I agree with Dr. Noa Kageyama, violinist, Julliard alumnus, and performance psychologist who writes on The Bulletproof Musician about the roots of perfectionism.[2] He relates perfectionism to a single-minded focus on a technically-perfect performance. Instead of focusing only on the technical aspects, musicians should decide what it is they wish to communicate and make that their goal. Technical accuracy is only one of many components of such a holistic performance that have to be considered. He notes that: “The more you focus on technical perfection, the more nervous you will tend to be. Why? Because you don’t have much else going for you – and you know that the likelihood of a technically perfect performance is close to zero. There is a part of you that knows you are likely to fail from both a technical perspective and a “move the audience to tears” perspective. No wonder you’re nervous – you’re setting yourself up to fail.” The perfectionist mindset says: “I must play this passage perfectly or the performance will be horrible.” The pickiness mindset says: “I would like to play this passage correctly because I don’t want it to get in the way of what I’m trying to communicate.” I believe that if we shape our language to correspond to the pickiness mindset, we can avoid pushing kids toward perfectionism.

Other ideas?


  1. Denk, Jeremy. “Every Good Boy Does Fine.” The New Yorker. 8 Apr. 2013. Web. 24 May 2015. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/04/08/every-good-boy-does-fine.

  2. Noa, Kageyama. “Don’t read this if you are a perfectionist.” The Bulletproof Musician. Publication date unknown. Web. 24 May 2015. http://www.bulletproofmusician.com/dont-read-this-if-you-are-a-perfectionist/.

Previously I described the sheets we use to take notes during lessons and to organize practice. We also use a reference sheet to setup a rotation schedule for repertoire, scales, and tonalizations.

Our goal is to completely cover all of the preceding books over the course of a week. Since ViolinGirl is playing in Book 3 now, Books 1 & 2 are on review rotation. So, the reference sheet gives a rotation schedule that we use to determine which pieces to play on any given day. To avoid playing the review pieces in a prefunctory way, I also included a table of ideas to work on for each specific piece. As she learns new techniques, this will evolve because she can port those new techniques back to her older repertoire.

For her working pieces, our practice is to address the three most recent pieces with the most depth. She works on all of the practice bracket spots first then does two play-throughs. Otherwise we aim to play through the current book completely each day.

We put scales and tonalization variations that she’s learned on rotation, too. Often her teacher assigns a particular tonalization variation. If so, then we do the assigned variation; otherwise we refer to the sheet. The same is true for scales.

Again, this is how we set things up for our practice. It probably breaks some rule of Suzuki pedagogy; but the real secret is really habit and focus anyway.

Attachments

  • Book 3 practice schedule - current rotation schedule. I print it on brightly-colored paper so we can find it easily in the binder.

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.