Unless they are unusually compliant, I don’t think most children are willing do repetitions. This is certainly true with ViolinGirl at this stage. But repetitions are at the very core of practice. It seems that Suzuki’s answer to problems of technique was to do 10,000 repetitions. That number seems practically abusive and potentially the source of physical injury. But between “one and done” and 10,000, there’s plenty of room for a reasonable number of repetitions.

As practice parents, we have to find a way to make repetitions work. Not only are particular techniques at stake; but there is a meta-lesson here about learning how to learn and about how to observe and evaluate one’s own performance. Since most children don’t take naturally to repetitions, the key for practice parents is to overcome the resistance by making the activity irresistible.

Bracket

For a repetition, I isolate the area the needs work. Perhaps her teacher has already done that in the music or made a comment that I included in my notes. Usually, it’s the most minimal bit that is needed to catch the element to focus on along with any lead-in needed to get the bowing or fingering in the right place. Usually, the bracket is going to be a phrase. Sometimes after repeating that area a bit, we need to “zoom in” or narrow the bracket. I’ll do that if the first few repetitions are not getting better. Or maybe I misjudged and there are really two areas that are problematic.

Make it a game

Finding the areas to work on is the easy part. For us, turning it into a game is key. I simply cannot get ViolinGirl to do repetitions without games. In my efficieny-oriented, schedule-laden mind, I may be thinking: “Can’t you just play this practice spot 10 times and we’ll move on?” But I have to meet her where she is in her stage of development - thankfully unburdened by all of the adult concerns that we carry with us. Fortunately, this is where our insights as parents is invaluable. What makes your child tick? Competition? Movement? Art? For ViolinGirl, it’s competition and the element of chance.

Here’s our go-to game for doing repetitions:

“Do you want to roll the dice?” (Give her a choice…)
“Sure.”
“Which one, the 6-side die, 10-side, 12-side…?”[1] (Another choice…)

ViolinGirl reaches into the bag and chooses the die that she wants to throw. We decide in advance that we’ll reject any number less than x. Throwing the dice also gets her moving around which is good for energetic 7 year-old bodies. Then we throw in an element of competition. If she throws an 8, for example, I pull eight cards out of the deck. When she plays a repetition that meets the standard, she wins the card. Otherwise, I win it. Since she is very competitive, she always wins. It’s important to decide in advance what you’re focusing on. If you are working on dynamics and the repetition is about shaping the dynamics, then it’s not fair to take a point for intonation.

Encouragement

Each time she completes a repetition, I say something encouraging. If she hasn’t quite met the standard I may say something like: “OK! Keep going. See if you can play that last note even more in tune.” I try to avoid saying: “That wasn’t very good.” or “That was bad.” While I want her to develop an awareness of how closely she’s meeting standards, I also want her to compassionate with herself. So everything I say is constructive. Sometimes, if the mood is right, I might scrunch my face or make a sad face; but it has to be in a playful way. And the mood has to be right.

There’s a list of 100 ways to say “very good” on the University of Northern Iowa Suzuki School site. I have my own “repertoire” of ways of using these words that feels authentic to me.

Repetitions are the core of practice; but we as practice parents have to be creative to make them work. We have to divide our attention between the musical outcome (Is it in tune? Are the bowings right?) and the process (What is the mood? How much can I push? Do I need to move on? Change the game?) Much as there is a reward in the progressive mastery of a musical instrument, there’s a deep reward in becoming the parent you need to be to help your child do that.

See also


  1. We have lots of different dice. Since she loves the idea of chance, it's a fun way to get in our repetitions. The brand Chessex makes matched sets of multi-sided dice.

"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