PPO 2016/Week 1: Practice techniques for success

This is a summary of a talk by James Hutchins on how to get more progress during practice.

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 smile1 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 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? [return]
  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. [return]
Written by:

Alan is the main practice partner and accompanist for a young violinist.