A Suzuki parent’s lament (and occasional triumph)

These cuties make violin practice fun!  (Sometimes.)

These cuties make violin practice fun! (Sometimes.)

I’m not a musician.  I played oboe for a brief time (a few weeks?) in middle school, but gave up because it was too hard.  I love music, I sang in musicals throughout school, but I cannot read music.  As a Suzuki parent, this is a challenge.

My daughter, who is now five and a half, showed an early passion for violin, with specific interest in western swing.  Her grandmother had studied violin at Juliard, and played in the Houston Symphony.  So we encouraged the child, and began Suzuki lessons when she was four.  (Complicating factor: she had severely injured her left hand in an accident when she was three and a half, so from the start, she has been playing violin left-handed.)

The Suzuki method, taught in its strictest form, would have required me as home practice teacher to learn violin alongside my daughter.  Because I’m not doing that, we have another challenge in learning, and in getting her to practice.

Early on, I talked to a friend (who is also a wonderful violin player) about this issue of getting the child to practice.  It seemed like I should teach my daughter about the importance of having a practice, having any practice.  My friend advised that if my daughter loves violin, I should consider not putting that baggage onto playing violin.  She assured me that people do learn even if they don’t practice every day, and that when a person wants to learn a particular piece, for instance, s/he will work at it and want to practice.  Sagely advice.  I felt so liberated!

Meanwhile, we do need to do some amount of practice.  Here are some things that have helped:

  • Following my daughter’s teacher at lessons, we use plastic eggs in a  basket, each egg containing one task.  This adds a sense of play, and it also makes my daughter feel she’s in control–she’s choosing what to do rather than my telling her.  (She and I often collaborate on extra things to put in the eggs.  She wanted an empty egg, so I added one.  And when I realized she wanted more freedom, in another egg, I wrote on a slip of paper, “violin thing–your choice”  so she really does have a sense of being able to do what she wants while we practice.  This has yielded some wonderful improvisation.)
  • Again, at the teacher’s suggestion, we use a set of Russian nesting dolls to count repetitions of a piece.  We unpack the dolls, put them in a row, and then she closes a doll each time she does the thing, until they are all packed into one.

These are some things that have NOT helped:

  • Bossing her around;
  • Begging;
  • Getting really frustrated and walking away.

We don’t do charts and incentives, unless you count the classic vegetables before desert, “we need to practice before we go to the playground” sort of thing.  I’ve never wholeheartedly tried charts and incentives in general in our house, in part because philosophically, we want her to experience intrinsic (vs. extrinsic) motivation.  I don’t want her to practice for the sake of pleasing me, or getting money or a prize.  I want her to practice because she wants to do it, because it matters to her, because she loves playing violin.  I want her to have the joy of doing something  for the love of it.  Or for herself!  Short term, this means I don’t have as many ways to convince her to practice.  Which can be really frustrating.  (Sometimes I want to give up, but I don’t want her to give up, so I have to model not giving up.  Kind of like a lot of things in life, actually.)

Recently, we were at a group lesson, and it was my daughter’s turn to play her solo piece.  She was feeling put on the spot, and wasn’t comfortable enough to play the piece her teacher was asking for.  She began to cry, and we had to leave the room.  (We’d gotten a ride from a friend, so we had to wait until the end of the lesson, which was probably a good thing.  I might otherwise have left.)  As I sat, wanting to comfort my daughter, she said very clearly that the problem was that I hadn’t been making enough time to practice.  (She was right.  It was summer, our schedule had been irregular, and we had not been practicing enough.)  I felt ashamed, too ashamed even to explain to the friendly parents in the other room.  But as I thought about it, I realized that my anxiety was about my being judged, about being seen as an imperfect Suzuki parent.  Whose business is that?  Who cares?  After the lesson was over, I explained to the adults that my daughter said I had not been making enough time to practice, and she was right.  I am not Catholic, but I imagine that’s what confession feels like.  It felt good to tell the truth.  And then I recommitted to practicing regularly.  Even when I remind her of what she said, my daughter often does not want to practice, but then, she’s a kid.  There are so many other things she wants to do.  I can’t blame her.

Music should be fun.  And lately, when I let go of trying to steer it too much, it has been.

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