This post is first in a series about working with grade school students as they learn and practice their musical instrument.
How do we work successfully with the development of our grade school age music students, both as teachers and parents?
I meet people every week who tell me they wish they hadn’t stopped playing an instrument when they were younger.
Usually they stopped playing during the middle or high school years. This is when life gets busy and it’s hard to keep going with the instrument unless it’s a big priority in the family or there is a good social outlet for music by that age (more on that in a future article!)
If we value learning music as a part of our family’s culture and as an activity we want our children to grow up with long term the groundwork for being able to, and wanting to, stick with it long term is built for most students during the grade school years.
Working with the developmental stage our children and students are at as they approach the instrument is so important.
Without keeping this in mind we can get into all kinds of power struggles and difficulties that might be avoided with a little more perspective about what children at this age need.
The Center for Parenting Education has a great article outlining the basic developmental skills being developed at this age (read the article HERE).
The article has great suggestions about how to encourage emotional and cognitive development at this age. I’m going to share some of them below with my own thoughts about how they apply to studying a music instrument. (The headlines in bold below come from the article).
When we keep our children’s development in mind as we practice and work with these big tasks they are learning at this age, we are much more likely to be successful long term!
Praising them for trying to do things
Research shows that when we praise our children for their effort on a task they will work harder on such tasks in the future. Praising for “talent” or how smart they are really has the opposite effect. As parents we help students this age best when we notice the effort they are putting in and encourage it. Even if there is just a little bit of initiative and they are willing to keep trying when something isn’t easy right away, this is huge. Praise the effort!
Teaching them to solve problems so they can deal with conflict and life’s challenges
I heard Seth Godin once say in an interview that the best way to help children succeed in our current economy is to teach them to solve interesting problems and how to lead (here is an article with some of the best quotes from that interview). Practicing an instrument is a daily opportunity to learn to solve problems: how do get the tone that I want to come out of my instrument? How do make this group of notes easier? A practice session involves lots of problem solving. As musician’s we learn to take a huge challenge (like a complicated new piece of music) and break it down into tiny parts. We learn to stop getting intimidated by the huge task in front of us and to trust the process of working on the challenge bit by bit.
This is one of the things I hear adult Suzuki students talk about often as a huge advantage they have over their peers who didn’t study music. No matter what field they went into as an adult this mindset helps.
Allowing, encouraging, and helping them to finish tasks
It’s easy to give up when things aren’t easy right away. Especially when we’re young and can’t put the task into perspective yet.
I remember when my daughter was about 10 and wanted to earn money so my parents told her they would hire her to move a wood pile from the back of the house to the side of their house. It was a pretty big pile but they promised they would pay well and she was motivated to earn some money so she agreed.
For the first half of the task she would push the small wheelbarrow by me and complain the whole way “I’ve been doing this so long and the pile isn’t getting smaller!” “I’ll never finish” and so on. It was hard to see her discouragement but at a certain point she could see that there was noticeable progress and the complaints stopped.
Now she would walk by with excitement and a lot more energy and talk about how much closer she was getting. She was so happy and proud once she was done!
I learned that day that saving her from all her complaining by having her stop (she was totally capable of the task at hand) was so tempting to me as a parent. But finishing that task was a huge lesson to her. Sometimes you want to give up because there seems to be no progress . . . but if you keep plugging away you’ll get there.
Practicing an instrument can feel equally daunting sometimes and finishing a task on our instrument can give us an equally satisfying feeling at the end while teaching us similar important lessons.
Help them understand their feelings and identify the feelings of others
Along these same lines there are often strong feelings involved when we practice: frustration and impatience to name a few.
Learning to understand that strong feelings are part of being human and that we don’t have to feel happy at every moment is an important lesson. There are many things I do, and have seen my children do, that make us happy once we have done them but we may feel many other emotions in the middle of it.
As parents we can acknowledge our children’s feelings while they practice. We can share stories of times we’ve worked through something hard or frustrating and when it’s gotten easier.
We can talk about expressing feelings through music and how our music impacts how others feel. Practice is both an intense situation where lots of feelings come up and a wonderful opportunity to learn all of this.
Encouraging activities that reflect their interests, build skills, and increase their confidence and sense of accomplishment
This is practicing music in a nutshell. If this is a major developmental task then without a doubt music helps build it.
It’s important to remember that just doing this is helping our children develop cognitively and emotionally. Never mind the speed they are leaning at or what piece they are on or comparing them to their friend who also plays. What is important is that working diligently on something like learning a music instrument helps develop who our children are and that is a wonderful opportunity.
Next time you’re in the practice room with your child and you feel worried about how fast they are learning, or if they are having frustration during a practice session I encourage you to keep these ideas in mind. There are major emotional and mental tasks going on in the grade school years and we can help our children by working through practice (and homework and other tasks) while keeping these tasks in mind.
When we read through this list of life skills, or developmental tasks we can see they are important ones that we all should learn and develop. Music is one way to help do so!
Working Productively with Your Child in Practice
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