Saturday, November 03, 2007

Lonely soldiers discouragement

Fiona has been veering close to violin resistance lately. This is new for her. Mostly she has been very happy to practice. There have been a few times when she hasn't been eager to practice for a few days, and I've found that if I don't push, her enthusiasm returns. This time, though, there's been more to it than that.

She's a monkey for learning ahead, this kid. She has all that Suzuki repertoire in her head, thanks to her older siblings (I confess we rarely play the CDs prior to Book 5), and an amazing intuitive sense of intervals and the geography of the fingerboard. She can sound out anything she has in her head, and she has a lot in her head. So for most of the past few months I've been periodically confessing to my mom, Fiona's official violin teacher, that "she's already been playing that one." But for whatever reason she didn't learn ahead for "Two Grenadiers" before it became assigned learning. I did some prep work with her. Was that the problem? Did presenting little bits first as preliminary steps give her the self-fulfilling impression that it was going to be hard?

For whatever the reason, though she quickly mastered the last third of the piece and the first couple of phrases, the middle third became a source of frustration. I saw her learning curve as normal; most students struggle with the bowing and rhythmic unpredictability of that middle section. So much so that I almost invariably do something with this piece that I don't with any other: I teach the words as a mnemonic (the "lonely soldier" words, see below). But to Fiona the fact that she perceived a learning curve that had to be climbed through ongoing work was frustrating to her. She's grappled really well with learning challenges before, but never in the new-piece-learning arena.

I didn't realize she was getting frustrated. What I saw was that she was less interested in practicing, and tired of it quite quickly when we did get started. It took mea few days to realize that it wasn't that she'd had a poor night's sleep, or an overloaded social calendar, or two colds back to back. She was frustrated.

Yesterday I got it. And, good Suzuki parent that I (occasionally) am, I realized it was my job to create the environment and experiences that would get her past that. I gave her the haircut she'd been asking for for a while and we had a nice time combing her hair and chatting. Not wanting to lose my attentiveness, she readily agreed to practice. She managed a nice warm-up. I pointed her to the pile of pennies we keep handy.

"Get whatever number of pennies you want, for practicing a little bit of Witches' Dance."

She delightedly ran over and retrieved six pennies. Normally we use pennies to count, or flip them for heads or tails to decide whether she or I get to choose the next task. I needed something different this time, though.

She played one repetition. I put a penny on her bare left foot. She giggled. She played another. The next penny went on her right foot. More giggling. The next penny went between her toes. Then next went up her left sleeve, the fifth one went in the hood of her hoodie and the last one went on her head. She was in hysterics by the time all six pennies were doled out.

Naturally she wanted to do it again, so we picked a different section of Witches' Dance. Repeated the endeavour, with more giggles.

Now that she was riding high, I figured it was time to put her to work on Two Grenadiers. First she did the beginning and the ending sections, which haven't given her any grief. Then it was time for the problematic section. She wanted some visual guidance over bowing, so we worked out a signal. And so she played through the troublesome section (from the B-flat to the key change, for those of you who know the piece) with my signals for the hooked bowings. Bouyed up by her relaxed optimism, she did remarkably well. There was one bowing missed, and one little rhythmic glitch that seemed mostly due to the fact that her bowing was backwards by then. I didn't say a word to correct. This practicing was about restoring optimism, not about fixing Two Grenadiers. The whole aim was to quit while things were happy, so that tomorrow's practicing would be more welcome. I just said "It's getting better! Most of the bowings were right that time."

Well, she wanted to try it again, because she sensed that she was improving, that it was getting easier. But this time she didn't want bowing guidance. I figured we had to risk it, because she was motivated. Amazingly she got all the bowings, except for one (different) one. Without any reminders. She was delighted. I sent her over to hit the Staples "Easy Button." I pointed out to her how much more fun she was having now that she had "made it easier" for herself to play this section by practicing. I said that I guessed her practicing felt fun now again. She smiled and agreed.

Never one to quit while she was ahead, she decided to play the whole piece through. Alas, this time it fell apart right at the end of the nasty section. She stuck her bottom lip out, set her violin on the floor and sat down.

I explained that if we'd had the written music handy, I would have put it on the floor for her to jump on and call it nasty names. She smiled. I commiserated -- it's really frustrating to hit a glitch like that. She must be really mad at that piece. She nodded.

"Oh well," I said. "You're really frustrated with it, but at least you know from playing it the first and the second times that it's getting easier. Even though you're mad right now, you know you've made a lot of progress, right?"

She nodded.

"Want to do the penny thing again?"

She jumped up, giggling. I put a penny on an odd part of her body every time she played gentle stopped up-bow quarter notes in Brahms' Waltz.

Afterwards she asked "what now?" and I said "nothing!" She looked at me quizzically.

"Right now you're happy, right?" I asked. She nodded. "So, practicing should start happy and end happy. Let's stop now to make sure. That way you end up feeling better about your practicing -- not only today but tomorrow. Me too."

We had a cuddle and that was that.

Maybe I'm a better Suzuki parent than I was with my younger kids. But maybe I just have a wonderful, resilient kid the fourth time around. When I do reasonably creative things to deal with a situation, they actually work the way they're supposed to with Fiona.

Lonely Soldier Mnemonic for "Two Grenadiers"

Words begin with the pick-up to the B-flat in line 2. Every "lonely" represents a dotted-quarter hooked in the same bow to a subsequent eighth-note.

Two lonely soldiers I did meet,
Two lonely, lonely soldiers,
Yes they were so lonely, sad and lonely
Tired out and lonely soldiers.
Those lonely soldiers had a story,
They told me their tale of glory!


  1. Clever mom you are! You found a fun way to spend time together and a fun way to reward Fiona. It did not matter that they were not big rewards. The point was the attention. I am going to have to remember this for our current problem--math resistance. :)

  2. Crystal in NB9:45 am

    You are an amazing, creative, intuitive, big picture seeing, great example of a mom and this is why I read your blog.

    Congrats to Fiona & Mom!

  3. Very creative- I love reading your insights on each of your kids and how you've found ways to guide them.

    I have a question for you if you don't mind.

    We have started Suzuki piano this year. We have a lovely teacher with a home piano studio. I am only a step or so ahead of my son in the learning process. We do formal lessons together at home but not as often as I probably should. My oldest is at the piano 10-15 times a day. He goes through his small repetoire of Twinkle A & B then does his own composing of little songs. My question to you is both as a suzuki parent and teacher. Should I be sitting down with him more often than I am? I am always listening when he is playing (house isn't all that big!)and he loves feed back so I generally comment on it and maybe sit down real quick to show him something. He informally practices far more often than we sit and I work on technique with him. When we do formal lessons it is a big thing- I don't sit with one kid I sit with four. (the 2 yo loves to try and play too). So it is a big production to "do piano".

    The kids are aged 2-7, and we basically unschool. I am feeling very guilty for not getting things together and doing it more often and embarrassed to admit to our teacher just how much we do. My son is doing well- constantly moving forward, my dd is sort of in a holding pattern (she has an extra chromosome- so life goes a bit slower for her). and the 3 year old is making small leaps forward. The 2 year old walks around the house singing "Mississippi hop frog" (twinkle A) and can sit a "rest" quite well.

    Sorry this has gotten so long- I am constantly inspired by your family.

  4. Hi Meesh, I think it would be ideal if you could be sitting down to practice with him one all the assigned lesson work once a day, and leave him to noodle about, experiment, repeat and improvise as often as he likes on top of that. I think it's very helpful if you don't lead every moment on the instrument because it allows the child to retain ownership of his music and to feel free to be more creative.

    I certainly hear you on the "not having one, but four" when you try to do the focused, parent-guided work. I found that at various stages in our family life I had to find practice times for one or more children that were when my husband was home and in a position to take an active role in distracting the "other" children. Since he wasn't home much, that meant that we had to grab almost every moment that he was here for practicing! But now I'm through the other end -- only my youngest still needs me there to practice with her all the time, and the older three are old enough that they respect that time and don't feel compelled to insinuate themselves into others' practice time.

  5. Callie2:27 pm

    Hi, I'm a new Suzuki parent and absolutely loved this post! I am amazed at how much Suzuki methods enrich my overall parenting. I'm not sure how I found you, but I enjoy your blog. Thanks for sharing. Callie

  6. Thanks Miranda- I will make that effort a top priority. They all enjoy the lesson- I just feel overwhelmed at it some days! Thankfully they do each wait nicely for their own urn (the baby not so much) but it takes up a big chuck of time all at once. I think e may have to do it when DH gets home for the reasons ou mentioned- he gets here late, but I think it could work.

    Thanks again- a few of your kids have similar traits to some of mine- I often glean great stratagies from your experience!


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