How Pro Suzuki Parents Get Their Kids to Practice Part III
The question of whether or not to “bribe” children to practice is a controversial one. Those against a “bribe,” or as I prefer, a reward system, argue that we should encourage intrinsic motivation, helping our children to be self-motivated. Inspired and moved to practice merely by the goal of playing the violin with ease, accuracy, and beauty.
Is it bad to say that this just makes me laugh? I don’t want to be rude, but it is just so far away from my experience as a Suzuki student, teacher, and as a (not yet Suzuki) parent.
I don’t know about the children of the intrinsic motivation camp, but my kid isn’t motivated to do ANYTHING that doesn’t have immediate and concrete positive results.
Activities that don’t have immediate and concrete positive results according to my almost-three-year-old:
- Eating anything for dinner besides tortillas
- Brushing his teeth
- Cleaning up toys
- Putting on clothes or shoes
- Going to Bed
- Leaving toilet paper on the roll
- Not hitting his brother
- Not standing on the couch
- Listening to almost anything I say
You get the idea, he is basically not self-motivated to do anything that he doesn’t want to do at any given moment. I don’t think he’s all that different from most other children. The activities change as they grow older, but even children who love the violin and love to perform are not going to be motivated to practice on their own steam every single day. (Some days, maybe.)
(I don’t want to throw my kid under the bus here, he really is a wonderful kid…for a two-year-old.)
Adults aren’t always intrinsically motivated either, their brains are more developed so they can see the extrinsic rewards coming in the future. I doubt most adults go to work merely because of the satisfaction of a job well done, I think we go because we want a paycheck and want to be able to pay our bills, etc.
The expert Suzuki parents had these things to say about motivating children to practice by using rewards:
First, you need to adapt your methods to suit your child. One method may work wonderfully for one and not at all for another. A rewards system may work beautifully for a while, but then get stale after a while and need to be changed.
Norene Smith says,
“As my children started [violin], they were very excited and loved to practice their little assignments from the teacher. After a few months and as the assignments became more difficult, they decided it wasn’t all fun and games. At that point rewards became helpful to get us through the resistance phase of practicing. One daughter started hiding when I announced it was practice time. We sat down together and made a list of things she would like to do, outings with a parent usually, and she earned a sticker for each time she came to practice quickly and happily. After earning a predetermined number of stickers she received her reward outing. Parents can cater these rewards for individual children as they know what their child enjoys.”
Alan Duncan, of The Suzuki Experience, says this,
“The other bit about motivation is keying into the unique personality of your children—being what they need you to be to make practice work. In our case, my daughter is a list-maker. She likes things written out, checklisted and systematized. I’m sure some would balk at that. And every kid enjoys games. We make up so many games. Some of them make no sense with really bendable rules, but we have fun. We have a 12 sided die. For shifting exercises, we divide the result by 4 to decide what string to do the exercise on, etc. etc. We’ve used puppets and stuffed animals. She invites her dolls or the dog to listen in.”
(I’m the same way, I love checklists and crossing things off.)
Julia Margaret Nichols says,
“For my oldest at that time (age 6-7), we had to switch to my husband doing practices with him so that they would run more smoothly. For my middle one, I remember there being a few months where we had a reward for each song he played (1 m’n’m per song) which got him over that hump, and he also did some practicing with my husband. For my youngest, she refuses to play with her father, so we have gone through a variety of things to keep her going. Most recently, we had her do a 100 day challenge (for which she will get a medal at the next recital). We still had some bad days with all of them, but once we got over that first big hump around age 7 (they started at age 5), things went a lot more smoothly with more self-motivation.“
Kadre Sneddon, parent of five violinists, says,
“They always get a treat for practicing (a cookie or something they pick.) It’s a bribe, but it keeps the peace. I do lots of stickers or games with little ones, and they eventually outgrow it. My oldest (11) is practicing on his own (his teacher’s choice) and it’s going very well this year. I spent the last couple of years really teaching him how to practice, and he asks for help if he needs it. I”m starting to work on teaching independent practice skills to my next kid (9) because, of necessity, she will need to spend some of her time alone as the time increases over the next year. I try to follow the same routine for each practice-first favorite song, scales, studies, new stuff, review, fiddle, and last favorite song for each practice.“
I love this idea of beginning and ending the practice session with one of the child’s favorite pieces. It is so important to end the violin lesson on a positive note, like a game, I imagine it is even more crucial in practice at home.
Many parents suggest keeping the instruments accessible (safely, of course!) Jenny Johnson says, “Their violins are out all the time and they can play them when they wish! When people come round they like to do a little show. They really like getting stickers. When they get 10 stickers they can go to the sweetie shop and choose a 15p sweetie necklace.”
Emily Harkey, mom of four Suzuki kids, keeps instruments handy and uses a few different reward systems.
“I think the biggest help is that our living room looks like a music room. The instruments are always easily available and out. Some of my kids have named their instruments. Kinda like family I guess. Listening I just have it on all the time. For actual practices and repetitions: beans, m&m’s, checklists, etc. each of our Suzuki teachers are so different, but I like that as we pull from all over their expertise to pour into our home. I have liked one teacher’s practice challenge: for forty or so days of school they have to practice everyday and that doesn’t include lessons or group.”
Phankao Wan uses a sticker reward system with her seven-year-old, she also uses stickers to encourage focused practicing and discourage tantrums.
“He breaks up his practices into 3 sessions. he gets stickers for his practice sessions as well as some others—eg. homework or revision done. Actually—we have less problem getting to practice (practicing is like part of life for him)… What is more of a concern is the QUALITY of practices. So if it was a careful practice, I’d give him an extra bonus sticker. If he throws tantrums during practices or while doing schoolwork, I “deduct” (penalty!). He can use these stickers to redeem for certain activities like TV Time, Video Time, etc. There are activities like free play, book readings that I don’t require him to have “stickers” bc I’d be happy to have him playing or reading! So far, this method has been working well in teaching him responsibility and planning his time so that he can have lots of playtime!”
Dividing up the practice time into separate sessions over the day can be very helpful. It’s hard for little brains to focus for very long, so more frequent but shorter practice sessions is a great way to deal with shorter attention spans.
Lindsay Kemeny, a parent in my studio, says that changing things up and practicing in different places helps her practice with her son.
“Something that can be motivating for practice is changing it up a bit. Having him stand on the coffee table to perform a review piece is always fun and results in some giggling. In the summer we practiced outside a few times…just changing rooms is nice too. We have used a sticker chart to help with motivation too….and when he gets so many stickers for practicing, then he gets a prize.”
Kayleen Hall, another parent in my studio, uses the marble jar idea shared in Mckenzie’s pdf for Suzuki Parents, “5 Easy and Fun Practice Games.” Here’s how she does it,
“We have a quart jar and she earns marbles. For example, bows games – one marble, review song 3 Times- one marble, new song drill spots- one marble, etc. Because I am trying to encourage morning practicing she earns double marbles when she practices in the morning. She also earns a marble for happy, focused practicing. She earns a reward when the jar is full. I also approach practicing with positive comments. Not, we have to practice but, I’m so excited I get to hear your violin songs and I have so much fun practicing with you.“
[Thinking about practicing in the morning? Check out Part II of this series here.]
I think that changing up the language you use about practicing can be powerful. Positive comments about practicing (on the parents’ side), or even replacing words like “practice” with “play” can make a huge difference.
“We have to practice now.”
“We get to play violin together now.”
Even if it only helps our attitude about practicing with our children, that’s still huge!
Most parents say that eventually their children no longer require the reward systems.
Norene Smith says,
“We found that after a while, our children didn’t need the external motivators as much. We tried to show how much we admired their efforts and accomplishments. We tried to provide opportunities for reinforcement by having the children play for grandparents, extended family, and friends. Our children enjoyed the positive attention from everyone. Over time, they felt satisfaction in their accomplishment and that became the motivation.“
After a time, many children will come to understand the correlation between effective practicing and successful performance. While we want to rescue our children from potentially embarrassing or difficult experiences, sometimes natural consequences (like a poor performance) are the only way to make that connection in a young brain.
I loved this story that Suzuki parent and teacher, Holly Blackwelder Carpenter, shared,
“My children are 4 and 5, and about 4 months ago, I was cooking and they came into the kitchen, clearly with an agenda. The oldest was the spokeswoman:
‘Mommy, you know we really don’t LIKE to practice,’ she said.
I replied, “No, I don’t suppose you do, not many people do.”
She was surprised I agreed with her!
I asked her “do you like to perform? “
“YES!” she said.
“Then we’d better practice, hadn’t we?”
They agreed. So I guess I don’t really motivate, I expect, and I remind them that practice=mastery of the piece and the opportunity to share it with others.”
You don’t need to try all of these ideas. Just pick one, and make it your own. I think Julia Margaret Nichols said it best,
“I think the important thing for Suzuki parents to remember is that there is no right way to go about this – you have to be patient and try to make it fun, it helps a lot if you are not pressed for time. Also, every child is different, so what works for one child may not work at all for yours – you know your child best, and you can come up with a solution that will get you through each phase with them!”
To sum up, here are the bare bones of these parents’ suggestions:
- Consider the temperament and preferences of your child
- Try rewards like stickers, treats, or outings
- Change things up by switching practice locations or practice partners
- Play favorite pieces every day
- Adjust your language so it is more positive (and be complimentary and positive during the practice session, in a genuine, honest way.)
- Practice multiple times a day, but in shorter durations.
- Keep instruments handy so they can be played if the child suddenly is in the mood
- Frequent performances for friends and family
Do you use any of these methods? Which ones? Which ones are you going to try this week? Share with us in the comments!
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Did you catch the other posts in the Pro Suzuki Parents series?
Part I How Pro Suzuki Parents Get Their Kids to Practice
Part II How do Pro Suzuki Parents Find Time to Practice with Their Kids?
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