"Always keep in mind that the goal of practice is to make things easier. When the goal of practice is to "fix things," then a child's performance tends to be limited to a hope that all the things you fixed stay fixed- not a set-up likely to give a child's musical soul the freedom it needs to emerge. ...
But if you focus practice on making things easier, the child can gradually begin to assume full ownership."
~Edmund Sprunger, Psychotherapist and a leader of the modern Suzuki movement in America, in Helping Parents Practice
I have a confession to make. My job as music teacher is roughly a zillion times easier than the job of the parent or home practice partner. This is particularly true when the child is under age 8 or 9, but I feel it applies just about up to the point when the kid either wins a symphony gig or starts a rock band.... at which time they are technically a colleague, not a student, and I'm probably retired and living in Bermuda.
The parent helping the child learn to practice at home is in it for the long run. They are responsible for incorporating advice from their teacher on how to keep practicing when the honeymoon is over (often after around 9 months to a year of study). They usually have to invest as much in practicing as their child does, but they don't emerge with the magical gift of music. They have to closely study their child to continually find ways to encourage and support them. They listen to a million iterations of the same song, keep track of each new challenge and technique, play the same CDs over and over. And over.
So it's with deep respect for the role of the parent that I pass along the strength of the idea in the above quote:
The best goal of practice is to give each child the ability not just to play, but to play with ease & freedom.
Now, I'm sure some of you are thinking 'Well, duh!' Of course I want my kid to play musically and freely, but the teacher gives us these nitpicky little things to improve every week. The genius of ease-centered practice is in focusing the child on something positive- something they can do. We so often get stuck in clean-up, fix-it don't-do-that mode. "That was out of tune," "Your wrist is collapsing again," "You're rushing through that song," "Don't put your thumb there."
Phrases that support easy playing are:
"Let's try that scale and see if all your fingers can find their spots three times in a row without any reminders from you (sliding fingers around or fumbling between fingers),"
"You really changed how you moved your wrist in your lesson this week. It looked so comfortable. Can you show me what you and Teacher Fran were doing?"
"It sounds so beautiful when you play it nice and steady. Can I try walking (stomping!) to your song this time?"
"Can you show me how much bow you like to use in that part of the song?"
"Can you smile while you play that?"
"Can you play it even if I make silly faces?"
"Did that feel as easy as ______?"
"Let's sing it, and then play it. (Parents, sing loud and proud- no critics here.) Did playing it feel easy as singing?"
This goal of Ease goes beyond just getting through a tune without technical errors. It's something the best professional musicians regularly practice. One of the most incredible violinists and teachers I know is David Perry, sought-after soloist and member of the Pro Arte Quartet. (Really- just listen to him here and then go out and buy anything he records immediately.) In a coaching once he told me something I've often thought of since. "You're playing the notes in this passage, and I can see you've practiced. It just doesn't sound like you've forgotten yet that it was ever hard." Really, that is the essence of great performances. Not only are the skills demonstrated and the notes logged in, but they seem as easy as the air we breathe for the truly fantastic, expressive musician.
"Music is an outburst of the soul." ~Frederick Delius (1862-1934), American Composer
This mind set is particularly enlightening to parents of students in the first six months of playing. I have been asked by a handful of parents something along the lines of, "But why does it matter if her pinkie is curved? Is it really so important that she not turn her head to look directly over at her violin hand? Isn't it enough that she can play all the notes of Perpetual Motion? Don't these details take the fun out of learning an instrument?"
When true ease of expression in playing is the goal, long term perspective is achieved. That helps clarify why teachers have such a long list of things to learn even in the earliest tunes, and why we get so excited about the beginning student's set-up. Posture and basic technique including hand positions & muscle control contribute greatly to ease of playing. To be honest, an untrained ear & eye may not always notice a difference in the simplest early pieces. However, it's never long before weaknesses of form will hold a player back. It's "cheaper" to help a musician get a rock solid technical foundation in the basic tunes. Trying to get it together just enough to squeak through a more advanced piece when bad habits are fully entrenched is more frustrating to the student in the long run.
In addition to changing the way you approach practice, there is one sure-fire key to ease of playing: Repetition (repetition, repetition, repetition etc. ad nauseum). There's so much to say on this that I'll leave it for another series of posts, but you have probably noticed even from the first lessons how much your teacher emphasizes this. Knowing how and exactly what to repeat is an art, and we'll spend time discussing it soon.
Knowledge is not skill. Knowledge plus ten thousand times is skill. ~Shinichi Suzuki
One final thought on the art of practicing to make playing easier and practicing for ease of playing. This involves great trust of your teacher and belief that the things they are asking you to focus on as a team are the best next steps. Parents who support their child's idea that the teacher is an expert consultant are more successful in bringing the best practice out of that child. The parent is a partner and team member, able to help the kid remember what works best and help them use the teacher's advice to the utmost. This approach can be helpful in diffusing practice resistance, especially when a child is already exploring independence (a.k.a. button pushing 101). It moves responsibility to the child, yet gives them strong support.
In addition to the series on repetition in music practice, I'll write more in another post about tools for transferring responsibility to your child and encouraging them to evaluate their own work.
Helping Parents Practice by Edmund Sprunger
Nurtured by Love by Shinichi Suzuki