Adding Fuel to your Practice Parent Engine
By Kamini LaRusso. Transcript from 2019 Suzuki Association of the Americas: “Parents as Partners Videos”
Hello! My name is Kamini LaRusso. I live in Minneapolis, MN. I am a Suzuki Violin teacher and an Assistant Director in our Suzuki program at the MacPhail Center for Music. I am also the practice parent to my 11 year old daughter and 5 year old son. I am happy to share my thoughts about “what I know now as a Suzuki parent” from my perspective as a practice partner (sprinkled with bits as a teacher and administrator).
I admit, some days, after both kids have completed their practice sessions, and we have listened to the recordings, I feel a sense of relief. Some days, I wish I could enter into an arena where the crowd is cheering, and I mount a podium and receive my “practice parent of the day” trophy, and the crowd goes wild! I think the biggest surprise to me in the practice partner role is how much work it is! Some days it is frustrating, grueling, tiring and tedious. Some days it is easy, productive, inspiring, rewarding and fun!
As a practice parent we are tasked with helping our children on this musical journey. You may ask yourself often, how can I keep going or is it worth it?
It is so easy to get lost in the trees and detour down paths of comparison, which piece are you performing on the recital, which book are you in, who sits first chair, who was chosen to perform in the honors recital. Honestly, when you are 40 years old and you mention to someone you play an instrument, I have never met anyone who asks “How old were you when you finished book one?”
To keep my practice parent engine tuned and humming at a steady pace through the ups and downs of the road, I try to be consistent about a few main points each day. I try to keep in mind Dr. Suzuki’s long range goal: to develop children with good character, noble hearts and a love of the learning process through the study of a musical instrument.
Here are my day to day strategies that help me keep fueled with this long range vision in mind, you probably use many of these, and maybe you’ll try a few and see if they work for your family.
It has helped us to set our priorities in our family and share these with our children, so that we are on the same page as we schedule our collective time.
In our family, we intend to put school work and educational activities as number one. Followed by time with family and friends, violin and sports practices, and then the rest of life. With two working parents, lots of family and friends in town, and a block filled with children – there can be many ways to pull us away from our intended actions. As you all know – life is full!
For this reason, having a set schedule to practice and listen helps organize us. On the occasions when conflicts may come up – soccer tournaments, family or friends visiting, student council meetings – we try to re-evaluate when we will practice in the days before the event happens. That way it does not be-come a conflict in the moment. This also avoids us getting deterred from our practice by the day’s events. In preparing to talk to you all, my daughter shared that she likes that we help her find time for homework and violin practice in a way that it does not interfere with other choices. For example, this past Sunday, she was planning to go rock climbing with her aunt and uncle as a belated birthday present from 10:00-1:30, and she had a soccer practice from 2:30-4:30, and as a family we wanted to decorate our Christmas tree. I asked her on Wednesday, when she wanted to practice that day. My preference was first thing in the morning when she was fresh, but she chose after dinner. Involving her in the decision as she gets older works nicely to also avoid arguments and eye-rolling :).
We also take violin holidays, with the blessing of our teacher. We typically take a few days off at winter holiday time, in the summer, and a few days at spring break. These are planned violin holidays. The best part is there is no guilt is associated for anyone in the family! Sometimes it seems like skills have gelled in the brain and body when we return from a holiday, and things seem easier and refreshed.
During high soccer season for my daughter, we understand that we may not have as much time to practice, so we try to be extra efficient with our time. And then when we are not running here and there from sports practices and games, we are more relaxed in our practice time – taking breaks and chatting.
The below routines, are probably familiar to you. They keep me fueled, so I will share them as well.
Practice Time Routine
I try to be consistent about what time of day we will practice and listen. This varies for weekdays versus weekends. I find it is easier to be consistent on the weekdays then it is on the weekends for our family. Of course, every family has a different schedule, this is what works for us. It may not work for your family. For my five year old, we practice at 6:30 am on weekdays. We typically need to leave the house by 7:10 am. We are morning people so this works for us. My son finishes breakfast, and we begin. On the weekends we start a bit later – after his hour of coveted to time and breakfast. For my 11 year old, we practice in the after school on weekdays. She often comes home and has a snack, and then we begin. On the weekends, we tend to practice after dinner, since the days are filled with sports games, group classes, orchestra rehearsals and birthday parties.
With a set routine, it helps my kids and I know this is the time we will practice. This avoids the argument or the need to negotiate each day. It also helps my husband know when he can help us out by playing or hanging out with the other child, and letting us have our focused practice time together.
Listening Time Routine
For my five year old, we listen on the way to and from his preschool each day – about a 12-15 minute drive, so we can hear almost all of book one two times a day. For my eleven year old, she listens in her room at night while reading, and I listen in my car ride to work. When she was younger we would listen together in the car, however, now she is at the age where being in your room alone and listening to the recordings feels super grown up.
Our teacher calls things you do every day in a practice session “vitamins.” For example, tonalization, scales, arpeggios, note-reading, sight reading, and review. We try to fit these vitamins into our practice sessions. On most days we also fit in the working and new piece work. On days when we are crunched for time, we often do not fit in the new piece work.
I have tried purposefully to stick to always reviewing what we know. We enjoy the review – this is the part most kids like because they get to play their instrument! Choose one thing to focus on – excellent bow hold, scroll pointing at the lamp, stuffed animal on their head for a tall posture, etc. and encourage them to enjoy playing their instrument. This is what professional musicians do – they add details to pieces they know well!
Performance Practice Routine
We try to take time in every practice to play our review and working pieces from start to finish without an interruption – this helps with flow, and it is literally performance practice – a whole other topic! We talk about what we want to share about the piece of music with ourselves, our listeners and the audience. After the piece is played, we can take time to talk about whether this was accomplished, and what we can do to bring the tone to life.
Revisit Suzuki Philosophy and Approach
We use an article called the Suzuki Twinkler in our program – it is an overview of the Suzuki philosophy and approach. The Suzuki Association of the Americas has a link to “About the Suzuki Method” under the “Parents” heading that would also work well. I have this taped into my children’s practice note-books for me to see each day. I try to talk about one aspect of the philosophy or approach in each practice to keep us focused. It can be as simple as reviewing the other children’s names in their group class to remind them of their friends and the other kids they have been in the program with for years.
Use the Teachers Words and Actions
Try to jot down the words the teacher uses to describe teaching points, use these in your home practice to link the lesson to the home practice. It also helps your child prepare to take over their own practice when they recognize how you are taking notes and revisiting them from week to week. It can also make you feel like things are “working!”
Identify the Process
Take time to write down little phrases and exclamations the teacher says in the lesson about progress from week to week. “Amazing! You taught your body to stand up so tall so that the violin can sing on each note.” Or “I love your choice of bow division, it is helping the musical sentences be clear.” Write these down and review them with your child at home. Talk about the successes and the struggles, the amount of repetitions, and why those spots ended up working. When you identify what went well, it leaves an opening to add the next layer. “Wow! You really organized your trills and they are much clearer. Let’s add in the next step to deepen the tone.” This avoids us always highlighting what needs to be “fixed.” Identifying the process has wonderful long lasting effects to enjoy the different layers of learning.
Reflect with Family and Friends
Talk about the highs and lows with your family and friends. Laugh about the funny times, vent about the hardships, it is okay! It is human. Try to link it back to developing character. I actually find most of-ten when I reflect, our hardships in practice are my fault. I am rushing. I am using a checklist in my mind. I am not hearing what they are saying. I am not reading their body language, or I am too tired! Be sure to include your other family members in the reflections, this allows them to be a champion of the musical experience as well. If we only include them on the negative aspects of the lessons and practice, this shapes their outlook to only be negative. Have your child play pieces for them and identify what they are working on, encourage them to attend recitals and performances, and share in your enthusiasm for major accomplishment like book graduations!
Use your Suzuki language
Take your newly acquired Suzuki music language out for a spin. Compliment other children and parents at recitals and workshops – notice some of the skills you have worked on in pieces, and identify when they do it well. “I enjoyed hearing your dynamics in the piece, I could really hear the beautiful soft spots.” “Your performance was beautiful, it made me smile to hear your strong accents.” When parents and kids share these types of reflections with my kids and me, we feel so connected and successful!
Connect with your private studio teacher regularly
Try to connect with your private studio teacher about your children’s life events, moods, developmental changes, progress in school, friendships. These connection points help your studio teacher to under-stand what is happening in your child’s life. Your teacher has signed up to be a significant adult in their life that is deeply committed to their character and ability development. When you share with your teacher, this also helps you to deepen your trust in the teacher’s experience, professionalism and perspective.
Depending on which holidays you celebrate in your family – At Halloween time have your child wear their costume for a few practices and utilize the character to bring different emotions to your practice. At Christmas time they can wear a Santa hat to inspire tall posture, on Valentine’s Day they can play like you are in love, and on their birthday they can try playing the pieces like they did when they were 3 years old and six years old, and how they will sound when they are nineteen years old.
I hope these ideas will add some fuel to your practice parent engine. You are giving your children a great gift by investing a Suzuki approach into their lives and future. Thank you for all you do! Thank you for listening to me share.