How to help music beginners, by Sue Hunt, Music in Practice.
Twice with the helper and once alone.

I love working with beginners.  It is fascinating to watch them develop into gifted young adults, but when my own children were Suzuki students, I found out how tricky it can be, to help them.

Here are some of my favourite ways of making it easier teachers and parents to win the cooperation of a young beginner.

•  I’m a big girl. I can do it myself!

We program our children to be independent from an early age.  “Be a big boy and do up your own shoes,” or  “Oh look, she’s feeding herself, just like a grownup!”  A child can see it as a big step backwards to accept help.  Of course it’s all part of growing up, but it certainly gets in the way, when you are trying to help beginners with the truly complicated task of learning to play an instrument.

•  How can an inexperienced child know what’s best?

In everyday life, there are many things which a parent decides and does for a small child.  It gives their lives structure and happy security.  Allowing children to take on too much responsibility is very stressful for them.  With age, the child will learn to take on responsibility, but this is a long term process.  Help music beginners by taking charge.

•  As in everyday life, many tasks are the foundation for future playing technique and just have to be done correctly.

A small child will not have the maturity to work at getting it right and must therefore be helped.  Even though you are helping with the big things, it is a very good idea to set a DIY Practice Task at every lesson.  A lucky dip game will help young beginners feel in charge of what task to do.

•  Twice with the helper and once alone.

In my studio we have a practice rule to help beginners.  The parent helps to pattern a skill twice, then the child does it alone.  I make a big point of praising the child’s focus and the work that went into the performance, before praising the result.  You have to be careful here, as a child will probably know deep inside if you are being honest.  I give hints like,  “How did your elbow do that?” or,  “What are we going to remind your eyes to do?” or perhaps,  “Is violin thumb finding it easier to stay soft?”  Questions like this are non judgemental and safer than growling,  “More focus.  Eyes on the bow spot!”

•  Keep it simple.

Some kids have trouble staying switched on during patterning.  Keep it simple, help beginners by giving them one little tiny point to notice and reproduce.  Again, ask questions to engage them in the process, without focussing too much on their success.

•  Mummy’s job.

It is much easier for me to help beginners in a lesson than it is for the parent at home.  Firstly, I don’t have an emotional relationship with the child, as I only see them once or twice a week.  Secondly, after a period of observation, most children have realised that my job in the lesson is to help them.

If practice is stressful at home, we have a little conversation about Mummy’s job.  I tell the child that it is Mummy’s job to give them specific help during the practice.  We talk about how a good boss treats his workers.  Generally, we come to an agreement that the child will thank Mum for doing a good job.  If however, she doesn’t do her job, I ask the child to phone me.  I have yet to receive that phone call.

•  Teamwork.

This is the big one!  In order to demonstrate their “Good Teamwork,” I get children to work together with parents in the lesson.  It helps if a family knows that they can be called on to demonstrate their teamwork at every lesson.  Sometimes I will call for a wordless demonstration.  The only thing that the parent is allowed to say is a rhythmic,  “Wait, wait, ready, play!”  This often calms things down when everyone is getting frustrated.  We always end the session with “Congratulations, you make a good team!”

I hope that these suggestions will help your young beginners to practice more happily and to keep you sane at the same time.


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