How can you talk to your child in a way that helps them have productive practice sessions? This blog post is for any parent whose child takes music lessons (or lessons of any sort!).
By using the Praise Sandwich, avoiding judgemental and obligatory words, and utilizing awareness and problem-solving questions, you can help your child get the most out of their practice sessions.
Once you start to apply some of the ideas in this article, you'll see your child's engagement, enjoyment, and productivity in music practice go through the roof. You may even want to apply some of these ideas outside of practice sessions.
Use The Praise Sandwich
In the 1970s, Relationship expert John Gottman's research revealed a means of predicting a relationship's success. For a marriage to thrive, partners must have a 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative interactions.
While we do not have research regarding child-parent interactions, it's safe to assume that children also benefit from more praise than criticism.
Because of this, finding a way to critique your child without overwhelming them is essential. This is made more difficult because it's easier to find a criticism than a compliment.
Enter the praise sandwich!
The Praise Sandwich is a simple construction. Do your best to sandwich any criticism of your child with praise. This is done by starting with a positive aspect of their playing, then giving a critique, and ending with a different positive aspect of their playing.
Here's an excellent example:
"You did a great job making sure that you played the note D with your third finger. I thought you could have played a little bit louder in the Forte section. Your posture was fantastic."
Here's an acceptable example:
"You did a great job. I thought you could have played a little louder in the forte section. I really liked it"
Note the difference between these two examples. In the first example, every element is actionable. Your child will understand that they did a good job with their third finger and that they should continue doing that. They will also pay more attention to the forte section and do their best to make it louder. Finally, the child will understand that their posture was correct (they may have wondered how it was but weren't sure!).
The second example is better than criticism alone. However, it could be much more effective. Note that the praise on both ends is effectively the same. It's simply feedback that the child did a good job. Ideally, there are two unique elements of praise in a praise sandwich. Also problematic is that the praise is unspecific and, consequently, non-actionable.
Note that the criticism in the second example remains specific. It is effortless to think of specific criticism and very difficult to think of specific praise. This ability is a skill that is developed.
One "hack" that can help avoid ambiguous praise is to use the human penchant to find specific criticism and turn it on its head. Recall something that your child used to struggle with and tell them that they are doing well with it.
While the praise sandwich is an effective way to get a critique across without demoralizing your child, you will need to limit its use and vary it slightly to make sure it remains effective. If you use this every single time you communicate with your child, they will catch on. Sometimes you might praise twice in a row and critique at the end. And, of course, there will be times where a practice session is going so well that they will be able to take a critique without any praise. Use your own judgment as a parent to hone your skills with this.
Avoid Judgemental Words
Judgemental words, such as "bad, good, wrong, right," are primarily moral judgment words. We use them when talking about dictators, liberators, heroes, and villains. We use them when we want to teach our children our values and how to behave in the world.
Of course, these words are also occasionally used to assess the quality of an action. For example, "That was a really good performance!". However, there are two problems that we run into when using this language:
First, the bridge between "That was a bad performance" and "I am a bad guitarist" is a short one, especially for a child. This can lead to an incredibly negative feedback loop, resulting in stage-fright, frustration with practice, and hopelessness.
Second, these words are usually used in a short-hand way that contains no actionable feedback. A student can't improve if they don't know what to improve; "That wasn't very good, play it again" doesn't help them solve anything.
Try to find words that more accurately describe the situation. For example, in early 2020, I made it my goal to eliminate "wrong note" from my teaching vocabulary (one of my most frequent violations of this guideline). After talking with some other teachers, I came up with several alternatives. With a thesaurus in hand, I expanded the list:
Instead of "Wrong Note"
- Surprise note
- Different note
- Other (that note was something other than…)
- Unexpected Note
- Out of the blue
- Alien note
- Improvised note
- Uninvited note
Students also tend to say, "that was bad." It's also common to say, "That play-through wasn't very good. Here are a few alternate options.
- Replace “bad/not good” with
- below standard
- problematic (good for posture/positioning)
- Ask the child to self-assess. Follow up with "what could we do to make it better?"
- Ask, "I wonder what would happen if we…?
You may also want to minimize words like "good," as your child will readily assume it's the opposite ("bad"). Words like ideal and optimal are good replacements, and flawless may work in a pinch.
Keeping in mind the directive to give actionable feedback (both positive and negative) will also help you avoid these general-use, moralizing words.
Avoid Words of Obligation
Words and phrases like "should," "need to," "have to," and "must" are directives that both limit your child's opportunities for self-discovery and make them dependent on the parent or teacher for both corrective guidance and advancement. Furthermore, they stifle creativity. They also tend to be linguistic short-cuts that limit a parent or teacher's obligation to clarify the reasoning behind such actions.
Learning to play an instrument is both a physical task and an intellectual one. Certainly, there are guidelines for posture, technique, and musicality. Some guidelines are more strict; others have a broader scope.
For your child to discover how to operate comfortably and confidently within these guidelines, they will require the freedom to figure out how it feels in their body when they accurately execute the task at hand. This freedom of discovery creates a joyful atmosphere that will permeate their playing.
Let us consider the physical and musical aspects of practice separately.
Instead of "(you should) sit up straight!" (or similar posture/positioning issues), try some of the following:
- "Words are not the best tool for motor learning. Sensations are." (Iznaola 51). Help your child feel what the correct posture/position feels like and how to achieve it by holding your hand or finger above their head and asking them to move so that their head touches your finger.
- A similar and common issue, especially among younger children's parents: Avoid moving your child's body for them! Teach them to move it for themselves using the above point.
- Ask them questions to guide them into the correct position.
- How does your hand feel?
- Do your fingers feel strong?
- Have them play a "Fix It" sandwich.
- This will help them develop an awareness of how both positions feel and know when they're doing which.
- Play with best possible posture/position
- Play with the worst possible posture/position
- Repeat with the best possible posture/position.
Ideally, your teacher has explained to them why certain postures and positions are superior. These explanations shouldn't go too far in-depth until the child is quite advanced. I tend to use the "Cursive" explanation (the old "You'll only be allowed to write in cursive in high school"), something along the lines of "Yes, you can play this song sitting like that. But we're using this song to get ready for a harder song. And you can't play that harder song like that."
Compare the above example to "You need to sit up straight." Any reasonable person, child or adult, will ask "Why?" (even if they don't say it outright). I've always found my students respond more positively when I respect their "adult" mind; Their ability to reason, and their need for a rational, as well as the validity of their curiosity (look out for over-explaining, though!).
Musicality is things like dynamics (volume levels), timbre, tempo (what speed to play at), tempo manipulation (increasing or decreasing speed while playing), and pulse (aka meter).
Musicality is a personal choice. High levels of musicality are personal choices informed by experience and exposure to good musicians and good training. This is where words of obligation are really problematic, as they truly squash creativity and make it seem like there is only "one true way" to perform a piece.
Ideally, the teacher has given a clear idea about how they want a piece performed (and, as a student progresses, explain why, and make the child aware of some viable alternative interpretations). Your job as a parent is to reinforce the musical idea the teacher is asking for.
If your child's musicality is below the standard your teacher is asking for, you can guide your child's attention towards that element rather than tell them what to do. If you suspect they completely forget, you ask, "Do you remember what dynamic level Mr. Teacher wants you to play this part at?" You could also ask something simple, such as "How were your dynamics?".
The following two sections, Develop Awareness and Encourage Problem Solving, will give more examples. You can also find ideas for directing attention under the "Attention" section of this article on games you can use to improve your practice sessions.
There is a Buddhist saying that says, "First comes confusion. Then comes awareness. Then comes enlightenment". Your child will begin their lessons with no knowledge of the instrument. It is the teacher and the parent's job to smoothly move the child from a state of confusion and doubt to a place of awareness.
In Summa Kitharologica, Vol. 1, virtuoso guitarist and noted pedagogue Ricardio Iznaola said, "The student's path to mastery in the art of playing is, more often than not, filled with conflict, doubt, and ambiguity. This tension, if left unresolved, creates a self-perpetuating vicious circle in which inner tension gives rise to Outer tensions that, in turn, increase the level of internal turmoil, and so on per aeternum. The applied music teacher's first responsibility is the elimination of this vicious cycle and its substitution with a virtuous one" (50).
Ask questions! Remember the 6 Ws of Journalism? Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why. We're going to use some of those.
Note that many of these questions can be phrased both in the past tense (i.e., "What happened when you just played through this") and in the future tense (i.e., "After you play through this, please tell me what happened when). Note that both are useful, but a child who is only beginning to develop awareness will likely be unable to answer a past-tense question. However, they'll likely play through it again with a special focus on being able to answer the question.
Also, note that accurate recall only comes after physical awareness has been developed and performance standards have been understood. In short, accurate answers probably won't come for a while. Fortunately, our primary goal here is to guide the child's attention rather than ensure accurate recall.
Here are a few examples. Note that these primarily focus on developing your child's awareness of what they did:
- Notes/fingers were unexpected?
- Speed/volume (tempo/dynamics) did you play at?
- When did you
- Move your hands/change your posture?
- Change musical element (tempo/dynamics)?
- Was your hand/head/arm?
- Did you play an unexpected note/a different dynamic, etc.?
- How does it ____ when you…?
- Was it so loud/soft, fast/slow?
- Did you miss the note?
- Is this more ideal than that?
- Is it tricky?
Encourage Problem Solving
The why of this one should be obvious. I have a hard time imagining that this is a skill that we wouldn't want children to understand. After all, it is a teacher's job (and, to some extent, parents) to make themselves obsolete!
In short, we want your child to be able to solve problems and find answers by integrating information and skills, exploring a new problem, and engaging their curiosity and creativity to find a solution.
We're going to go back to the Six Ws again (who, what, when, where, how, and why). This time, we'll focus on using guiding questions that explore different possibilities. You can even occasionally use some bizarre suggestions to keep your child on their toes, keep practice light-hearted, and get a laugh.
- Happens if you put your hand/elbow/head/arm?
- Is your plan to play louder/faster, etc.?
- Will you think about (begin to prepare) the movement/musical change?
- Is an ideal/problematic place to put your hand/arm/etc.?
- will you prepare to move/play...?
Following these guidelines is a great first step for ensuring that your language allows your child to explore music with the positive reinforcement that will bring joy to your practice sessions together.
If you have any questions, leave a comment below!
Iznaola, Ricardo. Summa Kitharologica, Vol. 1 Physiology of Guitar Playing: Functional Anatomy and Physiomechanics. Mel Bay, 2013.