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The Empathetic Practice Coach

Practice room frustrations. Arguments. Irritable reactions that seem to spring up from nowhere. These are real challenges that many face when encouraging young musicians to practice this piece, that technique, this many times, and in that manner. Sometimes it seems like these battles are unwinnable, but it's important to consider that it is the response of the parent which often determines exactly how these interactions will develop.

Young Musician

In this month's Suzuki Association of the Americas journal, there was a wonderful article by Alan Duncan which talked about empathy as a skill that we can actively learn and employ to help navigate these tricky situations. He outlines a couple of techniques which I think would be helpful for many parents of Suzuki students.

Imagine a scenario in which during a practice session, your young pianist or guitarist is working on a new tricky technique and struggling a bit. After s/he tries several times, you notice a furrowed brow and a decidedly less...erm... patient approach to the piece. Rather than simply pushing the young musician to "just keep trying," now might be a good time make an observation such as, "You seem like you're frustrated with this piece."

This opens up the chance for your child to say, "Yes! I can't get my 2nd finger to do xyz." Or "You're asking me to do this over and over again, but I can't get it right."

At this point, it's important to really listen to what your child is actually saying. Is frustration developing because the demands of the piece are too much, or that s/he feels pressured to immediate perfection or pressured to please you but unsure how to do so?

This can also be a good time to name the emotion by saying something like, "I can see how you might feel helpless, because this is such a hard thing to learn." Or "I can see how it might be frustrating and even make you a little sad if you feel like I'm expecting the impossible from you, and not being clear about how you should even do it."

Now, this is where you have an opportunity to empathize and provide a couple of acceptable options. You can say something like, "This is a hard technique to master, and it probably won't happen overnight, but it's awesome that you're working on it. Would you like to keep at it a bit more or move on to something different?" You can recognize the struggle they're experiencing, praise them for their work so far if you think it won't further upset them, and offer a choice where either option results in a desired outcome.

It's important that we don't push children so far that they grow to hate what they're working on! Empathetic responses can go a long way in this regard. There will always be good days and challenging days when learning piano or guitar, or how to read music, but that doesn't mean that we should let every tough day turn into tears of frustration, slamming the instrument down, and arguing with family members! Challenging days are a great way to learn perseverance and mindfulness. Simply put, it's days like these that teach us all more than what we're trying to learn.

Sheet music

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