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First let me summarize the current situation. We live in the United States east coast. My daughter is six-and-half years old. She started practicing violin two years ago, following the Suzuki method. Now she is in the middle of Book 2 (Gavotte from "Mignon") with other works such as "left hand exercise" and some Etudes of this level. She has a regular weekly 45-minute lesson with a great teacher. She also practices every day except the day of meeting the teacher.

The struggle we are having is the mismatch between her attitude and our expectations. She clearly progresses really fast. She does have some talent according to the teacher. However, it has become more and more challenging for us to keep her practicing. Ideally it should only take 20 minutes every day, but she typically procrastinates until we either bribe her (with ice cream etc.) or threaten her (also with ice cream etc.). Almost in every practice, she will protest by sitting or lying on the floor, dropping her bow, typically for the frustration after making a mistake. Her fundamentals such as bow-hold become more and more sloppy. The no-so-harsh discipline for such misbehaves often causes her shouting or crying, so we need more time to either wait, further discipline, or calm her down. It can take her and the accompanying parent nearly an hour or even longer to finish. We also invite one of her violin friends (another 6-year-old girl) to practice together, or a high school violin girl to tutor her. But after a few times such events are no longer exciting for her.

Here is some other background information. My daughter is doing well at school, both academically and socially. She should have very strong intellectual ability as she can read really fast and has very good memory. But she is very sensitive emotionally. Sometimes her responses to frustrations or disciplines could be very violent, a trait that I can find in my childhood. My wife (her mother) has a very strong Chinese Tiger Mother mentality, emphasizing hard work and perseverance. Mom's attitude towards practicing is really rigorous. Although I am from the same culture and completely understand such a mentality (we are both immigrants), I do not completely agree with Tiger Parenting. Hard working vs. interest/curiosity is a constant debate in our family. Instead, I push on the basic habits such as getting up in time and having manners etc. which her Mom does not really emphasize. Ironically, neither Mom or Dad was forced to do things that they didn't like as a child; Mom plays piano since 10 years old but completely voluntarily. We do not have other musical tradition in the family.

It has been primarily Mom's job to enforce the daily practice until recently. I thought it had been a torture for my daughter crying and lying on the floor with Mom waiting for her to continue practicing, so I asked to replace Mom. I intended to lower the standard, be less rigorous, and make the practice slightly more enjoyable, but, very importantly, to keep her playing. I design games called "music adventure" with hand-drawn cards, so after playing one piece in the practice my daughter can draw a card and then I tell part of a fantasy story related to violin. But I do require her not to sit or lie on the floor as the "only" rule for practicing. I would say that my daughter's attitude is slightly better now, but the procrastination is still quite obvious. I can also foresee that her technique could become worse as I don't really know much about playing instrument or even classical music in general.

My problem probably deserves another post on Parenting.stackexchange.com but I would like to hear from violin players or other parents about any suggestions or ideas. My patience is wearing thin and I am worried about continuing pushing on violin will damage our family and also my daughter's development in a broader scope, especially the mental health. Any suggestion is appreciated!

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    The results of poor technique are discipline enough for even young students, in my experience. They can hear and see when they get it wrong just as well as we can, and they don’t like it any more than we do. Aug 10, 2023 at 11:48
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    You haven't made any mention of asking what she wants or allowing her to quit if she's not having fun. Is there some reason you think her lessons must continue, other than a general expectation of high achievement (which can take many forms)? Aug 10, 2023 at 11:50
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    I didn’t think this is as good a fit here because the real subject of the question is motivation and discipline for a child, which could apply to anything besides music, and the fact that it’s about music practice is incidental. I think one thing working against you is that you and mom are not also playing an instrument and practicing which means you don’t have a chance to model good practice habits. Aug 10, 2023 at 11:52
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    Maybe you should try to learn an instrument with her. Then it will be bonding time instead of boring training time (unless you force her to play the same song over and over, that can get old :')) Guitars are pretty cheap, learn some chords and play...
    – Emil
    Aug 10, 2023 at 18:33
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    Some key information missing: does your daughter express actual interest in playing the violin? Procrastination may have different reasons, but gives a hint. Did you ask her if she wants to continue the classes? Still, I'm afraid this is not the right forum to ask this question. Aug 10, 2023 at 19:04

7 Answers 7

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What is the intention behind forcing your child to play if the child is not motivated to do so? Are you perhaps projecting your own musical ambitions upon your child? You will only ruin the child’s attitude about the instrument.

Learning an instrument only makes sense if your child really want to do it. And sometimes in the life of a child there are more important things, necessary for cognitive, physical or social development and happiness. It is okay to take a break every now or then, and often you might progress much more if you do so.

Remember that a six year old child is after all a six year old child. So instead of trying to find out how to force your child to play, try to find ways to make playing fun and interesting for your child. And for this it is important to not have the child do what you want her to do, but to allow her to take part of the process. Talk to her, discuss what she wants to do, and try to design the practice around that. If your child says ”I do not want to learn this instrument“, respect this. It all might change again with some time. If your child says ”I do want to learn this instrument“ try make the child’s wishes and ambitions work for her, instead of quenching them by countering them with demands.

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    Thank you very much. What you said is pretty much my opinion. Unfortunately Mom has a very different one and it is Mom who has a musical ambition. I am a research mathematician who become so only because of pure curiosity and luck. And I always advocate that. Mom, instead, bases her success on perseverance and hard-working (more traditional Asian Confusian values) and very much disagree with my philosophy. (She is more succesful in certain common standard.) There is a Eastern/Western and Men/Women value clash here. If not for Mom's sake I would never push so hard.
    – UVIR
    Aug 10, 2023 at 14:30
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TLDR in advance: Sure, stop formal violin lessons and practice for now. Maybe try another instrument, or maybe a less formalized approach to musical investigation.

Every day there are things that we need to do but don't want to do. As adults, we've learned to force ourselves to do them (whether you call it "executive functioning," "willpower," or "discipline"). Even then, we don't call on these reserves of self-governance if we can't see a goal or benefit. We go to work to make money, we take medicine to get better. It seems to me that this "discipline," this internal resolve, is fundamental to many Asian perspectives. Martial arts education is very formal and structured, and demands enduring discomfort and rising to challenges, but the goals are clear and visible: belts, titles, championships. Anime heroes like Naruto that show this personal discipline do so because they're personally driven by their goals.

But self-governance is a developmental skill; it's not innate. And as much as we want our children to learn it, children develop at different rates. Also, the entire topic of executive functioning can be more or less challenging for various children. (I feel like Asian cultures are quickly growing more accepting of the idea of neurodiversity, but that acceptance requires modifying some traditional values, like the assumption that there is a single benchmark for everyone, and those who have a harder time meeting it must simply work that much harder.) So for a child to develop "discipline," they must do so at their own pace, and must be able to see a clear goal that matters to them personally, not just be forced.

But there are some matters in which we can't wait for self-motivation and must compel them to do something they don't want to do. This runs the risk of being traumatic, so the importance of compulsion must match the importance of the need. They must go to school, whether they want to or not. They must eat their vegetables, and not eat a gallon of ice cream in a sitting. If the child is injured, we wouldn't hesitate to restrain them while they get stitches.

But even though we music teachers preach that everyone needs music instruction, it's not a "need" that merits traumatizing the child. Music is an "enrichment." Yes, it has very real benefits even to "core subjects" and to the child's overall growth. But much of that benefit comes from the musical study being a positive experience. So an interaction with so little buy-in from the student, and so much compulsion from the parent or teacher, might be more harm than good.

In some cases the child is not absolutely "turned off" to musical learning, and wants to learn or even "wants to" practice but simply needs a little boost of external motivation. I suspect your child isn't in this place, but I'll include this bit for the benefit of others. In this case, I would quite unashamedly recommend "bribery." Set up a system of earnable rewards: maybe each day's practice earns a piece of candy, or a sticker, or a small toy. Maybe logging a certain number of days earns a larger toy. To those who object that this fails to teach "self-discipline," I would suggest that it's merely providing clear external goals that the child can identify. After all, "getting better at playing" or "having ancillary benefit to your academic growth" don't matter at all to the child. This reward system simply mirrors the belt systems adopted by martial arts: Break down your gradual growth into measurable short-term goals and give them symbols that you can see and touch.

But if the musical process has already been too traumatic, the student's resistance might be more than a reward system can overcome. In this case I'd recommend backing off, and trying again later and in different ways. While six is a fine age for lessons, she could try again at eight, or ten, or even twelve, and will have more maturity and self-regulation. Don't worry too much about being "overtaken" in musical studies by her peers; as long as she isn't trying to win the Tchaikovsky competition, all that matters is what she gets out of it. Meanwhile, you can also try starting with a "clean slate" by switching instruments. Sometimes a student "falls in love" with a different instrument and it makes all the difference.

You can also try a completely different learning tradition. Western classical instruments—and most Asian traditional instruments like erhu and pipa—are usually taught mainly by a one-on-one ("master/disciple") structure, with fairly formal expectations ("this is the right note, that is the wrong note") and procedural expectations ("you must practice 20 minutes a day"). Some other instruments and genres, like the folk fiddle traditions of America or the British Isles, or rock and roll, have a completely different system of procedures. Music is learned by listening in a group or by experimenting, and a person grows as quickly or as much as they want to. You might try letting her take a more exploratory approach to music, putting various instruments in the house to "play with," and engaging in some of these communal music-making practices. She would develop a very different set of skills, but not insignificant ones—maybe not so much "self-discipline," but more curiosity and creativity; maybe less instrumental fluency but more musical intuition. And as she explores, she might develop personal interests and goals and be ready again to expand her fluency through focused lessons.

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Just one small point in addition to the many good ones here already…

She's caught like a rabbit in headlights. Someone is watching over her every minute of this practise.
This might really just be performance anxiety - stage fright - but expressed in the terms of a six-year-old.

It might be difficult to transition this - you probably can't trust her to just get on with it on her own - but you can listen through the wall to see if she does.

There's nothing worse than having someone hovering over you whilst you're working.
Personally, I absolutely, utterly hate anyone watching me get it wrong 42 times. I'll play to an audience of any size, from family in the living room to a 40,000-seater auditorium, once I've got it right 42 times. Until then, f… go away. I've had 55 years to get used to this… & it's just not going to happen. Let me get it right first, then I'll show you what I can do, once I'm ready.
Then it becomes the difference between practise and performance.

This would be an exercise in parenting skills - allow yourselves to let go a bit, not be in total control every minute. Relax, put the TV on. Chill a bit. I know it hurts, but you'll get used to it in time.
If she gets on OK in group lessons, then she obviously isn't hating playing… only the current practise regimen. A lot of her kickback you describe is more addressed to you than herself. Let her take it out on herself until she can play that line properly. There'll be less laying on the floor in a tantrum & more 'swearing' at herself; but at the moment her 'performance' to you is a greater drive than her perfection of the part she's trying to learn.
You've become what she's fighting, not the violin.

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  • Thanks! I completely understand your idea and I agree with you. The problem is that Mom does not agree with this (it is about parenting and family though, not violin). If I start to do something as you suggested, Mom will soon worry about the progress and the quality of the practice and would like to take over the practicing job again.
    – UVIR
    Aug 10, 2023 at 17:09
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    Mom needs to understand that this isn't for her benefit, it's for your child's. There's a big difference.
    – Tetsujin
    Aug 10, 2023 at 17:10
  • All children at some time want to take control, they start small but it ends up a contest of wills. Your job is to decide when to let them & when not to. "Dad, I'm going off walking in the mountains for the weekend. See you Monday." …ermmm… nope. "Dad, can I practise on my own a bit instead of being watched all the time?" …sure.
    – Tetsujin
    Aug 10, 2023 at 17:18
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    ... but the student was comfortable with the arrangement and was committed to their own growth. One of the issues with the rhetoric about "quitting" or "giving up" is that the student didn't choose this goal (or, at 6, isn't being offered a realistic chance to reassess a passing fancy). Saying "you can't give up on [an activity that I'm imposing on you]" doesn't build self-discipline, it simply disciplines; it's not unlike a jailer saying "you can't leave this prison... because it builds character." Aug 10, 2023 at 17:25
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    Your last comment - wife seems to be proven wrong here, as it's patently obvious it's not working. 'But we've always done it this way' is a pretty weak ideal. She needs to change her approach. It goes against the grain, and culture, maybe, but if it isn't working - change it. Very opposite to if it ain't broke...
    – Tim
    Aug 11, 2023 at 6:30
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Learning violin means focusing on one thing while a dozen others go wrong. Then you focus on another. After months, later after weeks, things get committed to "muscle memory" and you can focus on different things while the stuff you already got more or less falls apart again.

This is normal. There is nothing more frustrating than some overeager unrealistic parent micromanaging this progress. I would ask the teacher to write a paper for you each week what you are allowed to help with, and stay the bleep away from everything that you aren't explicitly asked to do.

With regard to time management: there may be a point to help your child with scheduling practice hours, making sure that it does have the time slot for practice. Forcing it is not going to help with longterm enjoyment. If your child quits out of frustration (or what is called "silent quitting" in the job world: just going through the moves), the "headstart" you give it by pestering it to do more than anyone else is wasted.

At the moment you seem to be mostly interested in making this a fun experience for the teacher. The teacher, however, is getting paid.

You might want to have a one-on-one talk with the teacher about what you are doing and expecting and how it is registering on your child. Take a printout of your question with you: you don't want to change the story under probing eyes but get an honest assessment.

People are different. I was not one for discipline, ended lessons maybe with 13 or so, got obsessed in private about 17 or so but got into choir instead with 30 and accordion maybe with 45 and now, in my mid-fifties (and after some comparatively benign stroke), have joined some ensemble with the long-neglected violin and was transitioned pretty fast to first violin again. The phase of obsession in private certainly was more responsible than the phase of lack-lustre discipline: my younger brother tried picking up from that point a few years ago and soon stopped again.

So among the two not-going-through-with-it people, I've gotten more of a return.

That's nothing more than an anecdote, but in the end, the one thing that you need for keeping doing something to minor or big success is obsession: inner motivation. You cannot provide that. You can only provide opportunity. And you can ruin stuff, too.

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There's no simple answer.

Violin playing is not a necessary Life Skill, this isn't like making sure she can read, write, handle basic maths. Even a talented six-year-old will need help in maintaining a practice routine and yes, this is the stage where disciplined practice can lead to a top-class musical career - but is that her aim? You could let her coast along and only reach a standard where she can enjoy amateur music-making! Or, like most kids who take music lessons, benefit from the experience but give up when other interests take over.

What does SHE want to do? Is she fighting against the violin, or is she just fighting for a bit of autonomy? You know, 'Land of the Free' and all that?

These lessons aren't a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. She can leave, return later.

Also, you seem to be teaching her that initial bad behaviour will be rewarded!

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    These lessons, right now, may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, reading between the lines. Seems there may well be no second chance. 'You packed it all in, you've blown it'. But at 6yo, there certainly should be other chances, for at least the next 10 yrs! After which, 6yo realises missed opportunities, kicks herself, and pays from her own pocket - making the lessons far more meaningful!
    – Tim
    Aug 10, 2023 at 15:54
  • @Tim not quite sure what point you're trying to make?
    – Laurence
    Aug 12, 2023 at 19:42
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One of the other answers mentions that playing the violin isn't a necessary life skill. I would disagree, in a way. Learning that something which seems impossibly difficult at first can be mastered through persistent hard work, is an extremely valuable life lesson. I would even argue that it is the most important reason to have your children take up a musical instrument.

My parents started me on music school and various other hobbies and pursuits as a child, only to let me drop out after a few months each time, because I wasn't enjoying myself, and I now regret every single one of those decisions.

However, I also understand that there can be a mismatch between the child and the chosen pursuit. Violin is one of those instruments where during the first few years it can be hard to even produce a pleasant tone, let alone play a whole piece that someone would willingly sit through completely. Other instruments have a very different learning curve; even if they are equally difficult to play at the highest level, the first steps are much more pleasant for the player and the people around them. I'm thinking e.g. about the piano or the guitar. These instruments are also great for learning music theory, and can be used in almost every genre of music.

May I humbly suggest that, instead of giving her the option to quit music lessons, you offer her the option to change instrument? Not only can she then choose (with your guidance) something for which the first stage of learning isn't so difficult, but it will also be her own choice (to a degree), and maybe that will help with her motivation.

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Anecdote: I took violin lessons as a child for probably half a year with the father of David Garrett (the latter became a child prodigy after I had already switched teachers). It was no fun and I quit. Obviously David Garrett didn't in a similar situation. I think he must have been 11 or so when I heard a rather brisk rendition of the Bach A minor violin concerto in a church by him which would have put me at 26 years, probably about a dozen years after I had given up with his father as teacher.

I digress: if you read interviews of Garrett about his parental guidance as a child prodigy, it doesn't sound a lot different from the experiences I had with the same teacher. Yet I quit, and he persisted on the hot track, while my own violin play first took to other teachers and then to several long hiatuses, even if coming back time and again.

When reading interviews, Garrett sounds like he was doing what he wanted to do, and being in a drill environment wasn't fun but in the end matched what he wanted himself.

It doesn't sound like that is what is happening with your daughter right now. You are not on the same page as her. And in the end, it is her page where the story of rewards the violin may offer her will be written on.

Like with things like math, a lot more people are drilled with violin than make a career out of it or even just do it for fun. A musical career in 98% of the successful musicians means having to compete hard for a chance to earn a modest income under strenuous conditions. That's for the successful musicians. Not ending there usually is making life a lot easier. So if your daughter's desire does not carry, are you doing her a favor?

One thing I have to admit has been beneficial for me is that I kept the instruments I stopped playing and so have been able to revive the interest when it became active again. That won't work for your daughter, obviously, unless there is a grown-up instrument of enjoyable playing quality that will at some point be a comparatively straightforward choice to pass down in the family.

I am grateful that I had that luxury to fall back on.

So how do you keep your daughter's options open as well as giving her a reasonable choice in choosing and prioritising what is fun to her?

No stock answer I am afraid.

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