Suzuki Sunday: Focus

Focusing is one of the hardest things to teach a student, especially a young one.  Some children are naturally focused, concentrating on a puzzle until every piece is fitted in or staying up late to complete a homework assignment that they can't bear to leave unfinished.  But many more are unfocused, changing course mid-activity or mid-sentence to something completely different.

Much has been said about the negative influence of multimedia, but I think it bears repeating; our lives are measured in short, colorful, attention-grabbing bursts.  TV commercials interrupt the plotlines of programs every few minutes; even when we check our e-mail, we are bombarded with the latest news headlines and dancing, migraine-inducing advertisements.  Even seemingly innocuous media is suspect; a good friend of mine, raised in the Middle East, commented that she was amazed by children's books from the United States.  Very few of them contain actual plot; instead, they are collections of images and concepts, almost like flashcards.  One might illustrate different colors; another, animals or vehicles or a collection of everyday objects beginning with a certain letter.  "No wonder so many children suffer from attention problems!" she said.

We can't change the world in one day, but we can change ourselves, if we are up to the challenge.  Here are five ways to cultivate focus in your child:

1. Make sure you are focused first. If you are too busy with the telephone, the computer, or your own concerns to focus fully on the budding musicians in your household, what kind of a message must that send?  The first step is to ensure you are ready to practice.  If necessary, brew a cup of tea or coffee or do a simple, mindless activity that will calm and center you.  Your demeanor and attitude are extremely contagious, so if you are calm and kind, your children will emulate that.  If your attention wanders during practice, they will emulate that, too.

2. Ensure the child's posture is correct. When a student has trouble keeping her feet still at the lesson, I can be fairly certain she is not using a foot support at home; almost every one of my students should be sitting and propping her feet up on something in order to maintain the 90-degree angles which are ideal to practice posture.  Many studies have proved that when we relax our posture, we relax our attitudes, and not in a good way; we don't take music as seriously while we're casually slouching on the piano bench.

3. Be patient. I very frequently find that parents are overly eager to speed up the lesson, telling their children to stop asking questions or commenting on the pictures on my cards.  The truth is that their many questions and comments are actually helping them to learn; they are connecting with the pieces in the only way that they know how.  I allow them to clear their minds by talking the thoughts out, while taking care not to allow those thoughts to divert the lesson away from its main purpose.  I try to listen first, indicate I have understood, them, and then move on with the lesson.  Obviously, you know which of your children are prone to procrastination and stalling, but do allow them an extra measure of mercy; they may be helping to ensure their knowledge is retained for a long time.

4. Remain calm. A power struggle ends with two losing parties; the child is humiliated and embarrassed, while the parent has lost his opportunity to teach.  Controlling with force is sometimes necessary in parenthood, but very rarely (if ever) in piano practice!  If you speak softly, your child will have to concentrate to hear you, and if you wait for silence and stillness before you do so, they will be ready to accept your instruction.  This is my ultimate goal in teaching: to help the child learn to control herself.

5. Take one step at a time. Focusing is hard work; you may need to work up to an entire practice session.  For small children, practice "rest position" while counting slowly, starting with the child's age: for a four-year-old, place the feet and hands in position, and then slowly count: one . . . two . . . three . . . four.  Give lots of praise if the child focuses during one repetition, then ask, "Can you do that again?"  Gradually, you'll find that slower but more focused practice is the most effective and rewarding.

May you find calm in your music.