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5 Practice Points for the Parent Coach

Support, Direct, Nurture.

In creating Parents Can Coach, these are the 3 areas in which I see the parent growing in his or her role as the home coach.

These are broad concepts. What does it mean, exactly, to support your child in learning music? Does being nurturing mean having to be gentle and patient all the time? What can we do to lend direction - beyond pointing our child towards the instrument with an order to "Go practise"?

Have you ever noticed how a music teacher teaches a student to play with better posture or to improve his intonation? The teacher breaks it down into smaller actions and chooses one to focus on during the lesson. This could be getting the child to sit tall before starting on each piece. It could be placing the fingers on the string and checking first for a ringing tone before bowing the note.

Likewise, learning how to be both parent and coach to our child can be broken down into smaller, specific practice points. This directs our focus and awareness on doing one thing at a time - and doing it well. Have you heard the phrase by Dr Suzuki that "Knowledge plus ten thousand times is skill", whereby it is the conscious repetition of carrying out an action 10,000 times until it becomes innate? Well, it doesn't only apply to playing repetitions in music practice!

Here are 5 practice points for the Parent Coach in learning what it means to support and nurture your child both in and beyond the music lesson:

(1) Practise Showing Up

Well, having embraced the Suzuki approach to music education, the parent technically can't not show up for music lessons. What I really mean here is to practise recognising the privilege in being required to show up.

Back in 2013 when our family started on the Early Childhood Education (ECE) programme, two months into walking in circles to the beat of the lollipop drum, I started entertaining thoughts of switching to another music school that offered a drop-off programme. After all, which parent isn't in need of a coffee break while other adults provide an hour of childcare? What made me stay was the decision to focus on seeing parent-accompanied lessons as an opportunity to participate in living in the present with my child. I recognise that this is not necessarily easy nor enjoyable all the time. But it is what your child remembers most - you being there. I am partly horrified that the girls barely remember the rhymes and actions that we repeated over a cumulative 6 years of ECE classes but wholly hopeful that what they takeaway most is the belief that they are worth spending time with.

This is not to say that parents who drop their kids off for class aren't showing up for them. I drop the girls off for other classes (and happily go shopping), or for that matter - for hours at primary school and childcare! This is why being asked to be with my children in their music lesson is special - because I can.

(2) Practise Being Present

Pay attention, stay focused. How often do we find ourselves demanding this of our child? To some of us, this could be a reason why we send our child for music lessons - to build focus. While our child works on learning how to concentrate in class, we have the opportunity to grow our understanding and build the relationship with our child by practising being present.

Practise being present to how he puts effort into keeping his fingers curved. Practise noticing how he concentrates on carefully rolling that curved finger forward to get that long note. Practise really hearing that long note. Practise clapping when his teacher praises him for playing that long note so beautifully. Practise acknowledging what he went through in meeting the challenge put to him and the triumph that ensued. Practise remembering that he did pay attention and that he did focus in class - even if it was for that one thing. Practise telling him how important that is to you.

(3) Practise Learning from the Teacher

Beyond providing professional instruction, your child's music teacher is a treasure trove of good learning habits, effective child development strategies, fun practice ideas and positive language that you can glean from and try at home.

For me, learning how to give praise and positive feedback was one of the most challenging things in being a practice parent. It is also one of the most fulfilling aspects of being a practice parent. Through emulating the teachers, I picked up on how to compliment my child beyond saying "Good job!". I learnt how to start my feedback with "I love (how you...)". I progressively adopted more useful phrases in giving feedback, such as "beautiful tone" and "calm and steady tempo". Heck, I even practised how to address my child by her name before delivering a compliment to her.

Then, I repeat it all at home. I say, "I remember how your teacher complimented you on keeping your thumb soft when you played this piece. Do you remember him saying that? Do you think you could do it again?" Now, my 5 year-old has taken to catching my eye whenever her teacher gives her a compliment and signaling to me to write it down, so that she can hear it again when we subsequently practise at home.

(4) Practise Showing that You Believe They Can

More important than believing that every child can learn, is showing that we believe that they can.

This isn't just about being a cheerleader. It is also about being able to sit in the uncomfortably long silence as your child figures out the note to sight-read. It is holding yourself back from giving the answer or even the tiniest clue before your child looks to you for help because you have decided after 30 seconds that reading that note is too hard for her current skill level and that she can't yet do it. Outside of music, it is trying not to sigh, cringe or frown at your child struggling to put on his socks or buckle her seat belt all the while insisting "I can do it by myself!!!"

As a person who hates being late and is very particular on starting and ending an activity on time, it is especially hard for me not to brush off their efforts by saying "It's okay, it's okay - this is taking too long. I'll do it for you / We'll do this another time." What can we do when we don't have the luxury of time is to (take a deep breath) and say gently but firmly, "I know you can read this note on your own, but we really need to finish our practice now and have our dinner before we get too hungry. Is it okay if I help you today and we start tomorrow's practice with sight-reading so that you will have enough time to finish the next exercise without my help?"

(5) Practise Rewarding Yourself

Yes! Truly, reward yourself for working on a practice point. Take time to pause, reflect, recognise and acknowledge that you were fully present in your child's lesson today. Perhaps you overcame the itch to reach for your phone when it buzzed even though you were positively dying to peek at who sent you a text on Whatsapp. Instead, you turned your eyes, ears and mind back to the child before you. Reward yourself with a pat on the back!

This is different from feeling the satisfaction of checking off an item on your to-do list. As parents, we tend to reward ourselves for getting things done. Like treating ourselves to a massage for tired muscles. Or to a glass of wine to relax after we finally put the kids to bed. Or to a late-night Netflix binge session on Fridays after dropping the kids off at grandma's. (This last example is a true story - mine.)

Here, when we reward ourselves for getting a practice point done, it's not about accomplishing a task. Instead, we are rewarding ourselves for building character traits that make us supportive and nurturing parents through consistent practice.

Borrowing a thought from music teacher, parent and author, Brittany P. Gardner on guiding her daughters in learning music:

"There is no shortcut to success. There's no substitute for repetition. If you want to get good at something, just keep doing it. Nothing is hard; it is only unfamiliar. 'Just try' we say over and over again... The actual task does not become easier with trying; rather, it is our capacity to do that task which is increased."

Well, hey - it applies to parents learning to be a coach to their children too.

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