Those dreaded words. Every parent hates to hear them, especially when it is time to practice.
It can happen to the best of students. Everything is going well, and then all of a sudden, they don’t seem as happy or productive. They avoid practicing, or just go through the motions if they do. When we ask what is wrong, we get a glazed look in their eyes, as if they don’t really know.
How do we combat this slow creep of disinterest and boredom? When we can sense it happening right before our eyes, is there anything we can do to halt the process?
We need to create
Human beings are creative. It is a part of who we are; we are dynamic organisms in motion. Not only are the cells in our bodies continually renewing, our thoughts, emotions, and even our self-image is being recreated every day as we encounter new experiences and new information.
Often our interest in music is tied to this vital sense of dynamic motion and change. And yet, paradoxically, in order to become skilled at music we must repeat things. But repetition by itself kills the creative side of us.
Why repetition is not enough
Simply repeating things over and over has a way of deadening our vitality. That’s because repetition closes off the creative process.
Repetition is a valuable skill set. We have to repeat things in order to function. It is the brain’s way of developing shorthand, to cope with all the information coming into it. Imagine how exhausting it would be to reinvent brushing your teeth every time you did it.
But we also need new experiences, new sounds, new flavors, new touches in order to thrive. No wonder we get bored: how much of our life is spent trying to repeat actions we’ve done a thousand times? Yes, it is exhausting to go without systems, but there is another kind of exhaustion: the slow, creeping boredom that comes from never allowing anything new or creative.
I know one especially creative student who was told, “Play this minuet 12 times each day.” She was especially creative, and had gotten completely turned off by this kind of instruction. It may seem like an extreme example, but it came from a real Suzuki teacher. It is a danger inherent in the Suzuki method that we all need to admit and work to avoid: all repetition, no creation.
Balance repetition and invention
There needs to be a balance in every lesson, every practice session, and within every musical idea we encounter, of repeating and creating.
We do want to repeat the passage, or the motion, or the chord, until we can do it reliably.
But there must also be an element of expression, of bringing something only you can bring. That’s what gives music its interest, because no two people play the same piece the same way.
Turn off the auto-pilot
Teachers, we need to be sure to add an element of the new and different to our lessons. Even the most tried and true teaching methods will not work with every student, and our most treasured Suzuki tricks may not work if over-taught or beaten to death. If you are finding yourself in this situation, try some of the activities below in some of your next lessons.
ACTIONS FOR THIS WEEK
Here are 8 specific actions you can try right away. Pick one or two that seem appropriate for you and start today, then revisit this page when you need another idea.
Do it by ear. Step away from the music and invent something. Do it by ear, just explore the sound on your violin.
Play something new. Playing something entirely new is vital for maintaining creative interest. Go and search for a piece you haven’t heard before.
Compose. Make up a piece from scratch by re-combining the notes they currently know how to play. Be sure to record it so you can remember it next time.
FIVE Note Scramble. At Pre-twinkle or Twinkle level, students know about four or five notes. Have them imitate various combinations of those notes.
Numbered Index Cards. Number a set of cards: A0, E0, A1, E1, A2, E2, A3, E3. Make 4 or 5 sets of each. Shuffle them up and have the student rearrange them in any order on the floor, then play the order they came up with.
Invent Within a Scale. For older or intermediate students, have them pick a scale (one octave to start) and play it to warm up. Then have them re-order the notes in any way they want, adding rhythm and rests for interest.
Imagine it. Change the image of a review piece. Encourage them to try playing a piece they know well in an opposite mood. (See Practice Tip #11 - Picture A Unicorn for a sample image.)
Other examples of re-imagining images:
Play "Song of The Wind" as "Song of Molasses"
Play "Lightly Row" as "Rough Sailing"
Play "Sad Aunt Rhody" with low 2, introducing minor mode.
8. Break The Rules. It can be very liberating for students to realize that the marks on the page are not necessarily objectively "true" or "right":
Play with different bowings
Change stop bows to connected bows, and vice versa
Play it differently than you are used to
Add slurs or take them away
Group the notes differently
Change the dynamics
Purposely change the rhythm. (But be sure you understand and are able to play it the way it is written!)
Elongate certain notes, shorten others. (Where can you “cheat” a bit to enhance the music? Brahms’ Waltz in Book 2 for a starter piece to work with creative eighth-note length.)
Finally, Ask For It
Parents and students, if nothing is working, speak up! Ask your teachers to bring some creative and new teaching to the table if you can sense your child getting bored. Saying “she needs a more creative direction” is perfectly ok. Often teachers need that sort of feedback in order to keep current with what is happening to the student at home.
Imagine The Fog of Boredom Clearing...
Invention really works for motivation and re-ignited energy. I’ve seen bored students instantly come back to life when given an inventive task. Suddenly they wake up out of their lethargy and bring a new level of attention.
When you see that glazy-eyed look, let them invent, and soon the fog will clear...
Top Photo: "Boredom" Copyright 2016 Edward Obermueller