The Power of Positive Reinforcement

Feeling good about performing and playing, whether it is at home or at a formal recital, is imperative to developing children who love sharing their music.

Here are 3 ideas of how to foster positive feelings during lessons, recitals, and home practice.

#1: Make lesson time special!
#2: Make recitals extra special!
#3: Practice at home when you're able to offer positive reinforcement

1. Make weekly private lesson time special. 

Perhaps this includes a weekly frozen yogurt after lessons, a walk in the park, or a drive home with an emphasis on positive reflection about the lesson. One mother-daughter team in my studio go for special mani/pedis when the student has put in extra work as a fun acknowledgement of her effort.

After each week's lesson, using positive language and word choice is of course, very important. Some ideas might include:

  • Even though ___ part is very tricky and will take many practices to perfect, I could tell you were trying really hard.
  • I was really proud of you in ___ moment.
  • I love hearing you play. 
    (Suzuki Pedagogue Jane Reed has offered that this is perhaps the best thing you could say to your child)
  • My favorite part of your playing is ____.
  • You did a great job with that reading exercise! 

    Note: Feedback should always be specific, and not general. Vague comments are less meaningful.

CASE STUDY #1: Hazel and Geoff

Hazel's dad recently took over in their family as the Suzuki parent. To make their father-daughter venture as successful and fun as possible, they made a deal: If Hazel and her dad get in 5 solid practices between lessons, after their lesson, they go on a father-daughter date.

Not only is this fun, but it also helps promote willingness to practice at home. 

Geoff sent me this photo from their post-lesson outing. Hazel had made good progress and deserved a treat!

What a fun and nurturing way to celebrate. 

CASE STUDY #2: LUCAS (1-year-old)

This weekend, my friend Andrea and her one-year-old, Lucas, stopped by our house. Lucas is now walking and took the initiative to immiately toddle toward the piano and play some notes (of course he cannot even see the keys yet!). We all erupted in "bravos," which he LOVED. He immediately took note of this feedback, and continued the routine, dozens of times. Play a note, clap, laugh and smile, repeat. Here is a short video: 

Though Lucas does not yet speak words (perhaps a few), he is communicating to us non-verbally. If this response was put into words, it might be something like: "I like when you clap for me. I want to keep doing this because everybody is happy at what I have done." 

2. Make recitals the MOST special. 

Growing up, we would always go out to a nice dinner after recitals at places my mother affectionately refers to as "dark and overpriced." Our mother could enjoy one or two glasses of hard-earned red wine, we could order whatever we wanted, and we would celebrate the moment. In retrospect, I realize that these dinners were never in especially "kid-friendly" places, but distinctly grown-up and fancy, just like our recitals. 

It's important to make recitals special for everybody in the family who has invested a lot in the journey of their child's music education. Pre-recital time is typically stressful. Getting to the venue with the stupid grapes you signed up two weeks ago to bring, yet now regret as you trudge last minute to Vons, regretting also that your child's dress shoes no longer fit, getting in a taxi or car and hoping there is no traffic, etc. etc. etc. My fiancè once noted after he served as the door greeter, "Everybody looks so miserable before the recital, but so happy after!" 

Yes. We've all been there. So make the most out of the post recital time. A special dinner. A night in with a family favorite dish. Cake. Red wine. Just some ideas. Whatever you do, make sure the celebration serves to reinforce the performers' sense of confidence. It is incredibly hard to go up and perform in front of people, even if it is just a bow. 


3. Practice at home only when you're able to offer (an iota of) positive reinforcement

Home practice is a difficult topic that is worthy of hundreds of posts and books. My invitation in this article is to contemplate how you can offer positive reinforcement even in the dark days. If you don't believe you can be positive (and I think we all have these moments, even if they are rare), it's best to simply not practice. 

Consider these two approaches to practice at the end of a long day when you are extremely and unbearably tired: 

A: "I'm beyond exhausted and can barely think. But we're going to practice now anyway because we should. But I'm warning you, if you don't work hard and try your absolute, absolute hardest, I'm going to be very disappointed and take away the toy I got you. Is that what you want? No? Okay, let's go practice." 


B: "I'm honestly too tired to practice with you tonight. I'm very sorry. We will need to put on the audio tracks instead. If we practice, I'm afraid I won't be as helpful as I want to be. We will resume daily practicing tomorrow when I'm feeling better." 

Obviously, B is the better route to take, even if it produces feelings of guilt. If you have nothing to give, don't even try. If you believe you can muster a short practice and be positive in the moments that are deserving of this praise, then do try. Consistent practice is always the most effective way to make progress.  

Lucas learning the joy of applause reminds us that we should be as positive (when true effort is made) as possible. Genuine positivity (not to be confused with indulgence) is simply more effective than anything else.