The New Deal on practising was a dismal failure. Sophie managed to practice once, Noah did about 6 out of the 14 practices he should have during the week. I managed to keep my mouth shut, perhaps the one ‘success’ of the week. I was very proud of myself.

Erin practised every day. Somehow in the past 9 to 12 months she’s become totally autonomous in motivating and executing her practising. In essence she’d been living by the New Deal for months already and was clearly ready for the responsibility. For the other two, though, the experiment was a failure. They readily admitted this.

Solutions were not immediately forthcoming at our next family meeting. We thought we’d try fixed times, attempt to limit computer use, try harder, resolve to do better. I explained that I felt the ultimate solution was not really a new system or set of rules, which would at best work temporarily, but for the kids to simply take responsibility for it themselves and decide to practice. Once they just decided to get on with the job, the problem would no longer be mine, or anyone’s. Noah nodded with some satisfaction at this explanation.

A few days after the meeting, Noah said, out of the blue, “I’m still trying to figure out what it was that made me want to practice around last Christmas-time.” I didn’t remember whatever rip-roaring level of self-motivation he was recalling, but I didn’t say so. I just told him that was a great way to attack the problem — by looking at something that had been working well, and trying to figure out why. It reminded me of an organizational management paradigm called Appreciative Inquiry:

“The approach is based on the premise that ‘organisations change in the direction in which they inquire.’ So an organisation which inquires into problems will keep finding problems but an organisation which attempts to appreciate what is best in itself will discover more and more that is good. It can then to use these discoveries to build a new future where the best becomes more common.”

So anyway, we shot some ideas about. I asked him whether it was the practising he was enjoying in and of itself, or the idea that it would get him somewhere he was dying to go. He thought it was maybe a bit of both. We talked about what goals, experiences and role-models he has found inspiring in the past. Again, we didn’t really get at a clear solution, but I was gratified to hear that he was clearly thinking through the issue on his own and trying to find solutions for himself. While Erin sometimes does this, I certainly don’t hear about it; I can only infer that something of this sort has gone on by seeing the results. It’s such a treat having an introspective child who is at least partly communicative.

A few minutes later he said that he thought it would be helpful to limit his practising to half an hour per instrument. This struck me as an interesting comment, since lately his practices have been very short, often only 10 or 15 minutes. For whatever reason, though, he liked the idea of clear temporal expectations. A couple of weeks ago I’d been trying to encourage him to work through a tricky part in his new orchestra piece and I’d told him I’d leave him to do the work himself (he hates me hovering!) if he agreed to keep working until 5:40 pm, i.e. 5 minutes work. I reminded him of this episode and asked if he’d liked that system. And he said yes.

So now we have, at his direction, a list of 6 broad tasks for piano and 6 for viola. He sets the egg timer for 5 minutes and works on each task in succession for 5 minutes each. On balance he is practising on his own far more productively than he ever has. He still tends to play through the parts he knows over and over rather than trying to help himself tackle new challenges. For instance, he’ll repeat the 42 bars of the orchestra piece that he knows three times rather than deal with learning the next 4 bars. Sometimes, listening nearby, I ache to nudge him forwards. But I know that in the grand scheme his autonomy and sense of mastery and re-assertion of control over his own daily habits of practising are more important than whether he can play the whole of the Cascade Suite by the time the summer school starts. And repetition is one of the hallmarks of the hard learning work — not the only one, but it’s a start.

I still think Noah lacks the maturity to motivate his painfully perfectionistic self through the emotional bumps of long-term daily practising at the level of musical ability he’s attained. But he does seem to be developing more meta-cognition, more ability to think about his own thought processes. And this is like a light at the end of the tunnel for me.

Sophie … well, she clearly just needs clearer expectations, more parental leadership and less wiggle room. I printed out a fancy new violin review chart, gave her a pile of mini-stickers to fill it in with as she saw fit, and told her “Here’s the deal for this week. You practice because that’s the rule. You practice now. Come on; it’ll be fun.” And she managed. And the next day there was less resistance. And the next day there was less.

Since we’re in the habit of finding solutions co-operatively as a family, it’s a delicate dance to help the kids to understand why rules and expectations need to be different for the three of them. Age alone is too simplistic an explanation for them; they have plenty of examples and experiences where age is clearly not a relevent criterion. Truth be told, age is too simplistic an explanation for me too. Yet it’s hard to explain that the rules and expectations need to be different because of differing levels of maturity, different personalities and different psychological needs, without the kids wanting to compare themselves with each other. Noah needs to accept that he still needs his hand held through a responsibility, and Sophie needs to accept that she still needs to be carried, without either of them feeling like their maturity and capabilities have been found wanting. I’m wondering if the practising issue shouldn’t be dealt with privately with each child, rather than in the public forum of family meetings. In essence that’s what Noah and I did this week, and it worked beautifully.

The New Deal – continued