Focus on Focus, What to Ignore and Other Helpful Hints


Hi there. I started writing this entry on focus in early September and here we are in early November, which is just to say that I am obviously the expert on the topic of focus. There are so many great things to write about, where to begin? Maybe I need to heat up the coffee first. And there is a hangnail to trim. 

With that disclaimer, back to our original topic.

This Fall, I'm ready to focus on focus. 

Caroline Fraser says, "the students were focused because the teacher was focused." Yikes! That is a lot of pressure. I resemble that remark. And I'll take responsibility for the child's focus at the lesson. 

Here are some thoughts about focus, in no particular order--how's that for a start?

No child or adult can focus on-demand. Telling someone to focus does not help them focus, In fact, when a parent interrupts the lesson to tell the child to focus on the teacher. . . think that one over. "Honey, sweetheart, deer one, CHILD, listen, please, please, listen to Mrs. Kotrba." Yep. Now the child is officially actually listening to the parent. Parents can help their child by saying as little as humanly possible during the lesson. Every time the parent speaks it takes the child out of the teacher student bubble. Pop. 

Taking a bow as soon as possible after walking in the door helps the child. Email me, text me, hand me scribbles on the back of a napkin on your way in, but starting the lesson with a parent teacher cconference while the child meanders into finding a book or toy is not our best routine. We greet each other with a brief sentence or a positive report and off we go. Of course there are exceptions. Keep them as exceptions. I'm guilty too. 

Decide which sibling is taking the first lesson. My first choice is youngest to oldest. When you talk about lesson order, make sure to be mindful of your language. For example, "Johny, would you PLEASE go first, then you can get it over with and relax and do something fun." As if the lesson is some type of torture that must be endured before we can get on with our pleasant day. Scooping the cat litter is something I want to get over with. Playing piano with Mrs. Kotrba? That should be something we look forward to. If you can't stick with youngest to oldest at least have an established routine. No discussion. And expect that the child will be ready to bow and start the lesson with no shinanigans. 

Is your child so tired? A limp and lifeless bow? Even though they seemed very perky in the car on the way? Slumped at the piano? After they ran up the stairs? I'm going to end the lesson and send them home with specific instructions to go to bed early. An hour early. Remember. . . I'm pretty good at distractions and fresh starts. . . this last resort is the million dollar lesson that Paula Bird talks about. Ending one lesson early because the child is testing the waters will save a lot of wasted time. A lot of wasted time. I can be positive and cheerful until the cows come home, but it takes a lot of time and quite frankly, it's your time. When and if I end the lesson early for shenanigans, back me up here, put the child to bed early.  

I try to use toys and counting objects sparingly and thoughtfully. I have an enormous collection of counting objects. I love them. A lot. It's fun. It shows the work. Putting a little animal up for each tasks has many merits. It's also ripe for distraction. Not every child can handle this. There are rules involved as well. Does the child get to pick the animal? If so how long can he take to choose it? What are you going to do when she starts to play with them? We have opened the box. The rules are, you can't play with them. You have to pick one before I count to five. We are here to work. 

I've had good luck increasing focus simply by setting up a stillness before playing. Counting to five while the child looks at a little animal, completely still, is really a miracle in a moment. Establish stillness, then bring your hands up, take a breath, and begin the piece. Miracle in a moment. 

What about all those things we have to talk about? All the questions? The myriad interesting things in the room and my fuzzy sweater and the state of the world in general? If it doesn't have to do with piano and even specifically the task at hand? Ignore it. Don't even respond. Damaging to the child? No. After the final bow I might ask her what her question was again. If we entertain every inquiry we invite more and more inquiries. Kids are smart. Really smart. Ignore the unrelated. They figure it out very, very quickly. For that matter, ignoring all undesirable behavior goes a long, long way.  

The golden rule? Give more attention for the positive behavior than for the annoying or distracting behavior. Ignore everything that you can. Exception: anything that falls under the ten commandments: lying, stealing, hurting sister or mother. .  you get my drift. Matters of the heart should be talked about. Matters of annoyance? Ignore. 

What other tactics do we have to increase focus? The one point lesson. Ask a lot of questions. Play simple games like putting down a playing card everytime he does the main point correctly. Games, when done correctly, are wonderful learning tools. I taught my son for twelve years using every imaginable game. Mary loves games too! You are never too old. 

Working on perfect repetitions increases focus. Break it down to the smallest chunk or slowest tempo, but get it perfect. Our brains learn best doing small high quality repetitions. 

Final lecture of the day? Social dynamics. Keep them ppp. That means parents and siblings shouldn't be heard during indiviual or group lessons. At all. Do not read to the younger sibling in the back of the room. What do you think the child at the piano is thinking? He's wishing dad was reading to him. Give your child your undivided attention. Sibling will figure it out. She is not more important than the lesson at hand. Lastly, when two parents are chit chatting during group what do you think the teacher is thinking? She's wishing she was chit chatting with parents too. That's a joke. But still. There is nothing I want more than community, except. . . focus.  

Those are my thoughts. It's taken me about thirty years to learn some pretty simple lessons, and about two months to focus enough to write them down, but they might save you a lot of time and frustration. As you reflect on what is going well and what needs work, like Dr. Suzuki suggests, start with one idea, and try that for a month. When that idea is established, move to another idea. 

  • Don't talk during your child's lesson. (Unless the house is on fire, I'm about to waste a lot of time doing something you didn't get to during the week, or I'm making an obvious mistake in the assignment.) 
  • Decide sibling order before the lesson.
  • Don't talk with other parents or read to siblings during the individual or group lesson.
  • Play games with intention.
  • Use counting toys responsibly.
  • Ignore most distracting and anoying behavior. 
  • Don't put up with shenanigans like droopy bows. (I realize that this contradicts the previous bullet point but every teacher has her limits. . . lethargy is hard to ignore as you can't really get anything done by ignoring or distracting. You will have to set your boundaries) 
  • Bow as soon as possible upon entering the lessson or transitioning to the next lesson.
  • Use the miracle moment--five counts of stillness before breathing and playing.
  • Give a lot of attention for positive behavior.
  • Collect perfect repetitions, snippet by snippet, slow to fast.
  • Never, I repeat, never tell your child to focus. Let the teacher have their attention. I'm not perfect but I'm the one who needs the child's attention. No one can tell another person to focus. It's an oxymoron. 

The good news? Studying music does increase focus in children. It's proven. Karen Hallberg pubished her dissertation on the positive effects of Suzuki study on the attention span of kindergarteners. We are not surprized by the results, but it's pretty cool to have the stats. Contact me and I'll send you her info. In the mean time, enjoy the time with your children and remember the words of Jeanne Luedke: we are either teaching the child to focus, or we are teaching the child how not to focus. Best wishes.