Jean Piaget, the Swiss “father of child-development theory”, once wrote a book largely based upon the answers he received from one question he asked children. This book explored, not only how a child perceives – and mis-perceives – certain natural phenomenon but, more importantly how the child thinks of his or her own mind: the ability of the child to self-reflect. The question he asked children goes something like this, “you know what a cloud is, so where is the name of the cloud?”

Piaget received several categories of answers. Each category was associated with a different age group. The youngest (up to about seven-and-a-half years old) said, “In the cloud.” The eight to nine-and-a-half year olds said, “Out there,” “in the sky” or “around my head.” It was not until the child was about nine-and-a-half did the child realize the name of objects reside in the mind and not in the object named. Isn’t this strange? But whenever I ask children a question like this, I get similar responses, as if those kids had consulted with those little Swiss kids.

These results shows us that introspection can be qualitatively different according to the age of a child. This has tremendous meaning for parents and teachers. Expectations of adult introspection is inappropriate for certain aged children. “What were you thinking?” is a question that has different answers according to age. Chance are, the child was not thinking – at least not like you and I.

Lately in my teaching I have been trying to draw the attention of the student to what goes on in their practice session. Most of the growth comes at home in practice. Practice is done without the teacher. Thus it is important that the student become the teacher during practice. To do this, the student must ask himself the right questions to guide the practice into a consistent regime of effective results. Practice without thought is play. Play, of course, has its positive results insofar as its fun and motivating, but it can also undermine progress if the student is reinforcing bad techniques of playing and attentive engagement or its just used for self-medication and avoidance.

However, as I mentioned in the beginning, young people perceive themselves differently according to their cognitive abilities, which are age related.

If the parent is the home-coach, the parent can help the student by getting the student to think about the right things. These things will vary according to age. For example, one wouldn’t expect a 6 year old to understand the emotional content of a beautiful line or phrase. But a 14 year old might have that capacity for that understanding. On the other hand a 14 year old might be pretty irritated if mom or dad counted repetitions.

Here are the issues that the student can realistically consider at the various ages of development. I have divided the ages into three categories: 5-8, 9-13, 14 and up. Please realize that these ages are approximate; some children develop early, some later. There is overlapping and children in one category often fall back into the prior one for various known and unknown reasons. But these are fairly accurate representations.

10 QUESTIONS FOR THE 5-8 YEAR OLD – With this category there is little productive introspection because the right questions can only be perceived when the future goals are perceived and these kids don’t have that vision yet. These should be asked in the presence of the student in order to train the student to eventually ask the questions of him or herself. Consider it “introspective training” (or values training.)

1) Are you in perfect playing position or “sloppy” position?

2) Do you hear any buzzes with your notes?

3) Do you hear any thumps?

4) Can you play from beginning to end without stopping?

5) Do you know what finger of each hand you should start with?

6) Does your tune sound just like the tune on the CD?

7) Can you learn your assignment in one practice?

8) Can you play very quietly?

9) Can you find a special note to play extra loud?

10) Can you play without forgetting where you are in the music?

QUESTIONS FOR THE 9-13 YEAR OLD – This age child has an ability and tendency to carry on internal monologues. They may be quick and impulsive resulting in action or they may be lengthy and startlingly mature, but that introspective ability is present. Thus practice can take on an entire new regime of progress. This age child may practice just a few minutes with great attentiveness and accomplish a week’s assignment. They may also tune out and their practice may become routine and proforma. The valuable practice will come when they start asking themselves the right questions to guide their efforts. This age child may not appreciate mom or dad reminding them what to think, so writing the questions down, putting them on the music stand and reminding them to look at them may be the only push they need. Here are 10 appropriate questions:

1) Are you playing the correct rhythms?

2) Are there any passages that are particularly hard to play?

3) Can you isolate the hard parts and practice them so that you can play them without mistakes?

4) Are there parts of the music that don’t make sense to you?

5) Are there techniques (slurs, barres, scales, arpeggios or shifts) that need repetitive practice?

6) When you try to play the piece from start to finish, are there parts in which you always make a mistake?

7) Do you know where you would like to put in interpretive elements (loud/soft, ritard, crescendo/decrescendo, staccato/legato, rubato, accelerando, ponticello/sul tasto)?

8) Are you aware of your right hand fingers with every note?

9) Is your volume loud enough to be heard by someone listening?

10) Can you notice and hear when your hands mess up a passage?

QUESTIONS FOR THE 14+ YEAR OLD – This is the age where one would expect most of the formal cognitive abilities to be present or, at least occasionally present. This age child will understand the immediate emotional content of the music, though they may not understand how one section relates to another in a long piece of music. This is the age at which real artistic application can arise. If the student is taught by rote at this age, they are being done a disservice. They need to hear much music and are able to absorb much information from what they hear. They will translate that information in their own way, with their own personal internal lexicon. That must be encouraged. Although listening skills are of prime importance, true elevation of artistic ability will be tremendously assisted by competent literacy abilities – which this age can achieve provided there are no organic disabilities. The goal of this young player should be “Beauty.” Anything less than that is age reversion to the prior category – immaturity. Here are 10 questions I expect my students to continually ask themselves. I also expect them to have answers that guide their practice:

1) Where does the music break down exactly and why?

2) Where do you lose your concentration in the music?

3) What technical skills do you need to improve?

4) In a difficult passage, what is the first difficult note?

5) Do you understand where phrases begin and end?

6) Have you played the lines separately to understand what they say and how best to interpret them?

7) Does your fingering allow you to bring out the most artistic rendering?

8) Is your practice time and concentration worthy of where you wish to be in your playing?

9) Can you come up with creative ideas of interpretation to make the music interesting for a listener who may not know it?

10) Have you learned to like practice, yet?


Kevin Taylor is Founder of The Childbloom Guitar Program.