Tips for Practicing
Kids and practice sometimes don't mix! Getting kids to practice can be fraught with difficulty. They say they want to learn, you are paying for the lessons and you want to encourage them and make music a fun and fulfilling experience for them. You have read that learning an instrument helps in other curriculum areas too and of course you want the best for your child... but how do you go about getting them to practice?
For the kids reading this...
GO DO SOME PRACTICE!
...Of course, you are still reading, even though this is about kids and practice. In other words it is about you - not to you! But when something that says 'Parents' is so freely available to students... how could you resist! You want to know what secrets I am going to tell your parents to get you to practice! Well the good news is there are no secrets! It is up to you to practice! Remember though, your parents are paying, and if they don’t feel they are getting value for money they may stop, and no matter how much you might say now “Good! I’m fed up with them anyway” I can GUARANTEE you, you will regret it if you do. No matter how tedious it is for you now, especially if you have hit a bit of a plateau, or if you feel you aren’t making fast enough progress, that is nothing compared to how you will feel in 20 (or much less) years time watching somebody perform in a band, as a soloist and thinking “That could have been me.” I know so many adults who wish they’d never given up it is insane! So... read the rest if you like... but there are no secrets. Go surf the site. Download the practice support forms. Get your practice to be more efficient and effective. Make faster progress in less time... and good luck!
Back to parents!
One of the first things you can do is to help your child set some musical goals. Kids and practice mix much better when they have something clear to aim for. That applies to individual practice sessions as well as long term goals. Remember they should be their goals for themselves, not your goals for them! By all means discuss their musical goals. Let them dream a little for their long term goals. After all, it isn’t impossible for them to become the next big thing. Somebody has to! As for the short and medium term goals, keep their feet on the ground. In conjunction with their teacher, help them plan achievable goals, but goals that will stretch them nevertheless.
Kids and practice need...
A lot of carrot and a little stick
Once musical goals are established encourage children to strive for them and achieve them. Support them if they do and talk about why. Show that you are proud of their achievements. Support them if they don’t and talk about why not. Don’t just gloss over it. Maybe their practice isn’t effective enough, maybe the goal wasn’t realistic, maybe they just didn’t work hard enough. Whatever the reason, it is not a failure, but a lesson learned for next time. The student still needs to take responsibility for the outcome though and work to correct it with your support.
Give performance deadlines
One of the joys of playing an instrument is performing and it is certainly something that helps in getting kids to practice. A performance is a deadline that has potentially disastrous consequences if it is missed through lack of preparation. The kids and practice need to be focused. Remember to let the them know:
Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance
The best way to encourage practice is also the most obvious
Taking time to listen to your child practice is one of the best ways you can encourage practice. There are many great practice games you can play with them and against them. Give them a reward when they win... maybe releasing them from a particular chore they have to do, allowing them to stay out or up for an extra half hour, collecting practice points that lead to something they want... there are many ways to encourage practice and the best ones involve being there when it is taking place.
I don’t want you here
If a child isn’t used to you sitting in on their practice session they may not be too happy about you starting! Assure them you are not there to be judgmental, but that you are interested in what they are doing... maybe even thinking you could learn something of the instrument yourself. Get them to show you what they are doing. One of the best ways to learn is to teach somebody else. If there is something you think they aren’t doing quite correctly try and help them see the error through open questioning, rather than just telling them you think they are wrong.
Children are very adaptable and will quickly become used to your presence in the practice room... especially if you being there involves games and competitions that either carry instant rewards or points towards a long term bigger reward. This will encourage practice in itself. The key thing is for the student to enjoy the sensation of being well prepared for the next lesson and to feel a sense of achievement when he or she has hit all the targets from the teacher. You will also be on hand to calm any frustrations with certain passages, help break them down into smaller sections and explain how fantastic it will feel once the difficult part has been achieved!
A musical prize to encourage practice
One way to encourage students musically is to get them to work towards a musical prize. Talk to them about a particular piece of music related equipment or a particular book with tunes in they may like to learn, but that aren’t part of their work for their teacher. Free time playing whatever they like on their instrument should also be built up to be seen as a reward once their targets are achieved. E.g., talk to them about how cool metronomes are, how they help you learn pieces and scales faster etc, and work out a points system for buying one. Points may be gained by good practice habits, good comments from teachers, a good performance in a concert. This system often works wonders and one parent told me once that one of my students arrived home from her lesson and only needed 9 more points to achieve the total for the metronome. He worked out he could get five during the week and two from his lesson, so he would need to wait another week. He begged his mom to make an exception to the ‘musical points for musical actions’ rule and allow him to score five points (very astute of him to allow for missing one of his practice points) if he did the dishes for the next five days. She agreed and he came bounding in next lesson waving the metronome at me and asking for practice exercises that used it.
This is a slightly longer term goal for students, but something you should have in mind nevertheless. An instrument upgrade should happen because the student has outgrown or out-progressed their current instrument, not because their friend has one and they want one too! Make sure the student knows that a new instrument is a reward for progress made, not just something that will happen automatically. After all, instruments are expensive and without proof that progress will be made in future probably not a worthwhile investment.
As students progress the features of an instrument that made it perfect for a beginner (a large, easy-blowing bore on a clarinet for instance) become more of a hindrance. Their range expands and those high notes need more breath control - much easier with a narrower bore. Some manufacturers actually advertise the level an instrument is suitable to be used at and most teachers and knowledgeable assistants in music shops will be able to tell you. Don’t make the mistake of buying something too advanced too early though. A beginner instrument is just that... a beginner instrument. It has certain features that make it easier to play in the early stages allowing students to gain enjoyment and confidence instead of disappointment and frustration.
Kids and practice aren't mutually exclusive and you can also encourage music practice through listening. Play music of their instrument in the house, in the car, while you eat... Encourage them to listen to the music, to comment on it, to pick pieces they might like to play one day. Don’t expect them to like it all and don’t expect them to like the same pieces as you. Find different styles of music featuring their instrument from the earliest music written for it to more modern pieces including 20th and 21st century classical art music as well as any jazz, pop or film score pieces featuring their instrument. Take them to concerts to listen to their instrument being played by professionals, but be prepared to leave at half time if they are starting to get bored. Don’t push... lead gently. Take an interest in their instrument, the history, construction, major composers, the physics behind it... anything to show them that you are interested too.
First of all, set a goal for the amount of practice you'll do. If you take lessons (group or private), your teacher will probably give you a goal to aim for. Beginners should practice 10 to 20 minutes a day, 5 or 6 days a week. Intermediate players should practice 20 to 30 minutes a day, 5 or 6 days a week. Advanced players should practice about an hour (very advanced players, more than an hour) 6 days a week. Keep in mind that almost no one is perfect when it comes to practicing; you might play an hour one day and then not at all for two days. However, especially at the beginning level, consistency is key. It's better to play for 5 minutes a day than a half an hour one day and nothing for the rest of the week.
Practicing doesn't have to occur in one long session. In fact, many professional players will break their practice time down into half hour or one hour sessions. If you are tired, no longer paying attention, or unable to play anymore (hands or mouth too tired), stop practicing. It's no longer worth it. Come back in an hour or two when you're not tired anymore. If your attention is wandering while practicing, take a short break and come back to it. You will end up getting more out of your time if you take breaks and are therefore focusing better, than if you try to play straight through.
Practice in a setting which is ideal for you. For some people, this means a quiet room with absolutely no distractions. For others, it may mean being in the middle of a loud room with a TV on, people talking, and others also practicing. There is no "perfect" setting in which to practice. Wherever you focus best is where you should practice. Do, however, set up a regular practice space where you can keep
your music stand, your music, and your instrument.
When practicing, don't just idly play through your music. Sit down in your space and get out your goal sheet. Play through your warm-ups (if any) first (scales and etudes are good). Play through it a few times in order to get a feel for it.
Practice SLOWLY. Too many people think that speed is the key, that practicing at a fast tempo will help them move faster and become a better musician. This is not true. Practicing slowly and accurately is much, much better than fast practice. If your playing is accurate at a slow tempo, speed will come naturally. If you practice too fast, you will trip up over the same things over and over again.
If you notice that you are making some mistakes (or even if you feel like you are going to), stop and isolate those sections. Play them EXTREMELY slowly until you can get them right. If rhythm is a problem, use a metronome. If you are a beginner and have not used a metronome before, put your instrument down and clap and count the rhythm. Then play the rhythm on your instrument without changing the notes (no fingers). Then, put it all together again, still slowly. Don't allow yourself to practice mistakes -- this is useless! Anything you do wrong more than once is a mistake, and you should stop and correct it immediately.
Beginners, who are unable to focus to this extent, should try to play slowly and often in order to become more comfortable with their instruments. They should rely on a teacher's guidance to fix problems, and work on fixing problems during practice one at a time (as directed by a teacher).
(or any other game!)
I like to play chess (and Cheating Chess is good alliteration) but you can adapt most two player games. Naughts and crosses (X-O) is probably the simplest game to use with young children, although you may have to get used to losing a lot of games!
The rules are simple.
- Divide the new piece or section to be learned into smaller sections (the teacher may do this during the lesson)
- The student makes their first move
- The student then plays one of the phrases. If the notes are 100% correct, they get another move. Note that if they are just learning this piece it is the notes that need to be 100% correct. They may hesitate or stop and work notes out while playing.
- The student then plays the same phrase again. If the notes are 100% correct, they move again.
- Each section is played five times. If the student gets 100% correct notes all five times... a bonus move is awarded!
This game is great for making sure students are playing with 100% correct notes right from the start when learning new pieces. It also gently gives them some early experience of playing under pressure. Each time they play correctly they are one step nearer to the bonus move so the pressure they are playing under is gradually, but subtly increased. As they progress through the week extra restrictions may be added such as 100% notes and correct timing at a certain metronome speeds, inclusion of dynamics etc.
Just a minute
The aim of this game is very simple: to see how many times can you play a section with 100% correct notes in a minute when learning new pieces. This can be played with somebody timing you or on your own if you have a countdown timer on your watch or mobile
- Divide the piece or section into smaller sections
- Either set a countdown timer for a minute or, if possible, have somebody with a stopwatch to time you
- Play through a section as many times as you can with 100% correct notes in a minute. You can stop to work notes out if you are not sure - in fact, this is encouraged as you would lose 2 points for getting a note wrong!
- Score 1 point for each time you play correctly and minus 2 points for each time you make a mistake (that is getting even a single note wrong by-the-way!)
- Check your score on all sections you are learning.
There are various options for winning this game. You or a teacher can set a target score to achieve for each section, you can play against one or more friends to see who gets the highest score or you can find which section has the highest score and have a target of getting all sections to that score.
Collect the animals
For this game you need some pictures of animals printed. Eight should usually be enough. Try to pick animals your child/student likes. Use picture - not just the word written on a piece of paper. One enterprising parent said she played this with silhouettes and the student got extra points for recognizing the shapes! You could also play this game with cards using a single suit or the picture cards. Anything collectible.
The aim of the game is to collect all the animals. The rules of the game are
- Divide the piece to be learned into small sections (2 - 4 bars each depending on the length of the piece)
- Label each section as one of the animals (cards, etc.) you have
- The student chooses which animal they will attempt. Once this decision is made they cannot go back and change until that animal is achieved.
- To win the animal they must play the section five times in a row 100% correctly.
- One an animal is achieved they have to play the section 3 times in a row correctly to keep it on subsequent days. If they make a mistake during those three times the animal goes back and they have to win it again.
- Organize some kind of prize or treat (it could be animal related!) if they have all the animals at the end of the week. If they have them all in the middle but lose them by the end there is no prize
- Optional: They can lose an animal for each day they don't practice during the week. This is a great way to keep them working if they manage to collect them all early in the week! One of the keys to success when learning new pieces is constant review.
Playing practice games when learning new pieces helps the time go quicker and makes practice a positive experience. Having early positive experiences when practicing is essential as students progress much further and faster if they have a positive attitude to practice.
Don't make practice a chore.
In the first year of study, don't force practice. Instead offer encouragement and show that you're interested in how your son or daughter is doing. When you're folding laundry or doing paperwork, for example, have your child perform a mini concert of songs he or she is learning.
Don't expect flawless play from your young musician. The clearest indication that child is successful in music education is that he or she will show love and enthusiasm for the music.
Instrumental music means more to your child than just playing an instrument. It offers an opportunity to experience a whole new level of communication. This artistic language will be with them for a lifetime. These formative years of music education can open up a world of aesthetic possibilities which will bring new meaning to the growth and development of your child. Let us join hands in establishing a solid foundation of growth by creating a disciplined practice schedule at the onset of their instrumental music career.