The Practice of Practice

Let's face it, practicing can be arduous both for you and your child. Here are some tips to help you to make practicing part of your routine.

Any instrumental teacher will concur that practice is one of the most important elements of learning an instrument if clear progress is to be made. I have had many chats with 1-to-1 teachers who lament about their students turning up week after week making the same mistakes and having the same excuses for their lack of practice. In the group setting, there is so much else to learn during the lesson, whether it be how to describe a particular instrument, or how to compose a short melody, that a lack of practice doesn't mean that the student doesn't gain anything from the lesson, as it so often does with 1-to-1, but it is still just as important for their individual progress on the piano.

I teach children who are naturally self-motivated and keen to work on their progression at home; I also have children who I suspect would be less prone to practise but who do so as they are motivated by their peers and the prospect of performing in front of them every lesson. There are those who don't practise, yet still gain much from the lessons, even if their progress on the piano isn't quite as speedy as those that do practise.

The reality is, we are all very busy and adding practice to the mix can be tricky. But where you can, how do you encourage practice and instil good practice (that will essentially help with all areas of life)? Here are my suggestions to make incorporating practice into your lives that bit easier, coming from the perspective of both a teacher but mainly as a parent:

1) Parental Involvement: Practice will be far more efficient, and probably more likely to happen, if parents are there to support and help; I know this isn't always practical but imagine asking a beginner reader to go and read by themselves - it would be almost pointless and it is the same for practising an instrument. If they find something difficult, they will resent having to practise it (which is counterintuitive, right?), so if you can help them to work it out by breaking it up and working on smaller parts, then putting it back together, their once-hated piece will be their favourite (another similarity with beginner readers and books)! The videos that I put on my website, are there really for parents to help their child rather than for children to try to follow by themselves.

2) Too tired/hungry/grumpy? Don't push it! As a parent I have learnt when a good time for each of my children is - their sweet spot. For one of them it is just after she has eaten breakfast - she is fed, watered and well-rested! There is absolutely no point in trying to practise if she isn't in the right frame of mind as it becomes a battle of wills, and the actual practice done is minimal! For my son the timing seems to matter slightly less and he actually seems to focus better in the evenings after supper.

3) If at all possible, practise every day! Yes I know this might seem a big commitment but they do get used to it! At first you can set the timer for as little as two minutes per day and that will build an 'ok this isn't too bad' mindset for your child, then you can gradually increase it until they are used to the habit of every day practise. This is well known to be much more efficient than taking the accumulated time and cramming it all in one sitting!

4) Make a practice plan. Without a plan of what they need to practise, the task can feel endless for a little one - if you have a clear list of what they should do each day, that does help them to see that it won't be endless! For older ones, get them to make a list themselves as they will know which pieces they need to work on. It might say something like: Timpani Too, RH x3, LH x3, HT 2 bars x3. Try to include at least one piece that they find easy and one challenge piece.

5) Rewards! How ever adamant we were that we would not bribe before we were parents, reality sets in - it does work, extremely well with some children (less well with others, speaking from experience)!. We would love our children to be motivated simply by the love of music and the joy that mastering something that you previously found difficult can bring, but a chocolate button/sticker/tick on a chart that contributes to a bigger prize with so many ticks, can also help!

6) Practising environment is important - where is the keyboard/piano set up? Are there younger siblings running around (as there often are in my house!), is there a television on somewhere? Have a think about the optimal practice scenario. I read once that children are less likely to practise if their keyboard/piano is in a room separate from the rest of the family, and that the room that they do practise in should be light and airy. But if they are where the rest of the family is, there may also be many distractions! I don't have an ideal set-up in my own, busy household, but it is certainly something to consider!

You are giving your child a gift by bringing them to music lessons. I remember going through a hard time with my son and his cello practice - I actually confessed to the teacher that I felt bad making him sit and practise every single day as they are so pressured at school and he does so much else (even though I am a music teacher myself, the guilt had set in!). But actually I think what was coming out here was my own negative feelings towards practice when I was a child - I hear parents say so often that they used to play an instrument and hated practising so gave it up! And they regret it to this day! It is our job as parents to make practice positive and to ensure that they can see the benefits of it. The group setting really helps here, as they love to show each other how they have mastered a particular piece at home. There was and is no need for me to feel bad, especially now that we are further down the road and he is really starting to enjoy playing some difficult pieces! But the moment that I realised what a gift music lessons is, was when we went to the beach last year and, full of the joy that jumping over waves and splashing through the water can give children at the beach, he was singing his cello pieces! He had complete joy in his heart and he expressed it by singing his pieces! Wow! What a moment that was!

We are just moving to an online portal where each family will have a log-in and be able to log practise times which teachers will be able to see! I'm hoping that this will help to motivate children as we make a big fuss of those clearly putting a lot of effort in at home! 

Since initially writing this post we have had "Watching Week" at KeyNotes, where parents come into the lessons and children perform their pieces. Their obvious joy at performing was clear and many parents reported a distinct rise in their motivation to practise in the run-up to watching week! So ensuring there are performance opportunities can be added to this list!

Do you have any further tips that help in your own household?

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