Practicing Tips for Parents
Practicing can strike fear into the hearts of both students and parents. Obviously, we all know that practicing is essential when it comes to learning an instrument. When you first signed your son or daughter up for lessons, you probably had a conversation where you stressed the importance of practice, and they looked up at you with huge, innocent eyes, and said, “Of course, I’ll practice!” Maybe now the honeymoon period is over and practicing doesn’t seem to be happening as readily as you were hoping for.
Learning music is a skill. Unlike homework and other academic pursuits, which are generally focused on attaining knowledge, music is about mastering something until you can do it easily and consistently. Gaining skills requires consistent and diligent practice.
Depending on the individual music teacher and what sort of curriculum they’re using, some teachers might ask the parents to be highly involved in their children’s practicing. They might ask the parent to observe every lesson and sit with their child each day while they practice. If your son or daughter has this type of teacher, then the teacher will provide you with detailed instructions on what to do in helping them with their practice. Other teachers might go for a more hands-off approach, where the parent is free to go grab a cup of coffee during the lessons. This type of teacher might ask you to encourage a child generally to practice, but you don’t need to be by their side. In either instance, having a good set-up is crucial.
"Sure, mom! I'd love to practice now!"
Let’s go over a few practical considerations. Typically, music students have a lesson once a week. That leaves six days in between for practicing. Everyone agrees that it’s best to practice for a short amount of time each day rather than for a long session just once or twice a week. For my own students, I recommend that they aim to practice five to six days each week, for an amount of time approximately equal to the length of their lesson. So, if they have a 45-minute lesson, their goal is to practice for about 45 minutes each day, taking a day off as necessary.
There are some exceptions, naturally. A very young beginning student, age 5, 6, or 7, might only practice for 10 or 15 minutes a day. An older, more serious high school or college-aged student might practice several hours a day. Also, regardless of age, it’s fine to split up the practicing into smaller sessions, for example two 15-minute sessions rather than half an hour all at once.
And of course, everyone has bad days and good days, so some days a student might practice more or less. When practicing is at its best, it’s really absorbing. The minutes slip by unnoticed and practicing is no longer a chore.
Making Sure You Get To It
“Ok, very good,” you say. “I can have my son practice most days. That’s not really such a big deal.” But we all know how days can slip by and we haven’t exercised, or have forgotten to do multiplication flash cards with our 8-year-old yet again.
Routines work really well for this kind of situation. If you and your daughter decide that she’ll practice every morning before school or every evening right after dinner, you’re a lot more likely to get it in. It also helps remove that all-too-familiar discussion about how it’s time to go practice now.
If a straightforward routine won’t fit into your schedule, you might try planning it out each day. Every evening, look at your schedule for the next day and see when you’ll have time to fit practicing in, and plan to do it then. Maybe you and you daughter agree that tomorrow there will be time after soccer practice and before homework. Specific times work much better than “later.” You could even set an alarm on your phone as a reminder.
Keeping track of practicing is also a good way to make sure it gets done. Practice charts are quite popular. Kids can check off each time they practice, or maybe put a sticker on the chart. You could consider a reward at the end of the week if they’ve practiced a certain number of times. Some teachers provide practice charts and check them over during the student’s lesson.
Classic harp set up: in the corner, facing out to the room.
Getting Set Up
Now, we all know that aspiring writers take their laptops to Starbucks, because they find the busy atmosphere and caffeine “stimulating.” How often have you seen a high school trumpet player working on some scales at Starbucks? That would be never, I hope. Not only would the Starbucks employees and customers strongly discourage this, but I doubt the trumpet player would get much done. The best place to practice is somewhere quiet. Usually this is a room in your house without friends and siblings tromping through and without a TV blaring in the corner. You don’t need to go to extremes and isolate your child in a tower, or banish them to the shed in your backyard, but someplace out of the hustle and bustle is a good idea.
It is also a good idea to make sure the room is well set up, especially as this makes it much easier for your child to get in a quick practice session before running off to another activity, rather than spending all of their time collecting everything they need and not having any time left to practice. Students need their instrument, a music stand, their music, a pencil, notes the teacher has made, and any instrument accessories, such as reeds or drum sticks. They might need a chair to sit on while they play. Something along the lines of a kitchen chair, rather than a couch, works best. If your child is 4 years old and just starting out, they’re not going to need much. If your student is a bit older or more advanced, they might need a couple of additional items.
Metronomes and tuners are frequently used in practicing. Both are now easily downloadable as free or inexpensive apps on all sorts of devices. If downloading an app means that your kid will constantly be badgering you to borrow your phone when they’re going to practice, you might consider going the old-fashioned route and buy a physical metronome or tuner from a music store. Some students might also want a device to listen to recordings as part of their practice. Or, to go one step further, students sometimes find recording themselves and listening to their playing useful. This can easily be done on a phone or with a digital recorder.
It’s a good idea to keep everything for practicing in one place, maybe in the corner of the living room that you’ve designated the practice area. You could also make a checklist for your child to glance over and make sure they have everything before they get started.
Encouraging without turning practicing into a battle is a difficult balance to strike. You know what forms of encouragement your son or daughter responds to best in general, but here are a few ideas.
You might try going over any notes the teacher has made with the student before they begin practicing. Many teachers write out their students’ assignments each week in a notebook. Some write things directly on the music, such as “Practice this spot ten times.” Students don’t always take the time to read over all notes and directions before plunging into their music, and simply reading them over together can help provide structure for a better practice session. Another idea might be to ask your child to explain things to you, maybe what they think the title means or what a particular term or symbol on their music means. Children usually enjoy instructing their parents. Or you could ask your student to play a piece that they’re working on for you. Especially if a student is getting close to a performance, they might like having you sit in the room and focus all your attention on them and their playing. On the other hand, some kids find constant input bothersome. If you interrupt too frequently or offer too much feedback, the student might feel like every note played is being judged, rather than having the ability to experiment on their own.
However, what they want from you might change daily. The time that you decide not to say anything about what they just played and leave them alone is the time they come running into the kitchen demanding to know if you were listening. The time you take a moment to say, “Wow, that was really lovely!” is the time they stomp off in a huff because you’re always interrupting them. Being a parent is not easy.
Take your son or daughter to see performances. You could go to all kinds of different performances, maybe to professional performances, or to see students at a local music college, or to see their teacher perform. You could also watch people perform on YouTube. Sometimes you can even find the same music that they’re working on. Watching others perform can be inspiring.
Motivation can also come in the form of opportunities. There are many kinds of activities, such as recitals, playing for friends, making a recording for a school project, performing at church, playing in a talent show, learning a favorite piece, entering a competition, or creating a piece. There’s nothing like a looming deadline to keep someone hard at work, practicing longer and more frequently than they would ordinarily.
A student harp ensemble preparing for a performance. Excellent practice motivation.
So you have your child all set up to practice. They have the right accessories, a practice chart on the fridge, and an upcoming performance on the calendar. You might be asking the obvious question. What should kids actually be doing when they practice? The long answer is so long that it’s another article entirely. (Click here to read How to Practice.) This is written for students and is all about how to practice well. If your child is rather serious about studying music, they might enjoy reading it.
The short answer is that you don’t need to be involved in every single note your child plays, but you probably want to monitor the situation in a general way. One way to have an idea whether your child’s practice is effective is to look at other examples. Babies are excellent examples of practicing naturally. When a baby learns to crawl, they practice all the time, scattered throughout their days. They keep trying and experimenting over and over, until they can do a small part of what they’re working towards. Then they move on to the next step. They might get frustrated and do something else for a while, but they don’t give up and announce that they’ve had it, they’re never going to be able to crawl, and they might as well go back to being carried everywhere. They also don’t stop when they’ve just begun to get good at it, such as barely managing to crawl across a corner of the living room rug. They keep working until they’ve completely mastered the skill. Suddenly they can crawl across half the house at lightning speed when your back is turned and delightedly knock over a whole stack of books. It’s incredible how thoroughly they acquire these skills.
This is the same goal as with practicing an instrument: to acquire each skill thoroughly and completely. And, just the same as with watching your baby learn to crawl, there’s not all that much that you as a parent can do other than making sure your child has what they need, and then giving them the time and space to experiment. Obviously if they’re playing video games with their trombone next to them on the couch, or spending 25 minutes “organizing” their oboe music before playing for five minutes, then you should intercede. But for the most part, your role is simply to be supportive. It can be an easily overlooked job, but don’t underestimate its importance. On behalf of your child, thank you for being such an excellent parent!
© 2015 Jacqueline Pollauf. All rights reserved.