"Learning about music or learning to play an instrument does not happen without commitment and involvement on the part of both parent and child…development depends on continuity and dedication…it is cumulative effort that leads to success, not intermittent moments of enthusiasm or occasional bursts of energy." (1)
"Our society often wrongly equates work with drudgery. Work is food for the soul if the attitude towards it is positive. It is only through constructive effort that one is led to accomplishment and a sense of worth. The happiness of achieving a goal should not be greater than the joy of working towards it." (2)
Preparing to Practice
Before you start practicing, do some relaxation exercises. Tighten and then loosen the muscles in your body, starting with your feet and working up through your legs, arms and neck. Be sure to include your hands and fingers.
Take a few minutes before you start playing to clear your mind of thoughts from the day's activities. You want to be able to concentrate on the music completely, and you can't do this if you are thinking of what else you need to do or of situations that occurred in school instead.
Find a place to practice that is away from the family activity areas. There should be no distractions such as TV, radio, other children, pets or telephone. Ideally, the room should have a door that can be closed to for privacy and to help concentration.
Try to practice consistently at the same time each day. This period should be built into the family's schedule.
While the duration of the practice will vary from child to child and according to age and commitment, it is important to play daily, including on the day of a lesson. Learning to play an instrument is somewhat like learning to play a sport; your muscles need to be developed in a particular way in order to master the physical part of playing, and this can only be done through consistent workouts. As Paderewski, the famous pianist, once said, "If I don't practice for one day, I know it. If I don't practice for two days, the critics know it. If I don't practice for three days, the audience knows it." Or, as Dr. Suzuki puts it, "Only practice on the days that you eat."
Sometimes, two or even more shorter practice sessions are better than one extended period. You can fit in some work before school, for example, then another short period later in the day, perhaps after supper so as not to conflict with other after-school activities.
Equip your practice space properly. It should have a good chair, a sturdy music stand adjusted to the correct height, proper lighting and a place to store extra strings, rosin, music, pencils, markers, notebook and the like. Keep your materials in good order so you don't have to interrupt your practice session to look for something. If you play the piano, be sure the instrument is tuned and maintained regularly.
The AMOUNT of time spent practicing isn't always as important as HOW it is spent. Have a plan in mind as to what you want to accomplish in a practice session before you start. Divide your practice time into sections. Allow so many minutes for exercises, refining the playing of your current pieces, sight reading, etc. Work with your teacher to make a chart that will help you with this schedule.
Always warm up before attempting to play your actual music. These activities put playing muscles into proper shape and help focus the mind on tone quality. Warm-up music doesn't have to consist of boring exercise and scales; the important thing is to find something to play that allows you to become involved in the music and makes you ready to start practicing in earnest.
Practice Hints for the Musician
Don't start at the beginning of a piece each time you sit down to practice it. Work on the passages that are giving you difficulty first. Play them slowly, so you can see where the problems lie. Break down a hard section into small bits, perhaps even to the point where you are playing single notes, and practice each several times until the music becomes easy to play. Then put the piece back together and gradually bring it up to tempo.
If you can't play a measure or phrase, you shouldn't go on to play the rest of the piece until it has been mastered.
Take time to figure out the fingering of passages note by note. Write this information directly into the music; don't rely upon your memory.
If you are having problem with tempo, practice with a metronome. Set it at a slow count at first, then gradually increase the pulse until you arrive at the final tempo.
If you are making mistakes, it means that you are playing too fast. Slow down! Remember that if you play a passage wrong several times in a row, you are actually teaching yourself to play it incorrectly!
It is often easier to master difficult rhythmic patterns if you first play the passage on a single note. Add the melody after you have mastered the beat.
Sometimes it helps to play a difficult passage in a different rhythm. This can help you to learn the note pattern better.
The Suzuki method of teaching recommends using what it calls the scramble game. A piece is divided into phrases and sections, each of which is numbered and learned separately. These sections are then played out of order, according to numbers drawn at random. This procedure helps in developing concentration and in memorization.
Ear training is important. Try to hear a note in your mind or sing a phrase before you play it. It's also fun to have someone play a note on the piano so you can try to guess what it is.
Make good use of pencil and markers to indicate places where you keep making the same mistake.
Work on the musical aspects of a piece as you practice the technicalities. What is the piece all about? How can you convey this message to your audience? Try to get a sense from the first of the overall message of the work.
Think about your posture as you play and check your arm, hand and finger positions regularly during practice. Bad habits can be hard to break and may lead to injury and pain.
A tape recorder is a great tool to use when practicing. Use it to record yourself so you can hear problems, particularly regarding to tempo and interpretation, that you might otherwise miss.
End a practice session by playing beautifully a piece that you know well.
Practice Hints for the Parent
Learning to work independently is difficult. Therefore, it is sometimes a good idea for a parent to sit in the room with a young child while she is practicing. Criticism is inappropriate in such situations, but quiet guidance and suggestions will be very helpful to the youngster.
It is okay to reward a child for practicing successfully with a small treat as well as with kind, positive words. Robert Cutietta suggests a random system of rewards that can be either extrinsic (a book about music, for example, or a musical tote bag) or intrinsic (a performance for the family). Both types should be related to music. (3)
Some parents of young children like to sit in on a lesson so that they can be of more assistance during practice times. This is fine, but be sure not to be intrusive. It is your child's lesson, not yours!
It is important to praise your child often! One can applaud effort as well as accomplishment.
Remember: "Only time, positive parental support and excellent teaching can achieve satisfactory results." (4)
Why Doesn't My Child Want to Practice
If your young child is resisting practice, ASK him why he doesn't want to work. It may be because he doesn't like the music he is playing, or that he doesn't relate well to his music teacher. Or, perhaps the practice session is taking place at a time that conflicts with another desirable activity. You won't know the reason unless you discuss the situation openly.
A parent should not assume the role of "practice police." Before a child starts lessons, the rules and guidelines for practice should be carefully discussed and decided upon. Practice should therefore be non-negotiable.
If a piece cannot be learned in a relatively short period of time, it may be too hard for the student. This can cause frustration and lead to a desire to give up learning to play the instrument entirely.
A child may not want to practice because the sessions are too long. Parents of young children should adjust the length of time spent working at an instrument so that the child stops before she becomes tired.
If your child is having difficulty during practice sessions, tape them so that her teacher can hear what is really going on.
1. Machover, Wilma and Uszler, Marienne. Sound Choices: Guiding Your Child's Musical Experiences. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 209.
2. Bidler, Carole L. and Lloyd-Watts, Valery. Studying Suzuki Piano: More than Music. Athens, Ohio: Senzay, 1979, p. 3.
3. Cutietta, Robert A. Raising Musical Kids: A Guide for Parents. New York, Oxford University Press: 2001, p. 96-98.
4. Machover and Uszler, 207.
Nathan, Amy. The Young Musicians' Survival Guide. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.