The Practice Wars: A New Hope

   

Practice. We all know we should be doing more of it but for some of us (myself included), the motivation just isn't always there. It can be super frustrating but sometimes that voice in our head telling us to watch just one more episode prevails!

For those of you out there that are old enough to have little versions of yourselves running around, music is a path that a lot of parents want their child to take. And with good reason! More and more studies show the link between higher academic achievement and children who are exposed to music. Music stimulates parts of the brain related to things like reading and math, it can help with memory and it connects them with other kids involved with music. However, all of this counts for nothing if like many of us, the little treasures just don't have the drive to practice.

I've been a music teacher for a number of years and I've taught kids from age 4 right up to the big retired kids. I've witnessed all the good and all the bad that comes with students of all ages, but one thing I see time and time again is that lack of practice. Don't get me wrong, some of the best students I've ever had have shown the utmost commitment in lessons but as soon as the time comes to put in that work at home, the drive is gone. So what I'd like to take you through today are a few ways that you can work with your child to create and nurture that passion for music.


 

  



Just in your head I'd like you to count how many times in your life you've had fun doing one thing when all you can think about is doing something else. Next I'd like you to think about how many times you've wanted to go back and do it again. And again. And again. I think you can see what I'm getting at. Little Johnny isn't going to pick up that violin when in his dreams he's a famous flautist. Now I'm not telling you to go and fork out on any instrument they want, but if there are a few options for the school band or you have a budget in mind and a few instruments fall in that price range, let them choose! You may have your heart set on them becoming a violinist but if they've taken a shine to the flute, there's no reason why you shouldn't encourage that. They've decided for themselves that this is something they want to play and if it's their choice, they are going to want to pick it up at home a lot more often than if you forced them into the violin. Even if you really, and I mean really want them to play the violin, this isn't the end of the road. This is just the beginning of their own musical journey. I started on the piano and have since picked up a whole bunch of other instruments (one of which became my preferred instrument over the piano). So don't worry yourself too much, at this stage it's about getting them involved and excited about learning!

You could be saying to yourself "Hey buddy, I've bought my child something they've wanted before and a few days later they've lost interest, what say you to that?!". I hear you, and this is why the next step is so important.

I remember when I first started piano lessons I absolutely loved playing. I couldn't wait to show my family and friends what I could do, but on the other hand, I couldn't stand being made to practice. If the mood took me I'd sit down and learn new songs and go over my methods but as soon as someone told me I had to practice, I just wanted to be anywhere else. Don't ask me why, the mind of a child is fraught with distraction.

Establishing a practice routine that is right for your daughter or son is easier said than done. What works for some doesn't always work for others but finding a routine that sticks can be rewarding just in itself. Keep it positive! We hope it was their choice to learn this instrument so when it comes to practicing at home, it's not like you're asking them to do chores. If they can see it that way it loses the "homework" shroud and once that has gone, their practice won't ever be the same. Obviously I don't know your child, I don't know what works for them or how they learn, but this is where you come in. No one knows your child better than you do. So use that to your advantage and remember, this is about keeping them interested and not a way to see immediate results. Practice isn't always about how long you sit there, it's about what you cover in the time you have. Also remember the results from practice are sometimes seen the next day or time they play and not while they're struggling then and there. This is one of the tricky things about muscle memory!


 

Give them purpose. If they're old enough to appreciate certain groups or musicians, or if like 90% of the students I've taught they absolutely love Taylor Swift (I've lost count as to how many times I've taught her entire back catalogue), ask them how long they think Taylor had to practice to get where she is now. As much as we like to think some people may be born with all this talent, even they have to practice. All the time. When they can see that someone they look up to started in the same position they are in now, sometimes that's all the motivation you need.   I've heard from many different teachers and students alike that they recommend 30 minutes of practice a day. 30 minutes of practice a day is fantastic. If you can commit to that, well that's just great, but I've always had a different view. I've always recommended setting goals. For example, some parents may reward half an hour of practice with TV or video games. This can work, but to me that makes practice something to be endured with the promise of a reward at the end. Instead of setting a time frame, suggesting something as simple as playing the first 2 lines of a piece without making any mistakes can be more than sufficient. It could take anywhere between 10 to 40 minutes to complete, but with the goal in mind and not just empty time to fill, the quality of the practice session far outweighs the quantity.

 

 

 

Make it Fun

All kids love fun. They're fun junkies. They're all mad for fun. Name any kid in the history of ever who hated having fun. It's just not a thing. If you can make practicing music at home even remotely fun, it will make the biggest difference. Obviously practice is about learning and studying, both of which involve focus and repetition (all kids love that) but that doesn't mean it has to be boring and stale. You more than anyone should know what your kid likes, what they find funny or fun, what games they like to play and what kind of learning environment works for them. If you're not sure what floats their boat yet, that's ok too! Keep trying some different approaches and just being around them, listening and even getting involved with their practice (in an encouraging way only) is a great way to make it feel like fun!

One game that seems quite popular with parents and kids is the penny game. Now you don't necessarily need coins, anything could be used. Skittles and chocolate seem to be a favourite but it doesn't need to be sweets. Use your imagination! The game is best used when trying to get through a difficult passage/section of music. Place an agreed amount of whichever item you use (for examples sake, we'll use skittles) on one side of the music stand (if you don't have a stand, fret not! You can place them anywhere). Each time they play the passage correctly, move one skittle to the other side. Each time they play it wrong or make a mistake, all the skittles are moved back to the starting side. The goal being to get all the skittles to the other side by playing through the section multiple times without making any mistakes, and then if they succeed, it's skittles time! This is just one game out of hundreds you can incorporate into your practice routine.

If like me your brain sometimes doesn't work, the web is a big place. I mean, you're reading this on the web right now. You're practically halfway there! You're sure to find even more advice from other parents with kids in music studies or ideas for games and ways to make their practice sessions at home more rewarding for everyone involved.



 


Prepare for frustration

Even though we want to make music fun and interesting, learning any instrument is not an easy task. It takes years of practice and commitment to come out on top and for children not seeing immediate results, it can get frustrating. Making the same mistakes while frustrated can lead to one doozey of a time and quite possibly a tantrum! This is normal. Everyone hits a wall at some point but it's important not to let it halt progress. If I was getting frustrated and someone was forcing me to keep going, I'd more than likely sink even deeper into my crankiness. Even offering help can get you nowhere if they're just plain fed up. Sometimes taking a break or leaving it for a day can do wonders. Just because they didn't get it today doesn't mean they never will. When I reached these points with my students, I'd tend to get them to play something they love and then leave the lesson for the day. Ending on a piece they get genuine enjoyment from reminds them that music is about the joy we get from playing a piece that means something to us. Yes, music studies are hard but it is so worth it.

Support

Having the people closest to you encouraging you every step of the way is so important. Grandma, Uncle Larry, second cousin Tim, if your child has the support from their friends and family offering words of praise and encouragement no matter how slow their progress, they are going to feel like all their hard work is paying off. Even if what they are playing doesn't sound that great, try and find something to compliment that is genuine and not just said for the sake of it. It may sound like they've got cats in a sack trying to fight their way out but if their finger work has improved, let them know! By highlighting the area that you notice improvements in and by not making witty remarks about how bad they sound, even if it is said out of jest, they can see themselves improving even if it doesn't sound like it just yet. Positive reinforcement works wonders.


One final suggestion. If possible, leave the instrument outside of its case and somewhere they spend a lot of time (in front of the TV, in the computer room etc.). If they see it out and walk past it often enough, the chances are they will pick it up. I left my guitar next to my computer desk so when I was going through my tertiary studies and was hitting a wall with my work, the guitar would be right there looking at me. I'd pick it up and play through some songs and fiddle around with scales and techniques. It ended up becoming such a relaxing thing that I incorporated it into my daily routine. Sometimes picking up an instrument 'just because' is the best practice you can do at the time.


Regardless of the instrument, music is such a fantastic thing for children to become involved in. Even outside of practice, exposing them to different genres, artists and instruments opens them up to the world of music, not just the 'boring homework' side. There is so much to explore and with your help, your kids will have a passion for life. So get out there, get involved and get excited because if you're excited, they will be too.