Practice will be, without a doubt, the most challenging part of having a child involved in music lessons. Music practice is time not spent playing, which to a child can be intolerable. When it comes to a choice between music practice and baseball or a computer game, be prepared for some parental “convincing.”
Practice between lessons is vital to learning. Many accomplished musicians will say they are grateful for the support and encouragement they received during their practice time.
Getting started seems to be the point of struggle for both parents and kids. One of the best ways to cope with this is to establish a familiar, easy-to-follow routine. If you watch a baseball player, for instance, he will go through the same warm-up routine before each game. This is to help him focus. Focus is also applicable to music practice.
A typical routine might consist of:
- Warm Up-Perhaps a favourite song or scales. Getting the fingers, lips or voice limbered up will help before tackling the difficult parts.
- Drills – A new song that is being learned, or a specific exercise has been assigned by the teacher. Trouble spots should be given extra attention.
- Wrap Up – Your child may have a song he or she is good at and enjoys playing. Playing this song is a positive way to end the routine
Although it can be frustrating when you have to nag your child to practice, don’t resort to threats: “We spend a fortune on music lessons for you and if you don’t practice, we may as well cancel them!” This might run through your mind, but if you stop and think about it, you would never tell your child “If you don’t do your homework, we’ll stop sending you to school.” Positive reinforcement will go a lot further than threats.
Picking the Right Time
Here are a few suggestions for which practice times you may want to avoid:
- Right after school: Your child has just put in a full day and is likely to need time to unwind, just as most of us do from our jobs.
- Before bedtime: Although this depends to some degree on the child, kids need to be able to concentrate to practice effectively and are usually not at their best when they are tired
- Early in the morning: Some kids are “morning people” and this may work for them. However, mornings are often chaotic times and you may not want to start your day listening to potentially-loud music.
- During favourite TV programs: Your child will be noticeably distracted during this time. Also, if the neighbourhood kids are about to start up an outdoor game, that may not be a good time to practice either.
- Before mealtime or snack time: It is difficult to concentrate on an empty stomach.
Although a regular practice time is important, there may be some negotiation and flexibility required. An important event or family activity may have to take precedence, but try to work out an alternative time.
Practice times will vary according to the student and the teacher. Beginning students often have 15 minute practices. Twenty minutes to half an hour is typical for intermediate pupils. Advanced students will usually spend 45 minutes to an hour. Practice is more effective when it is shorter and more frequent. Practicing for too long can cause even the most seasoned musician to daydream and develop fatigue.
Dealing with Frustration
Inevitably, there will come a time when practice becomes a problem. This can be for legitimate reasons or just plain old frustration. Legitimate reasons for not practicing can include:
- Sickness or injury
- Family commitments or vacations
- Heavy regular schoolwork, such as exams or term papers
- Important life events such as birthdays, graduations, etc.
Frustration can be the most difficult thing to deal with as a parent because we are not only dealing with the child’s frustrations, but our own as well.
The key to handling these situations is to find out the cause. Children like to make progress and are often used to learning quickly. In studying an instrument, there will be inevitable plateaus where little or no progress is evident. This is normal. One of the most common times for a plateau to occur is around February. Christmas is long past, Easter is a long way off, and the winter blahs affect just about everybody. Focus on the fun of playing and encourage your child to play favourite pieces.
Here are a few things you can say when your child doesn’t want to practice:
- It’s the only way you are going to get better.
- It makes us proud to hear you play.
- You’ll never find out how good you are.
- If you don’t insist on practicing now, you’ll complain to me later when it gets difficult.
Sticking to practice schedules can be a chronic problem for some students. Having your child sign a contact is a good way to keep your child accountable by promising to practice a certain amount each day. There is a sample contract available here. Another useful way of encouraging discipline in practice is to keep a weekly log. There can be certain satisfaction in seeing those little spaces filled up as the days go by. There is also a sample practice record available here.