The majority of a child’s musical development occurs inside the home environment. A child who takes music lessons usually attends one thirty to sixty minute lesson every week. However, the rest of the time is spent practicing at home. Parents therefore play a very important role in a child’s musical education and development. In the last article I addressed some of the difficulties that come with music practice, but in this article, I hope to address some of these difficulties with practical hints and tips.
Set up practice charts so that the child can see their progress. Time and frequency are two very common (and relatively easy) ways to measure and quantify practice efficacy. Completing a wall chart that documents the time spent playing the instrument, as well as the frequency of practice (which is hopefully a daily occurrence) imparts to your child that practice should happen regularly, and that it takes time to learn up new skills relevant to music learning. Wall charts allow kids to visually see their development and track their progress.
Make sure that practice is goal orientated. Of course, time and frequency are not the only ways to measure practice efficacy. If you talk to any music teacher, they will say often that they believe in teaching their students to get into the habit of qualitative practice. The problem with saying ‘I want you to practice for ten minutes a day’ is it leads to the wrong kinds of behaviors. Kids end up setting the timer for ten minutes, playing something in their music books (or conversely not playing something and just improvising) and then leaving once their ten minutes is up. Rather than addressing fundamental flaws and errors in their playing, they reinforce their mistakes by playing their pieces start to finish, over and over again until their ten minutes has finished. Instead of asking your child how long they spent at their instrument, ask them what they practiced. Also talk about what they intend to practice before their practice session. Encourage them to write down what they intend to practice (which can be a simple to-do list that consists of isolated passages, sections, pieces or ideas), and talk to them about how they intend to practice the things on their list. After practice, ask them how it went, encourage them to talk and reflect on what was effective, what worked, what didn’t work. Doing these things develops their problem solving skills and ensures that practice is goal orientated rather than time orientated.
Allow time for mucking around and improvisation. Improvisation or what I tend to call ‘mucking around’ is not a bad thing – it allows the child to discover the various sounds that their instrument is capable of producing. Improvisation teaches children to be creative and through improvisation, children learn that music making is not restricted to notation. Improvisation should be practiced and encouraged.
When they are playing challenging passages, and struggling at them, praise them for their hard work and effort. A lot of the time, we praise people for a high quality performance or the finished result. We live in a world that rewards talent, natural ability and high achievement, but not hard work and effort. It can send the wrong kinds of messages to our children. Educational psychology is starting to acknowledge the need to praise hard work and perseverance, because when we are challenged, we work hard, and we grow. In my own experience, I’ve noticed that students can have the tendency to want to only play pieces that they already know really well. They do not want to extend themselves by learning new repertoire that may be slightly more challenging and difficult. This is natural – it’s easier, and in many ways it’s more enjoyable to play pieces that are polished. However, there is more to be gained from learning new things that extend and challenge the student. Praising effort acknowledges that growth occurs through hard work. It also tells them that ability, intelligence and talent are not fixed, but acquired through effort and persistence.
If practice happens with little or no reminding on your part as the parent, then praise them for their high level of maturity and autonomy. As I have said before, motivating oneself to practice is hard, especially since it is a solitary activity; and more particularly because we live in a digital age that is full of distractions. When your child gets up and goes to their instrument on their own accord that in itself is a great accomplishment –one that should be rewarded and acknowledged through praise.
Be involved, listen, host regular informal after dinner concerts where the child plays for the family, go to concerts, play musical games with your children. Practicing is a solitary experience. Sitting at your instrument and playing for so many minutes or hours a day can feel lonely at times. Some parents like to hold weekly informal after dinner concerts, a day or two before the lesson so that the child has a smaller deadline to work towards, and also so that they can enjoy and experience performing – it also allows the child to share their music with their family. Going to concerts can be a rich and inspiring experience for the child.