When I was a young, I looked forward to playing the piano. Practice was one of my favorite activities. It was a time to explore new pieces, to perfect old favorites and to enjoy the excitement and genius of great classical music. I assumed that this feeling was universal. After all what could be better than practicing? Over time, I learned that my enthusiasm is held by a select few.
As a parent, I discovered that my love of practicing was not shared by my children. Many years ago, as a young teacher, I found that parents and students struggled to practice at home. Nothing is more important to me than passing along the joy of music making, but I found significant barriers with my own children and students who did not share my devotion to practicing. Musical skill is limited by lack of consistent concentrated experience with an instrument. To overcome the lack of enthusiasm for good practice, I curated the best ideas, tricks and tips to help students to practice.
Tip #1 – Be Enthusiastically Involved
Take the time to listen to your child play. Your involvement shows how important learning the instrument is to you. Sitting with your child during their practice is especially critical for young children ages 3 to 8. As children get older, they can become more self sufficient and responsible, but you should still take the time to listen and enjoy their music making when possible.
Partner with your child’s teacher to understand what the musical goals are for the week, not just the pieces that are assigned, but what the teacher hopes the student can accomplish. For example, know if they should be paying special attention to phrasing on their Minuet and a relaxed thumb on their scalar passages on their Sonatina. Ideally, attend the lessons with the teacher or record the lessons so you know what are the key goals for the week. You as a parent become the teacher at home!
Tip #2 – Positive Reinforcement
If something sounds good, applaud! Let your child know so they can experience the joy of music sharing. I remember that my parents would compliment me after I finished playing a piece and simply ask me to play it again because it was their favorite piece. This provided me with the motivation to play the piece again. Even if the piece doesn’t sound good, find something positive to comment on and ask the child to play it again. You are the cheerleader for successful practicing.
Tip #3 – Expose Your Child To Music
Play recordings of great classical pieces, jazz and movie music. Take them to live concerts. Listen to recordings of pieces that they are playing. YouTube can be a terrific asset for listening to other students play your child’s repertoire. One of the things that I really like about the Suzuki Method is the recordings that are included with the books. Music is a language. We learn a language by listening to it and imitating it. Group classes are also an excellent opportunity to listen to other students play a common repertoire.
Tip #4 – Partner With Your Teacher To Create a Written Assignment
Ideally, your teacher should create a written assignment at each lesson. The best format for this assignment is a practice chart. Each row should start with the assigned piece, theory worksheet or technical exercise. Specific notes should be made about the high level goals for each of these assignments. The columns should be numbered to reflect different days of the week. The student can then place an X in the grid to record what was done on each day. The student can also track the overall amount of time spent practicing each day. The old axiom is true: what gets measured, gets done.
Tip #5 – Make a Plan Before Beginning Practice Each Day
Practice is more effective if it is intentional. Decide how much time going to be spent doing each assignment and what the musical goals are for the day. For example, a goal could be to play the first eight measures without all the right notes and rhythms. National Public Radio reported, “Having a goal for each practice session is essential, whether your child is practicing for five minutes or a couple of hours each day. From the Top alumna Ren Martin-Doike, a 20-year-old violist who now studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, says that her number one practice technique is to write down those benchmarks: “Set goals, hold yourself accountable to them and create a practice log you can be proud of!”
Tip #6 – Games, Bribes and Treats!
Sometimes even with a plan, measurement and cheerleading, things break down. Your child refuses to practice and maybe even throws a tantrum! Don’t despair. There are others forms of motivation that can be tried. Music practice requires repetition and sometimes this can be tedious. One of my favorite way to overcome this frustration is to place three pennies on the left hand side of the music stand. Each time your child plays a passage correctly they get to move a penny to the right hand side of the stand. Each time they play the passage incorrectly they have to move a penny back to the left hand side. When all three pennies are on the right hand side they can keep them!
If you are having a hard time motivating a child to sit down and practice, offer to exchange a chore for practice. Tell them that you will do the chore for them while they practice. The slower you do the chore; the longer they practice! You can also offer a positive reward such as an ice cream or special toy if they practice a set amount of time. Use these these bribes sparingly…but they do work!
Tip #7 – Pick a Time of Day
Life is crazy! But if it is possible to find a consistent time of day, it establishes a routine. Dr. Suzuki once quipped, “Practice only on the days you eat!” Practice should be routine as eating. Sometimes people find the mornings are best for practicing before all the craziness of the day sets in.
Tip #8 – Be Patient. Be Kind.
Remember that learning an instrument is challenging. There are going to be ups and downs. Be kind and patient with your child. If you have a bad day of practice with your child, remember that there is always tomorrow.
Use these eight tips to help motivate your child to practice and learn the joy of music making! If you are in the Orlando area and would like to explore the possibility of studying at the Suzuki Music Institute, please sign up for an interview with us.