Practice Tips for Parents

by / Wednesday, 30 July 2014 / Published in Advice, Kids
Classic music Sax tenor saxophone violin and clarinet vintage

What are the most effective ways to encourage your children to practice?

Practice: It’s many parents’ dream – you send your son or daughter to music lessons, they love their teacher, think playing their instrument is fabulous, and it’s difficult to drag them away from it.  Practicing all hours, progressing faster than young Mozart…

Reality check…we’re not sure that ANY children are built that way. (Ok, there are some, but they are few and far between)  So the first bit of advice is this – know that sometimes getting your child to practice will be easy and other times it won’t.   If your child resists practicing, it’s not because they aren’t “meant” to play an instrument, it’s most likely because they are resisting doing something that’s difficult.  That’s a normal reaction.  Regular practicing builds a self-discipline that has impacts far outside the practice room. As a parent, your job is to do your best to teach skills for life.

If your child starts lessons quite early (ages 3-5), discuss practice with his/her teacher.  The most important thing at that age is instilling a love of music and the instrument and making the experience enjoyable.  Most young children will enjoy and develop best if there are large elements of play to the practice time.  It could be games or apps, inviting the child to be silly on the instrument, or listening and responding.  There is a wealth of content out there (including some of the apps reviewed on this site) so it should be relatively easy to make sure your young child has access to lots of different musical resources.

Around 5-6 years old, regular practice becomes more important. A starting point is 10-15 minutes of practice a day, 5 days a week.  For some children, it is easier to split this into two sessions. As they grow older and more advance, the amount of practice naturally increases.  Here are some tips that can make it easier:

Practicalities: Make practicing as easy as possible.  If reasonable, leave the instrument and music out and available so it’s easy to get at.  Make sure that the practice area is as free from distraction as possible, and endeavour to make sure that distracting items such as mobiles aren’t brought in to the practice area.  (Note: even though there are lots of great Metronome and Tuner apps, it may be best to purchase stand-alone devices just to keep the phone/tablet out of the practice area).

Routine: Practice sessions should be a regular part of the daily schedule. For some families, aligning it with homework time works well, for others, first thing in the morning is a good time.  If there are issues, experiment with changing the time.  But regularity and routine is critical – practicing should be part of the daily routine just like brushing one’s teeth!

Support: Make sure that there is music in your life – on the radio, playing or streaming deliberate choices of music, and going to live concerts where possible.  The best musical education is being exposed to different types of music and different players.  What would your child have to aim for if he’s never heard the best players of his instrument?  Why should your child be limited to just one style of music?  It’s also important to make sure that you talk about what you’ve been hearing-  ask your child what she thinks and point out that these performances are the result of years of study and practice.  Also be aware that for younger children, parents generally need to directly support practice – in other words, sit with them, guide them, help them to focus and so on.

Goals: In general, steer away from “You have to practice for 20 minutes!” and towards goal-oriented practicing.  Deliberate practice is the key to improvement; rote repetition slows progress.  Deliberate practice means different things for different ages.  For young students, it can be about making his/her way through a certain number of bars, then progressing on to playing the piece through.  “Challenges” of playing with different dynamics, moods and speeds can be set.  As students progress, metronome work and accuracy become more important.  Students should be able to identify areas in pieces or technical exercises where they are experiencing issues and work on those before incorporating back in to the whole piece.  From a larger perspective, make sure the teacher has planned performance opportunities for his/her students to work towards.

Incentives:Parents will of course differ on their views with regard to incentivising their children.  There are two techniques we really stand behind.  Firstly, practice charts and journals are great.  They allow children to see their progress and feel a sense of accomplishment after every session.  No child wants to go to a lesson with an empty practice chart and in our experience, keeping them up with stickers is fun and rewarding for kids.  The second technique is using rewards for milestones.  What we’re suggesting is acknowledging milestones like finishing a book or taking an exam with something special.  Mark the progress and make sure both you and your children enjoy it.

Fun: Kids will differ in terms of what they think of as “fun” music – for some it will be pop or movie music, for others, it will be favourite pieces from previous years.  Make sure there is time to learn and play this type of music – maybe once a week they get to play whatever they want, or perhaps when planning for performances, the student gets to choose one of the pieces played.

Sometimes as kids approach and enter their teenage years, practicing and lessons become a battle ground.  Somewhere between the ages of 11-14, parents need to back down a little bit and help children discover for themselves that there is a relationship between effort and results.  By this age, you’ll understand what really motivates your child and be able to work with that.  For some kids, music is a stress relief.  Others love a challenge.  Others are motivated by performing.  It’s also useful as kids grow older to simply discuss why they are taking lessons and get their input.  What do they want to get out of it?  What do they enjoy and not enjoy?  Help them connect the achievement of their goals with the deliberate work of practice.  As they get older, make sure they understand that grade achievements and performance experience can help with university admissions and scholarships, but at the same time, allow them to guide the direction of lessons and learning toward what they enjoy.

We hope you’ve enjoyed our tips to help practicing.  Why not share your best practice tips and tricks below?  We’d love to hear from you!

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