The good old days—when parents and music teachers could just order children to practice, and practice they would—are behind us, and some might argue that in reality those days weren’t so good after all. Shouldn’t students be passionate about music, and practice just because they love the art?
That would be ideal of course—but like all ideals, it doesn’t account for how complex we are. Just like any love, the love of music has moments that don’t feel ideal. We get bored, we get stuck, and the first time many of us play Bach or Metallica it sounds like a bunch of random notes that are hard on the fingers—the opposite of fun, the opposite of love.
And children’s schedules are incredibly complex! After the long schoolday, water polo, homework, a round of Minecraft and possibly dinner squeezed in somewhere along the way, there’s not much mind left to make sense of music, or time to practice it.
In talking to parents, teachers, and students around the Villa recently, a few common truths emerge:
—We enjoy music more when we practice more; it becomes a part of us. For both professionals and students, some outside force is urging us to practice. Professional musicians are under pressure to learn something new for our next concert, gig, or symphony audition. We set time aside: after or before teaching, or during breaks. For our students, the most important outside force is a parent, setting up a workable schedule, setting time aside when music can happen. While laissez-faire scheduling works sometimes (“I practice whenever I’m free from other things”), we’re more often successful when we have 20 practice minutes set aside after snack and before other homework. Or after breakfast and before heading off to school.
—Everyday practice is best, of course, but the best practice schedule is the one we can stick to every week. Possibly the hardest thing about practice is figuring out when to do it. If we can only practice on days when we don’t have soccer, then we need to figure that out in advance, and stick to it!
—Playing in recitals is vital. Why? Because we learn the most about a piece, and about our capabilities, in the week before a recital (and sometimes, in the last two days!) That said, some students are reluctant to get up on stage at first; in this case, we can have weekly “after-dinner recitals” for parents and siblings at home, to get us ready.
—Quality of practice is very important, especially when we can only practice a few times a week. In lessons, so much of what we learn is how to practice. How much repetition is enough? (More than you think!) What should I do when I do get bored in practice? (Switch it up—turn the metronome off; turn it on; practice the passage sotto voce; etc.) And as Suzuki says, the practice really begins the first time I play the passage correctly.
To that end, what makes practice time less of a battle? For many teachers, and especially for young students, cut-and-dried assignments work best. “Check off the box on your practice sheet when you’ve played the song correctly five times in one day.” Use the scale to write a melody, 4 bars long, using half notes, then play it. For older students, larger challenges—but ones with some defined criteria for success—work best: memorize a sonatina movement, or the solo from Stairway to Heaven. In many families, rewards work: put a quarter in the practice jar whenever a practice is over (as long as the song sounds better, and good focus is maintained!)
As well, the question of curriculum comes into play, and here there is no single solution. While a curriculum based entirely on music from Star Wars is unworkable, we all get weary at certain times of year; the insertion of “musical candy” into our course of study can help. When’s the best time for candy? How much candy is too much? Here, the feedback loop between parent, teacher, and student tells us what we need to know.
What are your thoughts? If you have other ideas about maintaining practice routines for busy kids or adults, and solutions that have or haven’t worked, we’d love to hear!