One of the biggest challenges parents face when their children play a musical instrument is getting them to practice. Like any endeavor, playing an instrument requires consistent reinforcement of learned skills, and this is accomplished through regular practice sessions outside of lesson time.
For many parents, however, the constant battle over practice makes them rue the day they signed their child up for lessons. Is there a way to encourage your child to practice, without one (or both) of you ending up in tears? Is it possible to make it through music lessons and still retain your sanity?
What is the optimal practice length?
Over time, an arbitrary 30 minutes of practice time each day became the norm for any student learning to play an instrument. While it is unclear where this number came from, the parent of a child crying through those minutes can attest to how long it really is. Many music teachers dictate a daily 30 minutes of practice for optimal rehearsal, lending credence to the idea that somehow this magic number will ensure prime playing ability.
Many people attribute the 30 minute practice time to the idea that you must practice a skill for 10,000 hours before you have reached mastery level. This idea, attributed to Malcolm Gladwell, is known as “The Mozart Effect.” According to Gladwell, the key to proficiency is practice. By ensuring that a student receives 10,000 hours of rehearsal, they should become well-versed and skilled at a particular skill.
However, in most situations, practice length is dependent on the age and experience of the student. Younger students may find they only need practice 10 minutes a day, while older students may require up to an hour daily.
What about students who play for fun?
Not every musician aspires to take the stage in a concert arena. Some are content to become proficient and simply want to play recreationally, for their own enjoyment. For these music students, the joy of playing is diminished when forced rehearsal times become a burden. Rather than requiring 30 minutes a day, ask the child if they have accomplished everything for their next lesson. If they’ve conquered a skill, allow them to move on to another part of their day.
How can your child’s practice be more effective?
Focus on the process of playing, not on how well they’ve mastered the instrument. Particularly during the early years of learning, the end result may not be performance-worthy. Instead of pushing your child for perfection, encourage their perseverance through the process of learning. Here are a few strategies:
1. Make the practice session count.
Effective teachers will give their students goals to complete each week: mastering a particular section of the score, memorizing a difficult passage, or practicing scales, for example. These goals will help drive the practice session and ensure that time is being used productively, rather than the student just enduring until the time runs out.
2. Set musical goals for each practice session.
Rather than focusing on time, focus on progress. A child’s daily goal may be master the first 10 measures of a piece without mistakes. If they can accomplish that in 15 minutes or 45 minutes, then they have finished practice for the day. The second day’s goal may be to add the next 10 measures.
As the child progresses, they learn that the goal is not rehearsal time, but performance mastery. This leads to internal motivation and pride in what they’ve accomplished. In addition, the child may be compelled to practice on their own, simply because they enjoy the sense of ownership.
3. Keep attending lessons.
Sometimes, students skip their lessons because they failed to practice enough. This is counterproductive to the learning process, and can actually set the student back in their learning. Be honest with the teacher about the lack of practice. Good instructors will still provide review material that will keep the student progressing. They will also hold the student responsible for not practicing, which is sometimes motivation enough to practice during the week.
4. Save the instrument from the closet.
An instrument that is “put away" in the closet or under the bed is an instrument that is rarely played. Keep instruments out in plain sight, where they can be a visual reminder to practice and where the student is more likely to simply pick the instrument up and play for a few minutes. Without a predetermined amount of time, students can practice their instrument for fun and without the pressure of filling up a practice session. Even a few extra minutes each day can make a tremendous difference in your child’s abilities.
5. Don’t bargain.
It’s tempting to give in to the child who claims, “But I’ll practice double tomorrow.” It is easier to track timings on a calendar than to engage with the child and their music teachers. The result, however, may be less than desirable. By allowing your child to negotiate their practice sessions, they may get the idea the practice is an optional activity that can be bargained away.
Getting your child to practice their instrument doesn’t have to be a painful experience. Encourage your child to enjoy their rehearsals and to work towards mastering their musical ability. The rewards of playing an instrument are immense, and can lead to a lifetime of enjoyment and fulfillment.
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Photo used under Creative Commons from Marina K Caprara