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Practice Like You Brush Your Teeth

We're halfway into our October Practice Month and I'm having a lot of candid banter with parents and students about how to meet their teacher-issued practice goals. What really counts as practicing, anyway? After all, there is a lot at stake here, with fame and recognition on the Practice Wall of Fame as well as a free hot chocolate from Celena's Bakery! Naturally, students are wondering if they can bend the rules a bit to meet their customized practice goals, and this has started some interesting conversations.

For example: "I miss a day of practice, can I do double the next day?"

This question is totally fair from a five-year-old, and the temptation is to say, "Well, maybe. Depends. If you're sick, yes. If you're just goofing off and forget to practice, no." But this approach to practicing exposes a misunderstanding in the way that practicing works and the sorts of results we are hoping to achieve. After all, some daily tasks can be skipped and doubled the next day. In school, if you forget to do your homework one day, you might find yourself having to do extra the next day to catch up. Similarly, as grown-ups, if we don't do the dishes before heading to bed, they will just wait around until we do them tomorrow. Some things just accumulate until they're done, and the life lesson is that it's better to do a bit at a time instead of letting things build up.

Unfortunately, despite using the same part of your brain as algebra, learning a musical instrument is nothing like doing your math homework. It's more like exercising or eating well, or any other healthy lifestyle habit. The analogy that often resonates well with kids is this: practicing is like brushing your teeth. If you forget to brush your teeth one night, would you brush them twice the next morning to make up for it? Of course not! Once you've missed your chance to brush your teeth, it's gone, and the bad effects of sleeping with dirty teeth are not reversible by brushing them extra the next day.

One parent humorously told me this week that her child had neglected to practice all week and instead of letting him off the hook, they required him to do all of his weekly practice on the last day of the week. The student learned the hard way- it is no fun to do a week's worth of practice all at the same time, and it won't stick or be nearly as effective. It's easier and far better to spread it over five or six days in the week.

The only "cheat" I sometimes allow in my own children and students is this: sometimes, if you practice at two different points in the day, such as early morning and evening, it really does feel like you've done two different practice days. Of course, the bigger lesson here is that morning practice is possible, and that it is probably a better time to practice anyway in order to get maximum focus and results (read our post about the best time of day to practice). But still, if abused, this "shortcut" will start to undermine the benefits of daily practice.

The thing is, practicing is like almost every other thing that is good for us. It is better when done in the morning, easier when incorporated into a daily routine, and most beneficial when executed consistently and constantly. And like every other thing that's good for us (exercising, eating healthy food, etc), for whatever reason, our natural inclination is to resist doing it. The solution? Make it as easy as possible to start the task.

It seems perfectly reasonable to pack a healthy lunch the night before so that you're not tempted to buy it, or wear workout clothes to bed so that the morning run is harder to avoid (or buy the strawberry-flavoured toothpaste and pre-load the toothbrush for your child). When it comes to practicing, open the case for your child, turn the book to the right page, and eliminate all the barriers that might make practicing hard for them to start, because starting is the hardest part.

The best part about practicing is that you don't just avoid getting cavities, you actually gain an enjoyable skill. And the best part about consistent practicing is that eventually, children forget that it used to be a chore and start to expect that they'll be practicing every day, just like eating veggies and brushing their teeth. With months of consistency, they won't begrudge the routine, and they might it.

About the Author:

Rebecca Lane is the director, founder, and owner of Upper Beaches Music School. She teaches at the school on Saturdays, but most days you can find her chasing after her three young children, all of whom now take lessons at UBMS.

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