Two Practice Tips That Change Everything
When you registered your child for music lessons, you probably had a few goals in mind. Teach them discipline, maybe. The value of long-term goals. Patience and persistence. Perhaps you hope they will become a professional musicians. While music lessons are probably one of the best ways to teach children how to work hard at something effectively, the most common reason parents enroll their children in music lessons is this: They want their child to love and appreciate music.
Well, let me drop a truth-bomb on you right now.
Most of what happens when we practice with our children has the opposite effect.
With well-meaning intentions, we set our children up for failure by asking them to try to play songs, pieces, scales, etc that they don't know very well yet. Then we tell them how to improve and ask them to repeat the same task repeatedly, which is both challenging and boring. While they may be learning to play their instrument, they certainly aren't enjoying it... and chances are, neither are you.
Frustration can quickly turn into a hesitation to practice (read Two Steps to Happy Practicing to find out how to avoid this before practicing even begins), and will eventually result in fewer practice days. The less a child practices, the less they will succeed and enjoy playing. You can see how this can spiral downward until the child simply does not want to continue with lessons at all.
Although learning new and difficult passages are an integral part of improvement and therefore success, they are not conducive to enjoyment. Not at first, and not to an instant-gratification-seeking child (which is every child... until they learn the value of long term goals by doing something for a long time...like, say, music lessons. You see where I'm going here.)
For this Spring's edition of Practice Month, I have two great practice strategies that will foster a positive relationship between your child and their instrument, and allow them to enjoy practicing daily.
1. FREE PLAY
Free play is when you let you child play whatever they want on their instrument, however they want to play it (cue gasps).
This will usually mean that they will choose to play with zero regard for technique, and will play mindless and irritating "tunes" (if they can be called that) on their instrument. If you're lucky, they might choose a song they've already learned, but they'll play it too fast, or with appalling attention to tone or accuracy. It is super annoying to listen to and it feels like they are undoing all of the good stuff they've been working on.
And then the magic happens. Often, the child just needed to test that absolutely horrible bow grip to make sure it really DID make that awful sound we keep warning them about. And when the child hears it, shrieks with delight, and wants to try it over and over again, we let them experiment. Because they need to know how to play it wrong just as much as they need to know how to play it right.
Sometimes, we are asking too much of their little ears. "Can you hear how much better it sounds?" we ask, moving their bow a half millimeter away from the bridge. Maybe they can, but maybe they were so focused on putting their fingers on those silly finger tapes that they didn't have time to listen to their tone... which means they didn't hear the subtle improvement when we corrected their bow.
Allowing a child to play their instrument wrong is extremely powerful. They will learn how their instrument works not because of the beautiful sound they made, but because of the awful sound. To them, this is far more enjoyable than only being allowed to play properly all the time. They are also much more likely to retain the skill they've learned (and it's reciprocal effect of putting the bow in the proper spot) if they are allowed to learn it through free play and experimentation.
It is tempting to do free play at the end of a practice session, but consider doing it closer to the beginning, when the child has more chances to test their "bad" and "good" techniques... and when you can use their free play as a teaching tool, rather than watching them unravel everything you just worked on.
Review pieces are comfortable, play-anytime pieces that your child finds non-threatening. Any Suzuki-certified teacher will tell you that review is crucial to developing a musician's ear and to improving technique. There are many reasons for this. The reason you've likely already heard is that in playing something that's become more ingrained, the student can focus their mental awareness on technical aspects, like that straight bow they've been working on. Perfect!
However, there is another, lesser-referenced and far more powerful reason to do regular review of already-learned pieces.
With review, we can finally allow the child to do the reverse of what they did in free play- we give them a chance to really shine and play well. We give them a reason to feel good about how they play their instrument.
Wait a second. Wasn't that the original purpose of taking these music lessons? So that our children would enjoy and appreciate music? Review is a sure-fire way to reach that goal. And I promise they will enjoy practicing more if they know that they will have the opportunity to revisit old friends that they are confident in executing well.
If review pieces are already a staple in your child's practice sessions, they will have plenty of repertoire that they know well and can easily pull out when Aunt Sue stops by for a visit. If you're just jumping on the review bandwagon now, allow your child to choose a review piece. Chances are, they'll choose something that they performed at last year's recital, or a piece they worked on extensively because it's more ingrained in their memory. Reliving successful performances is a great way to infuse pleasure into practice sessions and bring pride to the forefront of their mind.
Review pieces can well at the end of a practice session, but be careful that it doesn't become a rushed, check-the-box item that your child is only doing to appease you. The goal is to end practice time on a high note and finish strong and encouraged. And yes, both you and your child should celebrate after a job well done. Parents put in a lot of hard work too!
Still need more practicing support? Read my blog post on practicing with my own children in last year's Practice Month!
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 music lessons at UBMS.