Thursday, April 25, 2013

What about Practicing? part 3

Practicing. The word probably brings you back to your own childhood, to days spent inside chained to your instrument while you listened to the neighborhood kids playing outside. Once you've decided to invest in music lessons for your child, you face the task of getting them to practice so your money isn't wasted.

Any way you look at it, some days your kids just don't want to practice. It is sometimes a chore. It is often difficult. It is occasionally close to torture, and if your kids feel that way then usually you do too. But it has to be done. So, how can we make it more fun? Some of these tips will apply mainly to Suzuki parents, but lots of them can apply to anyone who takes music lessons.

1) Rewards and charts. Some kids are motivated by putting a sticker on a practice chart, keeping track of consecutive days of practice, or adding up practice minutes per week. Put pieces in a Mr. Potato Head for each successful repetition. On a particularly difficult piece, give M&Ms or mini marshmallows for each good repetition. These can help them persevere on boring days. Ask your teacher if they'll set up a reward system or help your child set a goal and provide a reward for reaching that goal.

2) Add in unpredictability. If they're well into a Suzuki book, have your child pull numbers or song titles out of a hat and play them in that order. Or if they're learning a difficult piece, number each line and pull a number out of a hat and play the line that matches that number. Create a game spinner with musical keys and have then play the scale of the number they spin. Roll a die to determine how many times to play a piece. Anything to make it feel like the parent isn't controlling every aspect of practicing helps.

3) Break up the practice session. Sometimes I can only fight the "time to practice" battle once in a day, and in that case I do all the practicing in one shot. But sometimes, especially with younger kids or when we have a lot of activities in one day, it's nice to break it into 10- or 15-minute increments. Long enough to accomplish something, but short enough to keep it interesting.

4) Focus on one thing each day. I'm notorious for disobeying this rule, but it is best to focus on one thing per practice session--hand position, steady beat, dynamics, or whatever. At least try to keep it to one thing to concentrate on for each piece. Perhaps the Debussy needs dynamics and the Chopin needs slow metronome work. Don't try to do everything at once. Manageable, achievable goals help keep kids motivated and make them feel like they are accomplishing something.

5) Building off of #4, Focus on something for each piece. Don't just treat a practice session as a list of boxes to check off or you will both be bored. Unless a piece is merely for review, there is always something to have the child concentrate on: hand position, dynamics, steady beat, expression... Find clever adjectives to help it be more interesting: "pretend like your fingers are fairies dancing across the keys on this one"; "pretend like I'm trying to dance to this one--slow down so I can keep up"; "make this one sound like a stream flowing down the mountain."

6) Let (or make) them perform often. Maybe the child should play for the non-practicing parent each week. If grandma comes to visit, that's a great time for a recital. Performing reminds kids of why they are practicing (to perfect the piece) and helps them become more comfortable with the idea of performing.

7) Let them choose some of their music. Kids need to play standard repertoire, but as they get a little further with their instrument it's great to let them choose songs they want to play and even try their hand at improvising. Playing "fun" stuff reminds them of why they are working so hard--so they can get to the point where everything they play is something they've chosen to play.

8) Praise, praise, praise. Here's another one I'm not good at. Kids will love playing and tolerate practicing if at the end of their time they feel good about what they've done. Find something positive to say at the end of each piece.

9) Build community. Some instruments are mainly ensemble instruments, and in that case there is built-in community. But some instruments, like piano, can be isolating. Find places and opportunities for your child to play with other people. Send them to music camp. Play sibling or parent/child duets. Let them improvise with other kids or try their hand at accompanying a soloist or their school orchestra.

10) Provide many opportunities to hear beautiful music. Go to concerts, listen to a variety of types of music in the car, and let them hear older children play.

Your turn: What are your best practicing tips? How do you help your child stay motivated?

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