One of the greatest problems facing music students today, regardless of age, is the famous command ‘Go Practice!’. As a parent, you know this is something that your child should be doing, but beyond this knowledge is a vacuum waiting to be filled with the correct methodology for successful musical development and advancement.
Practicing, like the notes on an instrument, is a thing that needs to be learned. As a parent, knowing what constitutes a good approach to this time of a student’s day is vital. So where to begin? Begin at the ends!
STEPS FOR SUCCESSFUL PRACTICE:
- The ends; the end of your lesson, and the end goal.
- Putting instruction to action; daily, consistent attention
- Be realistic. Know when to stop.
At the end of the student’s lesson, you should be there to go over the notes that your teacher has made for the week’s work. Be sure you understand what the week’s goal is, so you do not ask for too much (or too little) from your child. If the teacher has not demonstrated the work, you may want him to. Getting it in your ear, and your student’s ear is extremely helpful, and sometimes necessary.
You are spending money on lessons because you believe they have a benefit. They do, but the benefit does not limit itself to playing – it must manifest as an important part of the parent’s interaction with the child, teaching responsibility, consistency, and discipline at levels appropriate to the age of the student. For younger students be sure you sit with them and go over the teacher’s notes together. Responsibility is taught by you showing your child that it is important enough for you to sit with them and help (your responsibility). Don’t be in a rush to get through things, but also don’t flog a dead horse. Discipline and consistency comes from a regular daily practice time (together, if necessary), not from obsessive repetition until success is achieved.
If you don’t get something to-day, try again to-morrow. The worst case for this is that you will go back and ask for more help with this from the teacher. Be supportive, not a disciplinarian. Pushing your student to ‘get it right’ is a dangerous path, and can cause stress between parent and student, as well as killing the interest in music. As children are all different, you must allow for different learning speeds then what you expect, or might have experienced before.
THE NITTY-GRITTY OF PRACTICING
- Get the notes
- Divide and Conquer
- The Metronome is your best friend, maybe your only friend
Get the notes:
Practicing in its most basic form can be done by playing one note at a time, very slowly, with no attention to time or rhythm. For many instrumentalists this is a very good exercise that helps get the progression of the notes into the ear. You would be very surprised that some students are not even able to do this.
Divide and Conquer:
Visually assessing your music is extremely helpful in reducing the amount of time spent practicing easy and repetitive sections. Break the music up using a pencil into clear sections, using capital letters above the first note of each. Identify repeated music so the student sees that the piece is not as long to learn as they might think. Look at your sections. Are they short enough to break down into workable sections that will match the duration of your practice session? If not, add a second lower-case letter to further divide. If you can fit more than one section into a practice session, then you are in good shape.
I say above that the metronome is your best friend, and maybe your only friend. The reason for this is because it is a steadfast and honest tool. It will never lie to you, and if you use it correctly, it will lead to great efficiency in practicing (and therefore musical development). This efficiency is slowly earned in the beginning, but pays massive dividends in learning music faster, down the road.
Most people fall into the category of practice=repetition. In recent years I have been struggling to extricate myself from this pattern-behaviour, and to try to instill the discipline to do things correctly, the first time.
The most elementary starting point is to simply play each note in the sequence, section, movement, or piece very slowly, one at a time. This generally puts the player in a position of victory, as most repertoire uses notes that are commonly played. Approaching the music without fixed rhythm is a ‘no stress’ way to demonstrate that whatever its challenges, you start with an approach that allows success at the outset. It also let’s the student know that they can play all the notes right from the start, a positive way to go!
After having played the notes individually, it is time to get to the business of detail. This is likely the most difficult part of the process, because it demands that the player commit to perfect performance. Start by playing the notes very slowly, as before, but this time anchoring yourself to the metronome beat (very slow, and I am repeating myself!). A very slow tempo should be chosen, and then taken down a notch or two, just for safety. The player should then begin to play (at what I hope would be viewed as an amazingly slow tempo) paying attention to every last detail’s perfection.
Making sure that articulation, tuning/tone, note length, dynamic range, and rhythmic accuracy are perfect is a very demanding and sometimes frustrating exercise, but is the goal. Move to playing at the right rhythm, but still at the very slow speed.
When you get the details of the music right, move up one click in speed. If you are fortunate enough to have a Metronome that will move up in single digits, then I recommend you do so. This is the most effective way in which to assure all the details are improved as efficiently as possible. If you arrive at a speed that is no longer working, try going back a notch or two and then working up to it again. Still not working? Take a break or leave it for a day. This is not an instant solution, just a focused approach for (faster) gradual improvement. When this is presented as a challenge game, it is a great way to focus the student on the task at hand. Remember to congratulate the success of the exercise – it makes kids feel great.
This metronome method requires patience and dedication. It is not complex and, like all aspects of good practice, it requires revisiting to keep your skills honed on the stone of basics. By starting slow you pay attention to all the fundamentals of your training that were meant to keep you vital for a career. You can do it.
As a modern parent, making time is the greatest challenge. Beyond this, finding the energy to positively invest in your child during a practice session can be tough. Remember that concepts, physical coordination, and muscular strength development take time: Enjoy their mistakes and laugh them off together! Let them know that making mistakes is the best way to learn how to be better, and that musically it shows them where to practice.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help yourself! If you don’t understand, have your student or their teacher explain it to you. This keeps you in the loop, but also shows your child that it is OK to ask questions, a very important part of learning anything. Asking your child for help is a good platform for bonding, but also helps to empower them as people – sooner or later they’ll realize you don’t know everything, and it is better to get to it before they’re teens and difficult!
One of the great miracles of music is that it can bring people together for a deeper understanding and relationship between people, and art. Capitalize on your musical time with your child to open these doors, together.