by Kathy Kucsan, Ph.D. | Education Director
You take up an instrument, perhaps inspired by a famous artist or a song you’ve heard or maybe you’re a fifth grader and you’ve been to Instrument Night and you just HAVE to play the French Horn because it is absolutely the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen. You have a sense that getting good at your instrument is going to take some investment of time, energy, and effort. The way there, to “getting good,” is to practice, according to your new teacher.
We see practicing as a necessary evil or a boring chore rather than the path to a goal, an achievement, an accomplishment.
Practicing has many elements. Learning, repetition, focus, attention, achieving. Building a relationship with your instrument. Training your mind and body. Getting familiar with the physical movements, body sensations, and mental clarity required to gain facility and skill. There are plenty of recommendations about how to do it, including several hundred thousand articles online with some variation of the title, “How to Get Your Child to Practice.” I recently removed a book from the Center library titled: How to Get Your Child to Practice Without Resorting to Violence!! If you’re interested in the How-To-Get-Your-Child-To approach, “Getting Kids To Practice Music — Without Tears Or Tantrums” from NPR is a pretty good one.
And that’s just it. We see practicing as a necessary evil or a boring chore rather than the path to a goal, an achievement, an accomplishment. We cajole, bribe, force, reward and punish our children (or ourselves) in order to get them to practice without throwing a tantrum. A simple change of perspective might be all that’s needed to get – or stay – on the path. In my experience, kids who stop lessons because they “hate the piano (or violin or trumpet or sax)” don’t really hate the instrument. They hate the practicing part because they’ve been cajoled, punished, berated, shamed, or embarrassed into it, and they’ve never had a clue how to do it.
So what’s the magic thing that keeps students wanting to learn, practice, and play really well?
Practicing became a thing they had to do in order to play computer games or get dessert. It’s unfortunate when practicing becomes a power struggle. Mom or Dad says “It’s time to practice” and then Susie digs in and refuses. It becomes about the struggle and who’s going to win rather than the flute or violin. Then “something must be done” about this student who refuses to practice. Maybe the teacher suggests a reward system (don’t do this), or repeated cajoling (“Pleeeze practice, don’t you want to sound good at your concert?), or punishing (absolutely don’t do this: “No television or internet or dessert until you practice the piano for four hours because you haven’t practiced all week! Half an hour for every day you missed!”).
Strangely, when I was growing up, there was a different kind of power struggle going on at our house. My brother and I would fight about who was going to practice, even pushing each other off the piano bench. (I shouldn’t be proud of this, should I?) If you have this issue at your house, congratulations!
So what’s the magic thing that keeps students wanting to learn, practice, and play really well? I think it’s a combination of setting goals, steady progress, consistent positive input from teachers, and positive experiences with performing opportunities. Sure, distractions and new interests and changes in school or family circumstances can get in the way of staying on the path. But for some students, the daily discipline of communing with their instruments can be grounding; a reliable daily habit that feels good and supports overall learning and life situations.
If you’re a parent and there’s a brand new violinist (or pianist or any other instrumentalist/singer) in the house, here are few suggested Dos and Don’ts that are easily adapted to older students or even yourself.
Suggested Dos and Don’ts:
#1: Don’t enforce a specific amount of time for practicing.
Your teacher may suggest 30 minutes a day, which is a place to start. But life can get in the way. Often, 15 or 20 minutes of focus is better than skipping one or two days. And trying to cram a week’s worth of practicing into 3 or 4 hours on a weekend afternoon just doesn’t work.
#2: Don’t punish a student for “not practicing.”
Punishing takes many forms, including threats to stop lessons or withholding internet/online time or that brownie. This kind of approach equates making music with an unpleasant chore.
#3: Don’t (ever, ever) shame or humiliate a student into playing their instrument.
(Have you seen the movie, “Whiplash?” I don’t recommend it.)
#4: If you don’t know how to play the instrument yourself, don’t coach your child about hand position or breath or the notes on the page.
(And if you do know how to play, be really cautious about coaching your child.)
#5: Do show interest and do celebrate your child’s playing.
Applause goes a long way. Ask them to play new tunes for you, or be Very Impressed when they nail the Eb Major scale.
#6: Do experiment with making practicing fun.
You may want to try “game-ifying” practicing. There are some good strategies for this in the linked article.
#7: Do change up times or circumstances for practicing.
Instead of “every single day at 5pm,” try 15 minutes after school and another 15 minutes after dinner. Practice in the garage in the summer and serenade your neighbors, or practice in the bathroom (good acoustics).
And here’s what really happens when we practice: “How to practice effectively…for just about anything”.
In a future blog (Practicing 2.0), we’ll look at the quality and effectiveness of practice.
Education Director and Co-Founder