Violinist and faculty member
In my 10+ years of teaching the violin to young children in Colorado, one of the main things I have learned is that having a plan is key to consistency (and to the sanity of parents/guardians!). If you have a plan, then you can more easily diverge from it, or sometimes not stick to it all.
I know it can be daunting for parents to dive into the world of practicing with their children, but I promise you, it will help them succeed much more than if you let them practice on their own.
In fact, it’s not only about the actual time you spend practicing; it’s also about time away from the instrument. For example, what musical activities do you do? How do you talk about music and practicing with your child? Do you set up rewards for their hard work?
We want kids to have positive associations with music so that even on the days that practicing is the last thing either of you want to do, both of you know that it will pay off in some way, both in the short term and long term.
These are 8 tips (in no particular order) that I recommend for smooth musical instrument practicing:
🎵 Don’t forget to be playful
Did you know that applying playfulness into our practicing (or really anything we do!) drastically improves and quickens our learning curve?
One of my favorite quotes is by George Bernard Shaw, which says, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” It may seem awkward or uncomfortable at first, but this is a much more enjoyable way to practice than to just check off the tasks your teacher wrote down for you.
One fun example is to have your child be the teacher and you the student – how do they teach you? What do they bring in that maybe you wouldn’t have? Are they having fun? Notice that they automatically bring in playfulness – we can learn a lot from kids!
🎵 Set a time of day
Make practicing part of your daily routine, just like eating is. One of the most famous Shin’ichi Suzuki quotes is, “You only have to practice on the days that you eat.” Kids love this because of COURSE you eat every day! Seeing the look on their faces when they put two and two together is always priceless.
This approach helps children understand that practicing is not up for debate. Even better is when it doesn’t come up as a debate in the first place because they know practicing is just part of daily life. Music is a necessary part of our cultural rights, so it should be treated like any other topic in school – one that takes time to learn and needs daily attention.
🎵 We are a team!
The parent, the child, and the teacher are all on the same team. Sometimes it may be hard to remember that, but it’s one of the most important aspects of taking music lessons that all of us can learn.
🎵 Provide options
It is very important for every child to feel part of the process and decision making. Giving them choices is key to their engagement in the process. Of course, giving too many options can lead to not enough structure, create tantrums and the tendency to not cooperate. It’s a fine balance that is different for every parent and child, so being patient and willing to try many things is crucial to smooth practicing and success.
🎵 Create small goals
We often spend a lot of time thinking about and planning for big goals, like recitals or finishing a long, difficult piece. While this is necessary, we tend to forget that setting small goals is how we get there. Practicing one thing at a time in short bursts really helps children see regular and sometimes immediate progress.
Choose a small goal for a few practice sessions a week (play the first four measures of a particular piece without stopping, or play the G Major scale just a little faster than ever before – there are so many possibilities) and then celebrate reaching the goal!
🎵 Make a progress chart
Making a progress chart to include small and big goals is vital for success and the feeling of accomplishment. When kids don’t have that, it’s almost impossible for them to see the benefits of music lessons since playing an instrument is already so difficult as it is.
A couple of examples of a progress chart are 1) weekly, monthly and yearly goals using stickers, and 2) a bead jar where the child puts a few beads in every time they practice and when they get to 100, they receive a reward of some sort (ice cream, a concert, a beautiful bracelet made out of the beads from the jar, etc.). Each of these examples show both short and long term progress that is crucial for continued commitment and dedication to playing an instrument.
🎵 Listening is practicing
Actively listening (not just putting it on as background music) to the music your child is learning is essential to learning the pieces. We want them to know it so well that when they are having trouble with their fingers or bow, they can fix things quickly because they hear where it isn’t quite working yet.
A simple example is when their fingers play the wrong notes, they hear it and can then fix it with their ear. In addition to their own pieces, listening to all kinds of music is vital to their musical development – so turn on Spotify and have a dance party!
🎵 What excites your child?
This is perhaps the most important question of all. Harnessing their natural excitement can support continued progress and commitment.
Many days will be hard and likely not enjoyable. That’s completely normal and part of the process. However, if you are always reminding yourself and your child about why music is important, why they are playing an instrument, and that music is fun, they will always come back to it no matter how far away they may go.
I will end with another quote to send you off into your day with playfulness and excitement: “Being playful naturally liberates the mind, opens the heart, and lifts the spirit. Take time to play today.” – Debra L. Reble, PhD