Music Eat Sleep Practice

What’s your favourite way to practice?

Now, because you know this is going to be about music, that’s where your mind has immediately gone. Some of you will be thinking “I should play scales first,” or “I must do half an hour”, or “Oh no, I forgot to tell my child to do their practise!” But in reality, every skill in life involves practice. Kids just do more of it than adults, because we already know how to do a lot of things. Adults definitely draw the short straw when it comes to learning an instrument as an adult beginner. Not only have we largely fallen out of the mindset of working hard and failing often being normal, but we also have forgotten many of the strategies and elements of practice that we used when we were younger. Let’s have a think about three non-musical scenarios:

Babies inevitably learn to walk. Not all at once, of course. At first they fall down seemingly more times than they get up, they get frustrated, and sometimes they refuse to try and insist of being carried. We help them up when they fall, carry them when they are tired, and encourage every effort they make.

Toddlers learn to put a jigsaw together in the most random way at first. They will try to fit pieces together regardless of how dissimilar they are or how much they don’t match up. They don’t put all the edge pieces together first or look for shapes that fit the space. But if they do the same puzzle often enough, the time it takes them to complete it becomes shorter and shorter, and one day you realise that they are no longer trying to jam mis-matched pieces together and they recognise a corner shape.

Older kids and teens are often highly motivated to complete an achievement on a video game. What draws them to try a frustrating level again and again? There will a different motivation for each child and each game, but they will return to it each time they fail until they do succeed. The more they succeed, the more motivated they are to keep trying the next level. And totally as an aside, my 12 year old is the fastest in his class to complete electrical engineering challenges, and I totally chalk it up to all the hours he’s spent designing redstone structures in Minecraft!

What do these three examples have in common, and what do they have to do with music? Firstly, in each case, the person learning the skill is motivated. The reasons are different—independence, mental stimulation, entertainment, even unrelated rewards such as character skins in video games can be a motivation. Kids may be intrinsically motivated to learn music (I love music, or I like playing piano) or they may be more ambivalent about music itself and enjoy extrinsic motivation along the way (stickers on the pieces, or certificates from exams). As a teacher, I spend some time at the start of each term checking in with kids to make sure I know what motivates them now, and adjust our lessons to include these rewards.

Secondly, in each scenario the person starts with zero idea of how to achieve their goal. They try random things, and the more they try, the better they become at finding what works and what doesn’t. My job is to help them find what works faster, before they lose the motivation they started with. The more they repeat what works, the faster and more skillful they become.

And finally, each situation also involves failure; repeated and often. Learning doesn’t occur without failure somewhere along the way. Failure is not a bad thing; it helps us to learn what not to do, and gives us critical information and how to start learning a new skill or project. But failing once and not trying again will not help us to learn. What’s really important is the resilience and ability to get up and try again. I will often let students ‘fail’ at something rather than step in immediately, so that they get a greater sense of reward from achieving a goal after they have previously failed. And each time, I also try to give them the skills and information they need to succeed when I am not there beside them.

So, coming back to my original question, how do you like to practice? Doing the same thing and failing repeatedly is not going to lead to success; nor is being required to sit at an instrument for a certain length of time. Here are three broad practice strategies you can use to help your kids and yourself succeed.

1.      Find out what their rewards look like. Some kids love performing—get them to practice by giving you a concert, or for busy parents, set up the dolls/teddies/lego figures or video them. Some kids like making up music—challenge them to make a piece of music using only the black notes, or to tell a story. You can incorporate elements of their pieces or scales into it (can you make up your own song by playing the first line of song A, the second line of song B, then your own part?) or you can just let them explore and be confident that they will want to play known tunes as well just to show you what they can do. Some kids might only want to practice if an extrinsic reward is set up—TV or Minecraft or sticker charts are a perfectly acceptable means to an end, in my opinion, as long as they don’t become the end in and of itself.

2.      Play games. In the studio, I stopped using the strategy of getting students to play a tricky spot correctly three times in a row. Instead, I borrowed an idea from Nicola Cantan at Colourful Keys blog, and started playing “Cross the River”. Students choose three small novelty erasers, and move them from one side of the piano (crossing the ‘river of keys’) each time they play the section correctly. If they get it wrong, they have to move all erasers back to the starting side. To my surprise, even the teens have enjoyed this game, and some of the little ones have asked to do it as soon as they walk in for their lesson!

3.      Work smarter not harder. Don’t spend all your time playing the things you know well. Playing for enjoyment is very necessary, but the hard work on tricky spots is when things improve. Use some practice time for listening to the piece on YouTube. Separate hard things; either just tap the rhythms or just play the pitches without trying to get everything correct at first. Sing the melodies to build up aural skills. Make sure the best fingers are on the correct notes. Save the fun, well known pieces for the reward after the hard bits have been worked through. And make sure you do keep already learnt pieces in the practice program, otherwise it’s all work and no reward! Take breaks and practice in 5 minute sessions frequently, rather than half an hour all at once.

The single most important aspect of practice—HABIT.

In my opinion, this is the most beneficial facet of practice and the single factor that parents and carers can greatly influence. Every music parent will have experienced the frustration of their child insisting that they are playing what or how the teacher asked, when the parent knows full well that the exact opposite is happening! As parents, we definitely need to pick our battles, and I don’t think it is worth the potential for damaging relationships in order to get practice ‘right’. However, just as you influence the consistency of completing homework from school, you can also influence the consistency of practice in your child’s schedule.

I believe it is far more important to add home music playing to an existing habit such as homework, breakfast, or afternoon tea than it is to insist on a particular amount or even quality of practice. We all have good and bad days, and continuing a habit on the off days will increase the quality of work on the good days. To reiterate, this is the single most important thing you can do to support your child’s musical learning.

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