Practice isn’t always fun. As a kid, I became frustrated when, in my words, “I sucked” at playing something. A very kind, but brutally honest teacher overheard me and pointed out the difficult truth: I would continue to suck, until I practiced enough to get better.
Of course, being the somewhat…ahem…stubborn person I am, I heard that as a challenge, and stepped up my practice, becoming better, just as that teacher said I would. Years later, I’m still grateful to him – and he wasn’t even a music teacher – for that none-too-subtle nudge to practice more. The improvements I saw with the increased practice made me hungry for more – and so I practiced even more. Eventually, I came to love practicing music, and have a hard time understanding why everyone doesn’t just love to practice as much as I do!
Most of us have had days where we just felt like doing anything other than practice. There are, of course, the weird ones like myself who would rather practice than do chores, homework, or…well…anything resembling work of any kind, but we’re not the norm. Your 5-year old is a good example: he or she would rather go out and play than practice. That 5-year old doesn’t understand delayed gratification yet, so the idea of practicing for hours and days to be able to play one song doesn’t necessarily seem appealing.
So how do you get your 5-year old to understand and take action on this? I think we have a few parental-secret-weapons available.
Set a daily practice time
Every day, set a practice reminder alarm. Then, when that time rolls around again, set up a timer, and set a minimum amount of time every day. For a brand-new, fresh-faced musician this could be five minutes. Really. The idea of practicing for 30 minutes and more doesn’t really happen until they develop the focus to handle 20 minutes, or 10 minutes…or five. So take baby steps towards longer practice goals.
The advantages are obvious, young musician gets regular practice, gets better, and hopefully sees results that keep him coming back.
However, remembering to practice is only part of the equation – he must also learn how to practice effectively. It’s not enough to blindly run through Mary Had a Little Lamb 20 times, he should also learn to think about each note. This is where setting mini goals comes in handy.
Set mini goals
Maybe your son likes a good challenge and will step up, given motivation in the form of, “How will you show Grandma how much you love your violin (or viola) if you can’t play the song?”
Does your daughter have more interests than a cat staring at a Christmas tree full of ornaments, not sure which one to tackle first? For kids like this, finding ways to be more effective in the practice room will get the job done. Help her write a list of things within a song that she’d like to iron out (difficult passages, weird rhythms, chromatic scales, etc), and have her pick one thing per practice session to work on until she is confident with it. Note – I did not say perfect. Perfection is a fallacy, and practice will never make perfect; it will however make permanent. This means if she practices a passage wrong for 30 minutes, it will take at least twice that to fix it.
Your son hates scales? Bribe him. Ha! I’m mostly kidding – but a reward system for doing the things he dislikes isn’t always a bad idea. Maybe after he can play C Major in tune at 120 bpm (or whatever!) he can have a treat.
A tricky passage in a current piece of music is a perfect place to set a small goal of playing cleanly. Start with getting the rhythm right, by clapping or singing it, then add the notes, articulations, then dynamics…you get the picture.
The main thing is to set reasonable goals that will help your child reach for, and achieve, the musical things they desire. It doesn’t matter whether it’s to be the best Blugrass fiddler, to be Concertmaster of his high school orchestra, or just play pretty music for you.
Be brutally honest
When you tell your daughter that her rendition of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star sounds amazing (only it doesn’t), you’re not actually helping. Be honest with her, so many parents try encourage their kids by telling them that something is terrific when it isn’t – this is not fair, and only gives false hope.
A better option is to find something that has improved and focus on that, while mentioning that something else still needs work and to keep at it.
Use a practice log
I have sporadically used a practice notebook over the years, but more often than not I forget to write things down. I think that they’re terrific to write down what I plan to do, but I often forget to use them.
Enter my phone. My phone probably gets more use than it should – but I love gadgets!
Because I almost always have my phone within arm’s reach, I decided to try using one of the numerous apps to help with practice. I tried a couple of different ones – but found that my favorite is pretty simple. It allows me to take a note on what I’m practicing, set a stopwatch/timer for how long, and even record myself. It does everything I should have been doing with that written book, plus records my work. Not bad. This one has the option of sharing the recording via email.
The one I use is called Musician’s Diary – it’s available on Google Play as a free download. Another one, called Modacity, is only available for iOS devices, but they’re working on an Android version. I did find one for Kindle, but haven’t tried it yet – it’s Musician Practice Journal.
In any case – find one your musician likes, and use it!
The beauty of these is that your musician can record herself playing, and refer back to it later to compare that with current recordings. Using these helps keep her on track, and (at least for me), motivated to do more.
A fringe-benefit is that when she really feels like she nailed something, there’s proof that she can share with her teacher.
At the end of the day…
Sometimes, doing what we know we should is hard. Those are the days we have to put one foot in front of the other, and trust the process. On those days, motivation often comes after the fact, when we see real, tangible progress.