Instrument practice at home – family survival tips
Instrument practice at home – family survival tips
Once your child has commenced formal tuition of a musical instrument, it is inevitable that a requirement for home practice will also impact upon your household. Beginners need to reinforce skills and concepts before they are forgotten after the weekly lesson, and the fine and gross motor skills associated with a particular instrument need to be developed and refined, in student musicians of all ages and levels. This becomes even more important if the student has commited to AMEB exams or Eisteddfod entries, as there is suddenly a time-line involved in reaching a certain level of proficiency.
Regardless of your child’s laid-back, optimistic approach, improvement in playing, or reaching a certain standard of performance, will not happen overnight, and certainly will not happen by co-incidence! (unless, of course, your student is a complete child prodigy!! They are hard to find . . .) *A quote from widely published American music blogger Anastasia Tsioulcas – “Regular practising is a path towards self-discipline that goes way beyond music – it’s a skill that has hugely positive ramifications for personal fulfilment and lifetime success. But the trick is that self-motivated discipline isn’t exactly first nature for most kids, so it’s up to families to help create positive, engaging and fun ways to practise as a path towards self-motivation.”
So, how can we turn the home practice experience into a happy, positive occasion for the child and the rest of the family? It may take a little planning and organisation, but is well worth the effort.
This is where the survival tips come in, sourced from a number of references which will be listed below, as well as from personal experience. . . .
Find a suitable “practice” location at your home or where the instrument is kept. (for example- regular visits to Grandma’s etc may be part of the routine to use a piano etc.) Depending on the instrument, and the age of the child, a detached area could be made into a studio or practice room (eg garage, shed, spare room etc.), and made to look attractive and inviting to the budding musician. The practice space also needs to be well ventilated, well lit and comfortable – a place the child will feel good about.
If a separate space is not available, perhaps a particular section of the lounge room, family room or bedroom will be appropriate. This may mean that certain times need to be set for practice and other family activities, especially if the space is shared with TV, sleeping siblings, other children playing or doing homework. etc.
Where practical, perhaps an eye-catching music poster or motivational picture/sign etc can add interest to the practice area, or even a special chair or piece of furniture.
It is important that a special practice area be set up, so that the child can prepare mentally to make good use of the time in that area. Having a time-table or routine is important too – so the student is used to fitting in other activities around the practice time (and the rest of the family is used to being flexible in allowing the child that time and space).
Have all equipment and supplies stored in or very close to the practice area. – eg instrument, pencils, ruler, rubber, sharpener, Theory books, music, music stand etc. Keep them together, so that time is not wasted during practice, in trying to locate the items needed. A magazine box, decorative cardboard box, plastic bag, or a place on a shelf can all be useful. Depending on the instrument and its location, it could be left unpacked (in a safe place) so that the child can spend a couple of minutes playing during some unexpected spare time, just as they would select a toy etc, for a few minutes. (One of my students loves to make up her own tunes, so a bit of extra ‘creativity time” is good for her, as well as her practice time).
Attention to the physical setting is important – chair or seat height should be checked. If needed, a footstool (or pile of magazines) could be used for little legs that don’t reach the floor yet: a cushion, piece of carpet or matting etc may be needed on the seating part of the chair. Posture for holding the instrument, or distance from the instrument should be checked as well.
Choose a time of day that suits your household routine and your child. If you are busy with other activities or work in the afternoons/evenings, try to organise a morning practice routine, before school. It may mean getting up a little earlier, but often, more can be achieved in the morning, when the child is feeling fresh and rested, and in a calm frame of mind. If mornings do not work for your family, try to allocate time before or after dinner, in the evenings, or if necessary, a combination. Try to have a weekly time-table recorded, so that you and the child can see what the weekly extra-curricular time looks like – to achieve the balance of friends, outdoors, homework, music etc. Try having a practice chart (especially for younger children), so that time spent each day can be marked off and rewarded – eg a sticker chart, coloured in squares etc.
Have a goal in mind for each practice session. The child’s teacher may write down or mention some goals to work towards for next lesson – eg a certain scale, or learning a certain section separate hands or hands together, practising up to Bar ___ etc. “Begin with the end in mind” – decide what needs to be done this session, in order to reach the “bigger picture”. Parents will need to help younger children with goal-setting. Just playing a piece from start to finish does not necessarily make good use of practice time. If there is a particular area of difficulty, work on it over and over. Repeat each bar, each line, then gradually connect those difficult bits with the rest of the piece. (From my experience, a child who always starts at the beginning will gradually get quite good at the first few bars, but will still struggle with the rest, because they are persistently going back to the start when they make mistakes, so that the rest of the piece gets far less practice). Work on the tricky bits over and over, until they are correct, first slowly and then up to the correct tempo, and connect these to the sections before and after. ) Then try the whole piece again, until the tempo is consistent all the way through.
Match the time spent, and the task, with the age, maturity, concentration and skill of the learner. (Some learners actually get worse during their playing session, if they are tired, hungry etc, or if they are repeating the practised section too many times for their concentration level, and this can be disheartening. If the student appears to be getting bogged down on a piece or section, it’s time for a short break, or a change of direction eg some Theory, a scale, an old favourite piece that will restore confidence etc.) For a beginner, 10 focussed minutes may be adequate; build up to 15-20 minutes as they get older/more mature/more capable. For a more experienced student, 30-40 minutes may be suitable, or a set goal, such as the next 8 bars, playing to the end of the page or the whole piece etc etc. (I distinctly remember, for an exam I did a few years ago, that I spent 3 hours per day practising, usually 7 days a week, and all that time really was necessary! Obviously, that sort of time-table is only for the older/mature, very self-motivated student. . . )
Make good use of time. Beginning students will often need the supervision and encouragement of parents – a. to check and interpret any instructions the teacher may have written, and b. to ensure they are focussing on an appropriate task, ie knowing what to practise and why. This is why it is so important for parents to show some involvement in the child’s lessons as well as practice, and to communicate with the teacher regularly, if at all possible. By the time your child is in late primary school/ early high school, he or she needs to be taking responsibility for his/her own practice sessions – taking some ownership of his/her learning and progress. In a perfect world, it may appear that the parent no longer needs to be a close supervisor; however, in reality, this is often not the case. Students can still be easily distracted from practice commitments for many reasons, so it is still important for the parent to listen (even if not for every practice), to offer feedback if possible, and to liaise with the child’s teacher. If your child sees playing an instrument as being valued by you, (the Parent or Caregiver), he or she is much more likely to give it the attention it deserves.
*Another quote by Anastasia Tsioulcas – “By age 10 or 11, the child needs to learn that what you put in is what you get out.” This is so true for many parts of life – playing an instrument is one of them.
Treat your practice session like a “workout” “Warm up.” Depending on the instrument , the student may need to do breathing exercises, stretches of arms, back, legs etc, relaxation of shoulders. Then try some scales, or specially designed technique exercises for fingering movements, bowing, breathing etc. Move on to the current material for study, working on specific skills or sections to be improved. Take time and care with this, so that accuracy of tempo, notes and rhythms will not be compromised. Use correct Things to do with Kids bundabergfingering etc. “Warm down” at the end of the session, by playing some of your favourites – something you can just do for enjoyment without having to tax the brain or the technical skills so much.
Set a timer, to allow intensive work on a particular skill or area of the piece. Pull it apart, play note by note, chord by chord, slowly, in small manageable chunks, until those chunks are working properly. Then try to connect them with the sections before and after.
Try practising away from the instrument. (especially helpful if the student does not always have an instrument available for practice.) Have the music with you in a folder or on a sheet – try clapping through the rhythms, humming the melody in the correct rhythm and/or tempo. Try placing your fingers in the right position on an imaginary instrument. (I often suggest to beginning piano learners who are still waiting for an instrument, that they practise finger movements on the table at home or on their school desk! Apologies to their teachers . . . )
Try some fun incentives that offer rewards for regular practice. From the sticker chart, tick chart etc that can be placed on the fridge, to other formats, such as beads in a jar: all these can be the basis for incentives that will work for the learner and/or even the whole family. (especially if family sacrifices are being made to support the music learner). Each practice session could be worth a sticker, tick, certain number of beads etc. These could eventually be exchanged for a “prize”, “reward”, small amount of money, special treat, family outing or fun experience at home etc; depending on the needs, budget and priorities of the household members. Perhaps when a certain goal or number of stickers, beads etc are attained, a treat for the whole family would be beneficial – that could make all family members encouraging and positive, and everyone wins!
Challenge yourself-physically. I’ve never tried this, but according to the writings of Anastasia Tsioulcas, scientific researchers have suggested that if you are struggling with a difficult task, try adding a physical challenge, such as playing while standing on one leg or walking (obviously won’t work for all instrument types!), the brain may start forming new neural pathways. Hopefully, the original task will become easier when you return to it. . .
Create a game-like environment that is meaningful to your child. The incentives for practice etc could be extended to situations where your child is trying to master a certain skill- eg a scale, playing technique, a difficult section of a piece. Making up a board game or card game, where the child has a turn each time a small task is done satisfactorily, can take the boredom out of a repetitive activity, especially if there are some positive outcomes or rewards in the moves or cards selected. The sky’s the limit in using creativity to motivate your child to practise. The quality of practice is the most important issue. (not the amount or quantity).
Use a range of technology to add interest to your child’s practice and exposure to the music, and creativity. *This can take many forms – from the CDs that are enjoyed in the car or in bed at night, to the backing CDs that can accompany the child’s playing. If your child is studying AMEB book pieces (piano), there is generally a companion CD available from the AMEB, with a handbook. (These give explanatory notes about the pieces, and the CD provides an excellent example of how the piano piece should sound when played well.) I have found this invaluable, and my students appreciate listening to the CDs as well. *U-tube often has performances of particular pieces uploaded for viewing – however, I have found that some are better role models than others – there are times when I feel that the U tube performance doesn’t always do the piece justice. So just be aware that some pieces are presented in a variety of interpretations.
*Downloads of appropriate material can be played via MP3, USB etc, so that elements of the music can still be practised elsewhere (as suggested in Point 9 (Practising away from the instrument). *Many Apps are available for IPAD, IPhone etc, these days, adding another layer of interest to practising. There are a variety of Metronome function Apps, including :- Pro Metronome, iBeat-the Metronome, Time Trainer Metronome, and Epic Metronome. *There is another App called Garage Band, which can be used to record and play back the student’s performance. It can also be used to provide chord backing and rhythm/tempo etc, as well as giving the musician opportunities for improvising tunes, chords etc. It particularly lends itself to guitar work. I am still learning about this App, so there may be many other uses as well.
No doubt, the technology gurus will continue to devise software and Apps that can be used to enhance music performances, and these can be used both in tuition (I know of a guitar teacher who already incorporates Garage Band into his lessons), as well as in practice sessions (although some guidance from the child’s instrumental teacher may be needed).
Giving your child the opportunity to learn an instrument should be a very positive experience. Obviously, not every learner is destined to be an orchestra member or a virtuoso performer! However, with the many benefits that learning and practising playing an instrument can bring, it is usually a sound investment in your child’s personal development, whatever the musical outcome may be. Providing a supporting environment at home, so that your child can nurture and grow his or her musical skills, is a great contribution. Obviously, mastery of any instrument is a slow, gradual process, and although positive encouragement is always valued, there is also a place for expecting some perseverance and persistence on the part of your child. Learning an instrument is one situation in which success and achievement are earned, as a result of commitment. Parents and Caregivers, as well as Teachers, all have roles in helping the learner to reach his or her potential.
This blog was written by Christine from Christine’s Upbeat Learning Place. Thanks so much for sharing your ideas with us Christine.