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As a professional musician who works with a lot of kids, I am frequently asked by parents, especially those who claim they know nothing about music, about practicing. How much should their child be practicing every day? How can they be encouraged (or made) to practice? Should their child be rewarded for practicing every day? Should there be consequences for not practicing? Should the parent sit in on all of their child's practice sessions? If they should, how much do they help out? I don't think there are simple answers to any of these questions because each child is unique, each teacher has different expectations and ways of dealing with practicing, and because each relationship between parent and child is different. Age, independence, personality, and experience of every young musician also makes a difference in what we can expect.
I may not have a lot of answers to these questions but I can assure you that I do have a lot of personal experience. Perhaps some glimpses of the not-so-inspired and the more inspired moments in my own journey with practicing will provide some reassurance, warnings, and ideas that will come in handy when the inevitable practice battles begin.
- Reading books while practicing - Nope, I'm not talking about books with music notes in them, I'm talking picture books, homework, whatever I could get my hands on. Our piano happened to have a wall of books right behind the piano bench so all I had to do when I got bored was turn around, grab a book, plunk it over my music on the music rack, and voilá, instant relief for the doldrums. I could repeat the same passages over and over again with the metronome ticking which satisfied my mother who was usually listening from upstairs, while I satisfied my need to do something more entertaining. Productive? Nope, definitely not in terms of learning to play the piano. Repetition is a helpful and necessary practice tool, but mindless repetition takes entirely too long to be effective and runs the risk of allowing bad habits and mistakes to creep in while you're not looking.
- The day I quit playing piano - For a while when I was growing up I took both piano and cello lessons. I guess I was having a difficult time keeping up with my practicing because one day my mother, exasperated by the situation, lost her temper and told me that if I couldn't handle both instruments I should quit one or the other. Realizing that this was a wonderful moment for me to assert my teenage independence, I surprised us both by shouting, "OK, I will! I'm going to quit piano right now." My mother, not quite believing I was serious, told me to call my piano teacher. I willingly obliged, beginning a several year stint without the piano in my life at all. Although I consider this a moment of pride in some respects, I also regret that we couldn't find better way to solve my time management problem.
And now for some more inspired moments:
- Stickers on my music - My first piano teacher would put a sticker on my music when she felt I had accomplished what needed to be accomplished. To this day I remember how proud I felt when it was sticker time. I even remember one that she used - a tiny, rectangular one that had the image of a kitten walking on a keyboard. What I wouldn't give to have a book of those right now - it might inspire me to get through learning my music a little faster!
- The "Mr. Metronome" game - Another piano teacher used to play this little game with me when I was having a difficult time playing as slowly as I needed to in order to play accurately. He would take the metronome out and set it at a slow tempo. If I could play a certain passage sticking with Mr. Metronome I would get a point. If I strayed and played faster than him, he got a point. For some reason anthropomorphism did wonders for me when it came time to practice.
- Teachers that I respected and wanted to please - I loved and respected all of my music teachers growing up. The only reward I needed from them was knowing that they were pleased with the work I was doing. The only consequence that was effective was feeling like I had let them down.
- Parents that rarely criticized or critiqued - Perhaps I'm blocking something out, but I remember my parents mostly refraining from making comments about my practicing, especially during my practice time. My mother would ask me if I had practiced if she knew I hadn't touched my instrument, but she didn't get much more involved than that, with the exception of the moment I described earlier. What I remember from my father is that he would often remark about how much he enjoyed hearing me practice. That meant the world to me and I imagine it inspired me to practice whenever he was home.
- Music camps - I started going to music camps in the summer at a pretty young age. At first they were short ones that I attended with my mother as a chaperone but it wasn't long before I was flying across the country with some of my cello teacher's other students, to go to camps where practicing was built into the schedule. One such camp, the Meadowmount School of Music, required that we practice 5 hours a day, from 8:30 until 12:30pm and from 5-6pm on weekdays. I remember not liking the routine but when I got back home after weeks of that schedule, I moved up from the last stand in our youth orchestra to the second stand. It was at that point that I realized how much regular, concentrated practice can make a difference. Music camps are often expensive and require parents to let go of their children for a week or weeks at a time, but the experience can provide young musicians with an invaluable opportunity to learn how to practice and to concentrate on music surrounded by others that are pursuing the exact same thing. This is often not the case during the school year.
- Celebrations after performances - I don't remember my parents ever bribing or rewarding me in order to get me to practice. What I do remember are the trips to the ice cream parlor or the meals out after concerts, auditions, and other important performance milestones. We didn't do it all the time and they weren't large affairs, rarely involving more than just our family, but for me they were like the kitten on the keys stickers - they gave me a way to celebrate the many hours of practice and preparation with my family, friends, and teachers, who were always so supportive of me.
In writing this list I am realizing how fortunate I was growing up and it makes me incredibly thankful for my parents, teachers, and coaches. Finding ways to encourage a young musician to practice regularly can be a daunting task but I do believe it can and should be done whenever possible in order give music a chance to take hold of a musical child's mind.
So let's go find some healthy carrots!