Parents of young beginning students will often ask me questions regarding their role in their child’s practice efforts and development at home. How often should they practice? What should they practice? How are they doing?
Like many things done in life, the more you do it, the faster you begin to recognize patterns and can prescribe solutions to common problems (they all become common very fast for the instructor). The average teacher works with 50+ students per week. After a couple years of teaching, a regular pattern of development reveals itself again and again. Over time it becomes much easier to understand and predict present and future challenges, and how to foster present and nearly achieved successes.
Unfortunately, granted the average teacher teaches 50+ students per week, the daily schedule can seem much like a constantly revolving door of bodies coming in and out. I have heard many after lesson discussions between parents and teachers reviewing all contents of the lesson, the details of which often cross the boundaries of what is easily understood by the non musician parent. After the confusion the parent will say “it’s all greek to me!”, at which point the teacher will say something light hearted and send them on their way…
The exchange of information is made with sincere intentions by both parent and teacher, however often failing to reach sufficient communication that will lead to the most supportive environment for the student. In addition, these repetitive conversations add to the revolving door syndrome and also can cost the teacher 5 minutes of the time of their next student who is patiently waiting.
The parent goes home, unsure and eventually forgetting what they were told, and the child is left to their own ambiguous impressions of what practice is and go over what they seem to recall of their time spent with the teacher with no real goals in mind other than those they can retain from a memory not yet attuned to encode musical principles and jargon.
The following are principles I have found to ring true and be most effective.
1. Students don’t ask about practice, but they will follow instructions.
I have never seen a student ask about practice after a lesson. To them, I’m sure, the entire lesson is a very intensive practice. They will, however, follow instructions. This is because they know they are in a lesson with an instructor and their role is to do as instructed. Therefore, it is the instructors role to not only prescribe contents of practice that are attainable and will lead to further development, but also to clearly and efficiently lay out the contents of practice in a way that is directly accessible and manageable by the student. The ease of access to instruction facilities the fostering of routine at home as the student continues on with their lesson beyond the classroom and into the following week.
The clarity and ease of access provided by the instructor also benefits the parent and helps them better understand their role in the process. Parents don’t need or want to understand all technicalities of what you have taught your student! Like the student, they just want you to tell them what they have to do for their child.
2. The intrinsic rewards of true practice fuel motivation far better than any external reward given to the child for their efforts.
Practicing is hard, especially in the beginning. It is extremely tempting to put down the instrument and walk away after five minutes, even more so when there is not a clearly established method of accessing the contents of practice. Parents have often tried to remedy this by giving rewards for children putting in practice time at home, or to take away privileges of the child does not practice. In these cases, any motivation fostered by these methods is likely to be the result of objects external to the instrument and will not lead to the kind of motivation which truly leads to great musicians.
Instead, parents need to carry out the instructions of the teacher provided, and reinforce the students efforts with praise. If the parent is consistent and disciplined enough to have the child consistently achieve the goals of practice, a sense of self esteem and confidence will grow in them. The attaining of this sense of self competence is a pleasurable experience, and in combination with the parents praise and enjoyment will facilitate the routine of consistent practice and musical development.
I carry out these principles in my personal practice by:
1. Simply writing the date and page numbers on the inside cover of the students method book or notebook.
2. I tell both student and parent that if they can play the piece of music or exercise five times in a row with no mistakes, they have achieved their goal. This could take them a varying amount of time and shifts the focus from time quantity to the content and quality of performance.
3. I affirm with the parent and student that we are all in the same page of what is required from their child, and affirm that they are indeed doing well.
Over time, the student sees true development of their abilities by being able to look back and trace their weeks and months of learning. Along that path they have developed true motivation and self competence, and the parent is genuinely proud. These are the true rewards that come from a consistent and clearly defined practice routine, and they make the music teaching profession very worthwhile.