Julie Detweiler is a Vandoren Regional Artist. The goal of the Vandoren Regional Artist program is to enhance the quality of the music experience in your school. This is made possible by Vandoren and a network of woodwind professionals around the country with a passion for music education and performance.
As a private lesson teacher, I’m often asked by parents how they can
help their student to practice. Whether we’re talking about just getting
the student to practice at all or to be more efficient, I think that
students should first understand why practice is important. Learning how
to play an instrument is similar to learning any school subject or
being on a sports team.
When I was in high school, I briefly tried out for the cross country ski team, having never skied before! Needless to say, there were quite a few funny and embarrassing moments as I fell down more than I actually skied, but I vividly remember beginning the season before the snow fell with long runs followed by inside circuit training to build the muscles we would need. When the snow finally came, we practiced on the trails and received feedback from the coach about how we could improve our skills and our times. Later in the season, we participated in actual ski meets.
Learning and practicing an instrument is very similar. Students attend private lessons, often coupled with band or orchestra practice at school, and are given assignments based on fundamentals they have already learned to be completed on their own at home. They come back for lessons weekly to receive feedback and often have a solo festival, concert or recital later in the year where they have the opportunity to perform what they have learned.
So, how do you encourage your child to sit down and play?
1. Have a routine.
Regardless of your student’s age, skill and interest level, have set scheduled times throughout the week set aside for practice. Make sure that the practice space is relatively quiet and that the time of day chosen is conducive for good focus and attention. Make sure that your student has all of the tools that she needs, which may include: a pencil and eraser, a metronome, a tuner, her instrument, music, access to recordings (often iTunes or YouTube), a timer, and extra accessories, such as reeds and cork grease.
2. Set goals.
With the help of the private lesson teacher, have set goals for the student’s practice sessions. As a woodwind player and teacher, these goals often begin with a warm up followed by technical or other fundamental exercises, etudes and repertoire. The teacher can let the student know how much time should be devoted to each exercise and a timer can be used in the practice session to let the student know when to move on to the next task. Encourage your student to keep a practice log with a record of what they worked on in the session and for how long. They could even include their thoughts about it or their goals for the next session.
3. Be efficient.
There is an old adage that says, “Practice makes perfect,” but in the music world (and probably in all other fields as well), only focused, attentive practice makes perfect. Encourage your student to be focused in the practice room and to stay on task. For younger students, that may mean that parents need to be in or near the practice space.
Other ways to be efficient include keeping the tasks small and manageable. For example, if the student is trying to learn a 4-page solo for a festival, start with just one phrase and identify the goal. Maybe the task for ten minutes is simply to play that one phrase with correct notes and correct rhythms at a specific metronome marking. This keeps practicing from becoming overwhelming.
One of my favorite games to play with any age student is the 5 Penny Game. It’s a great game to play with short, tricky passages in a piece of music. I keep five pennies lined up on the left side of the stand and have the student play the passage, often under tempo, until it’s even and accurate. Then they get to move one penny at a time to the right side of the stand as they repeat the passage evenly and accurately. The trick, of course, is if they make a mistake on any of the repetitions, they need to go back to the beginning! This is a fun, short game that keeps students focused while it creates efficient use of the practice time.
4. Find motivation.
Every teacher wants to inspire their students and hopes that the student has strong intrinsic motivation. Of course, sometimes it takes time for motivation to develop and sometimes motivation wanes as other parts of students’ lives take priority or as the student reaches a plateau in her progress. When a student is less than inspired to practice, ask for just ten minutes. Often students just need to get started and then their musical interest takes over. If interest doesn’t kick in on that day, then at least they’ve practiced a little bit. It’s always better to maintain some practice routine by playing for ten minutes than not at all.
It also helps to listen to inspiring performances, preferably live, but YouTube is great too. Listening not only inspires, but gives the student a concept of sound and musicianship.
A reward chart is another way to motivate that works for a lot of students and can be tailored to the needs of the student. Make a chart that includes every day of the week and set a goal for the student (number of minutes per week or simply sticking to the pre-arranged schedule or something that addresses the student’s needs). When the student practices on a given day, they get to put a sticker on that day or write in the amount of time that they practiced. At the end of the week, if the student met the goals for the week, they get a reward.
When I first started clarinet in the fifth grade, my father paid me a dollar for every week that I met my practice goals, and extra if I went above and beyond. After a few weeks, the reward was phased out, but I had improved my clarinet skills and developed a greater interest in how practicing could help me progress and play more interesting music. I maintained my practice schedule after that because the music became its own reward.
As students progress on a musical instrument, practice goals shift, but a good practice routine that incorporates efficiency, fun and inspiration will be flexible enough to accommodate the changing goals. Music can ultimately be the reward for the student, which also creates a reward for the parents and teachers too.