Practising is one of the most difficult aspects of learning an instrument. Learning new repertoire is exciting, going to your lesson is motivating, and performing in concerts and exams is liberating. But practising is tricky! It can be hard to know exactly what we need to practise, and when we have achieved what we set out to do. It can feel like we are not getting anywhere, and as though we have hit a brick wall. When this happens to your child, and you have exhausted all of their usual methods, give these options a try – you might surprise yourself with just what they can learn when they try a different approach:
1. Do a sponsored practise
First of all, set your child a goal or target. This might be to learn a particular piece to performance standard, to gain confidence with a technique they’ve been struggling with, or to consistently practise for a good amount of time each day. Set out key guidelines, and how these can be measured. Choose a charity they would like to support (perhaps a music/arts-based one would be appropriate), and ask people to sponsor them to reach their goals. Having this extra bit of pressure and incentive will make it easier to pick up their instrument and keep working, when they would otherwise be inclined to give up!
2. Download ‘Habitica‘
This is a lifestyle app. It allows you to enter particular tasks or habits, and then awards points each time you complete one. Failing to complete a task has a detrimental effect on your character’s health, causing you to drop levels and start again if you ignore pressing jobs for too long! I use this regularly to avoid putting things off. There is a colour-code system, which highlights things that have been on your list for too long, making them redder and redder. Make a list of your child’s ‘practise tasks’, and work through them one-by-one, checking them off as they go. It’s just like a modern-day to-do list, which shouts at you for not crossing things from it!
3. Roll of the Die
In order for our fingers to learn, and for a passage of music to go in, it is not enough to simply repeat it over-and-over. It must be repeated correctly! It is common for young students to play a passage again and again, only to stop as soon as they have played it correctly once. This is not effective. Their muscles are no more likely to remember the correct playing than all the incorrect playings! Try this instead:
Roll a die. Whatever number it lands on shows the number of correct playings in a row you must do! So if you roll a 4, your must play a passage correctly 4 times in a row before continuing. If you play it right 3 times, and then it goes wrong, tough! You have to start again from scratch.
4. Record them playing
Using a phone, record your child playing as they practise. This can be a sound recording or a video, it doesn’t really matter. The point is to put some added pressure on them, and make them a little more nervous. Surprisingly, they are more likely to practise in advance of a recording than a lesson – perhaps because a recording can be listened to again and again. Practise a particular passage until they are happy with it, then record them and see if they still feel the same! Listening back to recordings can also be very helpful, picking up on mistakes they didn’t know they were making.
5. Set Smaller Goals
‘Practise makes perfect’, right? Wrong! As we are constantly told as musicians, there’s no such thing as perfect – music is subjective. So, what are we aiming for with our practise? And when do we know if we’ve achieved it? Instead of aiming to ‘complete a piece’, or ‘practise until there are no mistakes’, children should simply aim to achieve something they haven’t done before. Each time they practise, set them a small but measurable goal. Play bar 17 with the correct fingering. Neatly fit in the ornament in bar 45. Reach the chord in bar 68 on time. Lots of smaller goals quickly add up to larger ones, with a much greater sense of achievement and satisfaction!
6. Perform to anyone and everyone!
Kids love praise. Nothing makes your children more focused than hearing your encouragement, and knowing that you are proud of them. Show a real active interest in what they are practising, by asking them to play you things they have learnt, and things they are working on. Each week, ask friends/family/teddy bears/whoever else is around, to listen to their progress. Making a habit of performance will take the fear out of it, and will ensure that they always have something to practise for.
7. Allow breaks for improvisation and fun repertoire
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy! Set mini targets, with music-based rewards. As them to practise tricky bars x-number of times, and then reward your children by playing something they love playing, or by ‘messing around’ with different tunes and notes. This, in itself, is still practising. But in contrast to the things they find really difficult, it’ll feel like a breeze, and a welcome sense of relief. Maintaining their repertoire is really important anyway. It’s good to always have a good bank of pieces they can perform at a moment’s notice!
8. Reverse Instructions
Try practising with reverse performance directions. Ask them to play all the forte (loud) passages piano (quiet), play all the legato (smooth) passages staccato (detached), and play all the allegro (fast) passages largo (slowly). It is fun to hear the music in all different ways, and also makes their brains work extra hard to play the opposite of what is written. They’ll probably find that it feels much easier when they go back to playing it as it should be.
9. Set words to the music
This is particularly effective when children are struggling with a particular rhythm – make up words to go with the melody! These can be as daft and unrelated as you like – sing about vegetables and holidays and going to the zoo. Sing about things that are memorable, and that your child will hold in their head each time they practise a particular section. Relating a rhythm to words will make it much easier to recall.
10. Use music practise as a welcome relief from homework…
This is a tricky one. It’s all to do with rhetoric, and the positivity of your choice of words. Kids will see music practise as a chore if we treat it that way. Offering rewards for practising gives the impression that practising is boring and difficult. Ask children to ‘play’ a piece instead of ‘practise’ a piece. Tell them they can ‘relax with their instrument’ after a session of homework. Make music a reward in itself, something that children look forward to doing. For many children, hating practise is a hurdle they must get over when things start to get more difficult – but once they are past it, they have a lifetime of joy ahead of them with their instrument. Practise will always be difficult, but it becomes easier to see the effects and benefits as we get older.
For more practise tips, and help with how to get involved with your child’s learning, see Step 10 of my 10-Steps to a Musical Home.