Practical Advice about Practicing Music
By Amy Landsman
No more musical meltdowns! Here are tips for getting your kids to practice their instruments.
Nancy Newcome, of Stevenson, admits that her son, Grant, now 10, was less than thrilled when several months ago she signed him up for piano lessons.
“He kind of said, ‘It’s okay,’” his mom recalls.
There was one piece of music, however, that Grant really liked—Johann Sebastian Bach’s famously eerie “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.” To Grant, it sounded like “vampire music.”
Even though the piece was way above Grant’s level, his teacher, Harlene McGowan, let him have a go at it.
“It was truly amazing,” Newcome says. “He was so interested in getting that under his belt. He’s much more enthusiastic about the overall piano playing because he had this success early on.”
McGowan and her husband, Scott McGowan, are co-founders and owners of Playtime Piano, a locally based piano instruction program for children, with two Maryland locations, in Randallstown and Columbia, and a third one in Mason, Ohio.
Scott McGowan says that without regular practice, a child’s progress in learning to play an instrument likely will be quite slow. He is convinced that kids who practice consistently “really take off.”
Lessons, he explains, provide the basic information—but it’s the practice between lessons that reinforces what a child has learned.
“That might mean 10 to 15 minutes a day, three times a week,” he offers.
Getting kids to regularly practice their instruments can be quite a challenge, but there are strategies their families can use to motivate them, hopefully averting arguments or tears.
Scott McGowan says, first, families need to sit down and decide when the child should practice. A good time could be those off hours when the kids may be sitting around, waiting for their next activity.
Scott McGowan says he and Harlene, who is also Playtime Piano’s curriculum director, use that strategy on their own son. He practices in his free time before heading to school.
“Even very busy families have time—20, 25 minutes,” Scott McGowan points out.
The Davis family, of Parkville, sets aside time after dinner every night for their daughter, 5-year-old Julie, to practice violin.
“The most important thing is doing it at the same time every day and just making it what we do,” says Julie’s mom, Marcy Davis.
Davis adds that Julie likes getting stickers and being allowed to color pictures after completing a song.
Michael Blakeslee, the senior deputy executive director of the National Association for Music Education, agrees that practice sessions should take place on a regular basis and in a quiet place.
“Depending on the age level, sometimes two 15-minute sessions are much better than a single half-hour session,” notes Blakeslee, speaking from his organization’s headquarters in Reston, Va.
He also says that the length of the session really should depend on the child’s age and attention span. “For the young child, 15 minutes of concentrated practice is all you can expect.”
And try not to let kids just crank out the notes by rote, he adds, stressing that ideally, practice should be engaging and goal-directed.
Catonsville mom Jean Schweitzer homeschools her three girls, and, for them, music is simply a part of their everyday school routine. Schweitzer includes practice time on her index card system that keeps her daughters—Christina, 11, Gabrielle, 10, and Veronica, 8—on task during the day.
“I have index cards that have everything that they [each] do in a day written on them,” Schweitzer says. “They’ll do a little school work, go up and practice, and then move their card from ‘to do’ to ‘done.’”
It’s in the Technique
In general, when it comes to practice, Blakeslee says kids should warm up with scales and then work on the problem spots in their pieces. After that, he suggests they reward themselves by playing a piece they know and enjoy.
While generally keeping the focus on classical music, some teachers also toss in a few popular songs to keep their students motivated. Harlene McGowan emphasizes that, while her interest is in exposing her students to classical music, she’s happy to see kids taking an interest in piano, for example, because of a Disney song they like.
Veteran violin instructor Janet Melnicoff-Brown, program coordinator of the Young People’s Strings Program at the Peabody Preparatory in Baltimore, says incentives, even something as simple as stickers, often motivate young students. (Julie Davis could attest to that.)
Experts also say it’s helpful for a parent to be in the room during practice.
“Having a parent listen makes a huge difference!” says Harlene McGowan. “The parent does not need to know piano to just lend an ear and pay attention to what [the child is] practicing—the parental attention is enough for most kids to keep them going.”
However, many teachers find it really helpful if the parent can learn a little bit about the instrument so he or she can help the beginning student.
“What I’ll often do is have a parent try to learn how to hold the violin, how to hold a bow, even if it doesn’t feel comfortable to them,” says Melnicoff-Brown. “They often tell me, ‘Okay, that really gives me a much better picture of what we’re trying to do.’”
Melnicoff-Brown notes that musical skills are more akin to athletic skills than many people may realize. A great baseball ballplayer or tennis player makes everything they do look so easy, but it’s only when you pick up the bat or racket yourself that you realize how much practice and coordination it takes to do the job well.
“It’s really like that with these music skills as well,” says Melnicoff-Brown. “So, when parents hold a violin and it feels uncomfortable, they might say, ‘Yeah, my child may have to do this 100 times before it gets a little easier.’ That’s very valuable.”
If, during practice, a child says he or she doesn’t understand something, parents are urged to mention it to the teacher at the next lesson.
Until then, there’s always something else to practice, whether it’s scales or songs already in the child’s repertoire.
Finally, there’s no magic age when parents should back off and let kids practice on their own.
“When you give the kids that extra freedom, there’s an immediate drop-off,” cautions Blakeslee.
But, he adds, when many kids realize that the only way to improve and fully enjoy the music is to put more into it, they start practicing again.
Of course, as kids grow up, their interests may change. The vast majority of them won’t go on to become professional musicians. Melnicoff-Brown says even her own kids moved on from music to other pursuits.
But that’s okay, she says. Learning an instrument teaches kids discipline and focus. And, most importantly, it puts music into their lives.
“They’ve learned something valuable,” says Melnicoff-Brown. “And that’s a wonderful thing to grow up with.”
As for Grant Newcome, the young boy who really didn’t want to learn piano?
Recently, at his recital, he played the first page of the Bach’s “vampire” music. And he didn’t miss a note. BC
Practice Tips from the Pros
1. Know your child’s limits. If your child’s concentration is gone, he or she has probably had enough for the day.
“If you’re forcing a certain amount of practice no matter what, then you’re going to get battles that are not solvable,” says Janet Melnicoff-Brown, of the Peabody Preparatory.
2. Put a positive spin on practice time. Playtime Piano’s Scott McGowan urges parents to tell kids, “I like hearing you play.”
And stay in the room, he says. Sending children off to practice alone makes them feel as though they’re being banished.
3. Try giving practice a candy coating. Michael Blakeslee, of the National Association for Music Education, suggests placing three M&M’s candies (or other small candies) on your child’s music stand. When he or she plays a piece perfectly the first time, he or she can move one piece of candy closer to him or her. When he or she plays the piece perfectly a second time, he or she can move the next candy over. And, when the child plays a piece perfectly a third time, he or she not only gets to move the third and final candy but also gets to eat all three.
© Baltimore’s Child Inc. August 2010