When my oldest daughter, The Musician, was 4 years old, she came to me and said, “I am going to need a little violin and a little stick.” She wanted to take violin lessons so badly that it was all she talked about for weeks on end. Seeing visions of the New York Philharmonic in my mind, I dutifully signed her up for lessons. Everything went very smoothly for about 6 months. She willingly practiced every day, sometimes even twice. Getting her instrument out of its case brought joy and happiness. After her first concert, she came home beaming and even more excited.
Then…..she started to lose interest (and I began to realize how hard this consistent practicing thing was). She complained every time I told her it was time to practice. She started becoming very sloppy with her posture and technique. She would play through her songs once, as fast as possible and refuse to do them again. BUT…..she absolutely loved to perform so she was willing to stick with it. So we limped along for a while. She made reasonable progress and practiced enough to satisfy her teacher.
Along about this time, I heard Dr. Mary Kay Clark (Seton Homeschool) give a talk at a conference about how important music education is for kids….especially instrument lessons. The one thing that really stuck with me was when she stressed how important playing an instrument was for boys. Boys/men tend to see the big picture, but have a much harder time seeing the details. Playing an instrument forces them to focus on the details (do I have the pitch right, should this part be loud or quiet, how many beats must I count before resuming my part, etc.). I also began seeing lots of different posts on the importance of music and brain development. There is so much great research out there! I became convinced that all of our kids should have instrument lessons. It shouldn’t just be a passing thing, rather it should be part of our every day life. BUT….there was still this consistent practicing thing. It was fine when I just had one kid, adding two boys and eventually the youngest, headstrong Miniature Me, was a whole different ball game. Which brings me to the point of this post…..Getting your kids to practice without a hassle! So here are my top 5 pieces of advice.
Tip #1: Set a schedule: Same time each day
For us, practicing instruments holds the same level of importance as math and reading. We practice 6 days a week starting at 7:45 am. It has become such a habit that no one complains about it. I find that practicing first thing in the morning is the best for their little brains. Just like math it should be done in the morning. By the afternoon or evening, they are just too tired to focus.
Tip #2: Review, Review, Review
I have set up all different kinds of systems to make reviewing old pieces fun. When they consistently review old pieces, they make more progress. During review, they can really focus in on posture or dynamics or changing the mood of the piece. Here are some ideas for review:
- Write their old pieces on slips of paper and put them into a hat, have the student draw out 5 old pieces they have to play in addition to their working piece and technique books.
- Using graph paper, write their pieces on the lines. Every time they play a piece, color in the corresponding square on the chart. Once the chart is full, they have earned themselves an ice cream cone.
Tip #3: Watch and Listen
My kids have learned via the Suzuki method. Dr. Suzuki recommends listening to a CD of their current pieces every day. The kids learn to play by ear first before learning to read music. Whether your music teacher uses this or a more traditional approach, listening to a piece several times before they actually try to play it will make it easier to play. Even now, before my oldest daughter attempts a complicated concerto, the first thing she does is find a recording of it on youtube. She watches the shifts, listens to the dynamics, and counts the rhythm. Thereafter, she watches and listens to the piece every day before practicing it. She picks up something different each time and is able to focus in on the hard parts of the piece.
Tip #4: Practice the hard spots separately
In almost every piece, there is always something new or different that needs to be played several times over and over again. Playing the entire song 20 times can be very frustrating and counterproductive. The better thing to do is to isolate the hard measure or two and just practice that several times over and over again.
Tip #5: Reward them!
All of this practicing and repetition can be tedious and at times frustrating. So anytime they practice a review piece, repeat a measure, focus in on a posture problem, I reward them. We use a small dixie cup and fill it with one kernel of popcorn for each of the above. For instance, if they completed 5 review pieces, 20 repeated measures, and played through 3 pieces each time with a straight bow, they would earn 28 kernels of popcorn. Once they fill up the cup we have a “Popcorn Party.” Now, you can make a bowl of popcorn at any time. The difference is they earned this. The sense of accomplishment that they feel when they have earned that bowl of popcorn cannot be overstated. It sometimes takes several days or even a week to fill up the cup, as it should. Practicing is hard work! If you had a Popcorn Party every day, it would lose its appeal. (We have also used chocolate chips and had a “Chocolate Chip Cookie Party”, or raisins and had an “Oatmeal Raisin Cookie Party”. The possibilities are endless!)
At the end of the day, what can you expect from all of this practicing? You will have a happier music teacher because your kid comes in prepared for the lesson. (Can you imagine how frustrating it must be for these poor music teachers who give the same lesson over again each week?) Your musician will be pleased with their progress and actually want to do better. You won’t be dumping your money down the drain. Instrument lessons are costly, and it makes a lot of sense to be prepared for them! Finally, you will likely be a happier mom because you know that your kids are going to rock their music lessons!