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Learning to Love Practicing (or at least like it more)


Daily practice is not something we have to do, it’s something we get to do.

Let’s be honest; for students, parents and professional musicians alike, the task of practicing every day can so easily start to feel like a chore. On any given day there are a dozen other things vying for your time: work, school, errands, extra-curricular activities, etc. What’s more, sometimes it might seem like practice sessions just dissolve into a endless battles with your child. Even when they love to play, it is extremely rare that a child always wants to practice their instrument. If you feel like you are constantly struggling to get your child to practice, then congratulations. You are in the norm.

Periodically it becomes necessary, therefore, to remind ourselves that practicing is in fact a privilege. Remember why you chose to give your child music lessons in the first place. Perhaps you want them to have the discipline and perseverance to pursue a goal even when the pursuit is hard. Perhaps you hope they will develop a love for great music and fine art. Perhaps you hope they will have a discerning ear, and acute attention to detail. Whatever your motives were for embarking on this journey, they should also be your motives for continuing. Besides, how often in your busy life do you really get the time for quality one-on-one interaction with your child? That alone is enough of a reason to make daily practice a priority.

The challenge is to put oneself in a state of mind wherein one is able to appreciate the joy in practicing an instrument, despite all the inherent difficulties. If we want to achieve and maintain a standard of excellence, and if we want to make continued progress, it is necessary to practice every day. But that can be daunting if we start to dread practice time as a chore. Here are some ideas for remembering to value it as an opportunity and a privilege instead.

Look continually for inspiration.

In his book The Talent Code, author Daniel Coyle describes the important role what he calls ignition plays in finding the drive to pursue excellence. It can be a powerful moment when, for example, a child sees Michael Phelps break a world record in the pool, or Simone Biles execute a flawless routine on the balance beam, and think, “if they can do that, so can I.” Babies find the motivation to learn to speak and to walk because they constantly see people around them speaking and walking. This is why listening is such a vital part of the Suzuki philosophy. Just as infants hear far more than just the few simple words they are going to learn first, young musicians must listen to more than just their current working pieces. They must listen to the repertoire they will learn soon, and they must hear great music performed at the highest levels. In these days of the Youtube and Spotify, it is easier and easier to hear great artists play.

Kids should also get to hear the live performances of their peers, and they should get to hear the live performances professional musicians. The experience of hearing an outstanding performance of a masterpiece live in a concert hall can be truly profound.

As with any flame, if we don’t continue to fuel it, the desire to learn and grow at the instrument will eventually peter out.

Set goals.

We can be very highly motivated if we have the right kind of goals in mind. I tend not to recommend setting deadlines (i.e. “I want to learn x piece by y date”), because some pieces take longer than others to learn. In any case, we should measure progress by quality of playing rather than quantity of repertoire. But long term goals (e.g. “One day I want to play in Chicago Consort,” “I want to learn the Elgar Concerto,” “when I grow up I want to play in the symphony”) are great.

Shorter term goals can be even more effective. Perhaps your child can audition to participate in an SAA Conference, or for a solo recital at a summer Suzuki Institute. Perhaps you can make videos of beautifully polished performances of every review piece in the previous book and then send a DVD to the grandparents as a Christmas gift. Perhaps you can participate in a 100 day practice challenge. Maybe this is the year you and your child finally tackle that pesky thumb issue.

Most importantly, everything we do in a given practice session should be done with a specific goal in mind. Very often those goals will come from the teacher in the lesson. Play the measure with the shift in the new piece 10 times in a row without missing. Play six Book 1 reviews with a relaxed, even vibrato on first finger notes. Play Tonalization with a clear ringing sound on every part of every note.

Without goals, our practice runs the risk of lapsing into auto-pilot mode.

Make the progress visible.

As teachers, we can see into the future. We ask for the elbow to be positioned in a certain way in Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, because we know it will be necessary to execute the most virtuosic passages in Book 10. Unless you play the same instrument, however, as a parent you might not be able to see that big picture. Your child certainly doesn’t see it.

Focus on the goals you can see, and draw your child’s attention to the progress they are making toward those goals. Build a tower of blocks, or color in a section of a coloring book page for every well-executed repetition of a task. Record a video of a new piece on the first day of learning it, and then record the same piece after a week of practice, after two weeks, after a month; then watch them back to back and note the progress. If you notice an aspect of your child’s posture or technique, which used to be a difficult, but which your child now negotiates with ease, say so.

Put the end in sight.

I remember as a kid dreading having to clean my room. The task seemed monumental at the time, when in retrospect my room was probably never so messy that it would have taken more than half an hour to clean. I don’t think I was particularly motivated by ultimatums. If my mother said “you can’t do x until your room is clean,” I still found every reason to procrastinate. But when my mother provided an itemized list of exactly what needed to be done (1. Put toys away, 2. Vacuum the rug, 3. Make your bed, etc.), I got it done in short order. It helped to know that the process of cleaning my room would not be endless, and that I just needed to complete a finite number of reasonable tasks.

Practicing works the same way. Having a chart or a checklist can do wonders. If your child likes to play with trains, you can build a track together with one section for every item on the list, and then move the train along during the practice session, one length of track at a time, until the train has reached the station and the practice is over. Write each item on a strip of paper and draw them out of a hat. When the hat is empty, the practice session is over.

There is no law, furthermore, that says you have to get the practice done all in one sitting. In fact, our adult brains are only good at focusing on a particular task for about 20 minutes. After that, we become distracted and the pace or quality of our work suffers. For young kids, of course, that time frame is even shorter. Why not break it up? Do some practicing in the morning and some after school. Or alternate practice tasks with homework tasks (five math problems, tonalization, one paragraph of reading, a tricky bowing pattern four times, etc.). At the very least get up and move around several times during the practice session. Do some jumping jacks. Get a drink of water.

Be creative and unpredictable.

There’s a documentary on the late great cellist Jacqueline Du Pré, in which she describes how when she was a small child, her mother, a pianist, would surprise her every morning with a new short piece to learn, accompanied by a silly illustration. Young Jackie would leap out of bed, and couldn’t wait to pick up her cello.

You might be thinking, “Yes, but I don’t play the piano.” It was the sense of whimsy and the element of surprise though, that inspired the young Jackie. I think Suzuki parents often fret about the effort it takes to keep practice sessions fun and unpredictable. It does take effort, but there are myriad suggestions out there in articles and on message boards and in books. Infusing the practice session with playfulness and humor can do a lot to mitigate many of the frustrations that may arise. Kids often respond better to an instruction dictated by happenstance (a roll of the dice, a spin of a spinning wheel, a flip of a card) than they do to an instruction dictated by a parent. And you probably see in day-to-day play time how energized your child can be when something truly sparks their imagination.

We get so bogged down sometimes thinking of practice time as work, that we forget the inherent joy in learning, and the joy in music. It can be thrilling to learn a piece that one has heard often and come to love. It can be exhilarating to collaborate with colleagues, and to present the fruits of those efforts to an audience. It can be exciting to finally execute with ease a skill that once seemed impossible. After all, the verb we typically apply to music-making isn’t to work; it’s to play.

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