No kid is born knowing how to practice an instrument. It’s a discipline. It’s part of what we wanted from homeschooling; time to learn an instrument well. It’s not really a choice in our house. (Dad is a professional musician!) It has taken time.
Many of our homeschool friends have tried an instrument or music lesson and gave up. Looking back they wished that they had had the tools to make it work. What’s our secret? We had good advisors and mentors that taught us a few tricks. Tricks that really fit with our Minimize for Maximum progress.
1. Practice everyday. Make it a fun part of their day. Sometimes I will offer to do a chore for the musician, so they will keep playing a song. They think they are the winner. (We do take off Sunday, unless another day of the week was missed.)
2. Practice a little bit everyday, even if it is a struggle to find the time. 10 minutes with the kids kept the routine going, and made the next day just a bit easier to jump back into the routine. I will often ask them to pick one part of their lesson to practice for those 10 minutes, and put their highest concentration on that piece/scales. Those ten minutes can be highly productive focus sessions.
3. Build slowly. We started out with 10 minute practice sessions, everyday. Then, they grew to 15 minutes. And then 20. When they hit 30 minutes, the next jump was to split the practice. That was easier than pushing it up to 40 straight minutes. We did 30-15 or 20-20. Again, when daughter’s teacher encouraged 90 minutes this year, a jump from 60, I knew it would be a hard shift, so we broke it up to 45-45 or 60-30. Often Emily will practice longer at both, than she would have in one long setting.
4. Even on the off weeks, we never threatened “If you don’t practice, I am going to stop your lessons.” There will always be slow weeks. There will be humps when progress is slow and our kids wanted to walk away from their instrument. Part of life is teaching them to see past the present and know that with a bit of effort, they would get through this doldrum and be glad they stuck it through.
5. Sit with our kids during practice. Sometimes it is active listening on my part and teaching Emily and Andrew how to review a hard section. Other times I am just present in the room, paying bills, or folding socks. I don’t sit through every practice or through the whole lesson, I just don’t have the time. But when the times are rocky or I can see it is a hard day, my presence helps with their focus.
6. Two years is the turning point. It takes two years of studying an instrument, before most students can really say they enjoy it. When friends say they want to expose their child to a variety of instruments, I have a hard time holding back a comment. Let them try a variety of instruments, but pick one to stick with for two years. This will help with teaching dedication and will also help them reach a level they might enjoy the instrument.
7. Even the very best “natural” musicians have to work at playing their instrument, it just looks different. Two of our family members are “natural” musicians and the other two are hobbyists who play for enjoyment. It’s easy to step on each other’s toes. The Natural musicians work hard at perfecting their music, some aspects are just so much more easy for them to grasp, and then there are those that they really enjoy and work very hard and have to keep working to maintain their skill. Husband Carl falls into the “Natural” category and I fall into the later. We both work hard at our music, Carl just takes it to a level far above anything I would ever reach in a life time.
8. Celebrate. We celebrate the graduation from one book to another. A good recital. A good performance. Memorization of a piece. Mastery of the scales. Nothing terribly expensive, maybe a treat on the way home from the recital. A special music book for a movie/musical theme. One time Carl (dad) handed down a statue of Beethoven from his childhood collection. Little markers of progress.
I think that the biggest piece of information that I learned in the early years, was that kids don’t know how to practice. They have no idea how to spend 30 minutes with their instrument. If I spend a few lessons teaching them how to focus, even if I don’t play that instrument, and encourage them to repeat trouble spots, focus on perfecting the mistakes, and working on the instructions the teacher made at the lesson, then I have taught skills beyond music, skills that can transfer to other areas in their lives.
It’s all in my attitude, if I approach practice as a chore or a punishment, my kids will dread playing their instrument. Our favorite teacher has a saying, “Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes progress.” Just playing through their lesson at top speed, to race off to anything better is not practice. If I approach the practice with encouragement and insistence of commitment, I am giving them a gift of music appreciation and maybe the gift of music performance.Growing up I played several instruments, piano for 12 years through college and several band instruments, hopping around and never getting really good at any wind instrument. I remember being sent to my room to practice the clarinet alone, but on the piano having my mother encourage me from the kitchen. My sweet husband bought me my dream instrument in college and I started lessons as an adult. I currently practice my cello when the day winds down and I can get help from my kids . . . they long ago surpassed my ability and are now my teachers.