David Barton is our latest guest blog author and has written this informative article on how to help your child efficiently practice their musical instrument. Based in Lichfield, Staffordshire, David offers tuition in flute, piano, singing, music theatre, music theory, musicianship and composition.
Don’t mention the ‘P’ word…
Parents and pupils often approach music lessons with some trepidation – whether it is piano, flute, or even singing, it won’t be long before the dreaded ‘P’ word is mentioned. I sometimes wish it was called something else because it’s developed such a negative image; but unless there’s a miracle in the next millennium, for the moment we better stick to calling it ‘practise’.
Firstly, we need to establish what practise actually is. Here in Lichfield, I explain to my pupils and their parents that practice works in three stages:
- Revision of what’s been covered in the previous lesson
- Preparation for the next lesson
- Revision of what’s been covered in recent weeks, months or years
For most pupils, a 30 minute lesson each week leaves around 99.7% of the time when the teacher isn’t there to help, support, direct and gently prod. This is one of the reasons why music lessons are such a great way to develop the interchangeable skill of independent learning. So, what’s the best way to practise? Ultimately, it’s an individual thing, and over time, your child will find what works for them. Here are my top five tips to get you started:
1. Set a manageable target for each practice session; it’s a good idea for your child to write down “By the end of this session I want to be able to…” Without a tangible aim, practice sessions can be a bit haphazard! Teachers will set work for the week, but this often needs to be broken down into manageable sized chunks.
2. Practice usually involves playing a piece, identifying errors, and then practising them. This approach is OK, but sometimes it’s a good idea to try and identify the problem areas before you start (this is also a good way of encouraging skim-reading of music which is so usual for sight-reading). If it’s a problem which has already arisen in another piece, revisit that piece and encourage your child to see how they tackled it there; where possible, try to apply the same principles.
3. Look out for recurring patterns – a lot of the music we play is generally made up of patterns and sequences of notes, and repetition, Look out for all these, as in many cases, a lot of time is spent learning a line of music where in fact, it would have been better to learn the pattern, then apply it to the music. Sometimes people think this is a disallowable shortcut, but it’s a much better use of time.
4. Practice isn’t just about revising work from the previous lesson and preparing work for the next; it’s also good to revisit pieces learnt in previous weeks and months. Playing pieces which have already been accomplished is always good preparation for the future, and where a confidence boost is needed, it will remind your child that even though they think the piece they’re learning now is impossible, they probably thought the same for all those pieces which they can now play! Starting and ending each practise session with something they can play is good for confidence.
5. Use your child’s practice notebook – your child’s teacher will normally record in their practice notebook what materials is to be worked on during the week. Whilst not all advocate its use as a means of communication with teachers, it is usually acceptable to tick off what’s been covered and to possibly write short comments in on how your child got on during the week; some notebooks even have a space for parental comments. If your child struggled with a particular thing, note it down – it’s useful for the teacher to know!
There’s no magic cure for getting practice right; it is something which evolves over time; but, with the help of your child’s teacher, you can make it a ‘P’ for positive rather than a negative.