Best Practices for Successful Practicing - A Parent's Guide
Parents, even those who were music students themselves, may need ideas for their own children on how to establishing a positive practice routine and to create a supportive environment for music lessons.
As a guideline, consider adapting the same expectations, mindset and communication techniques you already use with your child regarding the importance of schoolwork to that of music lessons. Your child will follow your lead and easily detect any discrepancy.
A beginning music student is not only learning the intricacies of music and musicianship, a beginning music student needs to learn how to practice – a process that takes some children many years!
While the student is young and under a parent’s care, help from a parent is vital in establishing this skill.
That said, never discourage your child from simply having fun at the piano regardless of their practicing habits. Even if they are sitting at the piano picking out tunes they have heard or just having fun, playing their favorite songs, or exploring different sounds, the piano should be a special place to make music!
To facilitate successful music lessons and a positive experience for your child in your household, here are some suggestions and guidelines that will help:
1. Choose a special location for the piano/keyboard and maintain a supportive practice and lesson environment, free from outside distractions
Make sure the piano is in a pleasant area of the house that is free from distraction while the student is practicing. TVs, radios, gaming systems and general household hubbub or noise should not be audible to allow your student the quiet time and consideration needed to practice. It is important to be able listen to the quality of tone they are producing, even for beginners. Your student will immediately understand whether practicing is considered important in your household by the environment you provide.
Ideally, your instrument should be in a family area where the student can play for family members or guests, rather than a bedroom or unused area. This gives the student a sense of importance as a music student and makes making and sharing music a priority in a household.
For online lessons, see the Best Practices for Online Music Lessons page to provide optimal technical support for congiruating the best possible online experience for your student.
2. Schedule regular practice appointments into the daily routine
Practicing should be done preferably every day, including lesson days to reinforce the new concepts introduced. If this is not possible, aim for a minimum of 4 days per week, particularly after lesson day.
Schedule practicing into the student’s daily routine. Making appointments in both your own and their "calendar" is the best way to insure that practice becomes a habit. Some students do best practicing after school and a bit of a rest and snack, but BEFORE their regular schoolwork. Because beginning students do not require a huge amount of practice time, putting practicing before more lengthy and tiring school homework or tutoring sessions will reap big dividends for the music student.
Try to schedule practice times when a student is not tired. Piano practice requires both mental and physical energy.
3. Establish good preparation skills
Designate a respected area where the student keeps their current working music and supplies and a place for their older or seasonal music, preferably near the piano. If traveling to the teacher's house for lesson, provide them a tote bag to carry their current music and assignment items. A student should learn to routinely go through their weekly assignment while packing their bag as a checklist procedure to ensure ALL items are brought to a lesson.
Accustom the child to preparing for their practice and lessons.
Depending on the age of the child, this may take many practice sessions over a period of time and may require that you sit with the child and oversee and establish these habits and skills until the child is independent and conscientious. Younger children will definitely need help in reading assignments and maintaining focus. A parent should expect to work with a younger child for a while until the child matures.
Note that parental involvement does not mean teaching or over-correcting the child (taking over as the teacher), but working towards getting the child to articulate the steps he/she should be following during practicing and providing gentle guidance and asked for correction if needed. For example, a child or young student should build this sort of mental routine through self-talk before every practice session:
Get out my current music books (from a special place where it is kept in between practices)
Read my assignment page
Do my written homework if any (parent should send a snapshot of any completed written pages to the teacher for online lessons)
Think about my "reminders" - what should I be concentrating on doing and improving this week overall
Read any teaching notes for each piece assigned before practicing - what should I be improving in this particular song or exercise
Practice the songs or exercises (provide only gentle guidance here if a student is way off base - there is no need for the parent to assume a teaching role) for a time period or number of repetitions as suggested by the teacher
4. Act as a support coach for your student while they learn to practice
Praise the student for the work done - accomplishing goals, memorizing or learning a new piece, getting better at skill, learning a new scale, and establishing preparation and good practice habits, etc ... . They should be encouraged both for their musical accomplishments and recognized for the skills of practicing, preparing for practice, and handling their assignment tasks.
Take time to listen to them play when they want to show you something and show enthusiasm for their accomplishments. Emphasize that their progress has come about through their hard work and actions. Also, for young children, giving little rewards for completing practice assignments - a sticker chart, small rewards, may work for your family.
If you are musician yourself, try to refrain from becoming a second teacher in the house. Let the student develop their own relationship with the primary teacher, make their own mistakes (which will be corrected by the teacher in due course), and create their own experience of a practice environment without a parent hovering. Small children, of course, will need gentle assistance and direction and may need a parent or caregiver to facilitate.
5. Encourage your student to practice "mindfully"
Understand what practicing is and isn't becomes more important as a student progresses. Young students routinely simply play the piece from beginning to end over and over again which is a highly ineffective method of practice. If you have questions about how the student should practice, make sure you communicate with the teacher.
For very young children, a child may be instructed to play a piece a certain number of times, rather than a certain number of minutes, but this will alter as a child progresses and builds more practice skills. The goal of practicing should always be to improve and for a student to develop their awareness of skills and techniques that they should use to identify problem sections and improve areas that need more work.
Your teacher will provide guidelines so that you and the student understand what their practice week should entail.
6. Check your student’s work to make sure they’ve completed the entire assignment
Make sure your student completes ALL of their assignment each week. It is important for the student to establish a routine and the skill of reading their assignment (online or assignment book page) before EACH practice time - even if they have memorized the contents verbatim.
This is an important habit - routinely reviewing directions for tasks and assignments, will serve them in school as well. Some students like to rely on their memory and often fail to refer to their written assignments, coming to their lessons without having completed all the required tasks or making the requested corrections.
7. Understand practice goals set by your teacher
Piano lessons with a private teacher are not the same as a "music class" that is set up for sporadic attendance as more of an entertainment activity. Make sure you know how much your student is expected to practice weekly so that you can provide positive and constructive oversight. If the student is not practicing enough, they will not be able to progress very quickly and will become bored and frustrated as they will not be experiencing the internal rewards of hard work or seeing their own progress.
Establishing a high expectation early will prevent power struggles with a parent later. Of course, be gentle in enforcing these goals. You may have to “incentivize” younger students into practicing through various methods of encouragement, but please emphasize the virtue of their work and perseverance rather than treating practicing as a household chore.
8. Don’t allow students to cram practice
If a student is assigned a guideline of minutes to practice (older students), the student should NOT attempt to make up for lack of practice by doing all of it the night or day before the lesson. Frequent repetition after periods of rest is vital to allow the new material to take hold. The number of skills used for learning to play an instrument - physical, kinesthetic, aural, mental, visual - and the repetition is one of the reasons children who learn an instrument often excel in other areas. It is a wonderful brain-transforming and beautiful endeavor. The satisfaction at finally being able to do something after periods of practice is a lesson that you can only learn by having worked at the skill over time.
9. Don’t inadvertently set an expectation that practice or participation in lessons is optional
Once you have committed to lessons, stick with it. There will certainly be times when your student wants to quit from fatigue or lack of interest or because he or she wants to pursue something else. Make sure to decide before they start that you will give it a significant length of time before allowing your child to stop lessons.
So many adults seek me out for lessons who regret having quit – “I only wish my parents had forced me to stick with it.”
If the student has had a hard week and has not practiced, still attend the lesson. Being unprepared and working around these situations is also an opportunity to learn something. And sometimes a bad day or week can be turned around by the distraction of a music lesson and the solace that music provides.
10. Provide non-stressful opportunities to make the student feel proud of being able to identify as a music student and explore and share music
Ask your child to play for you during the week. Tell them how much you enjoy hearing them play. Provide your child other non-stressful opportunities to casually play for the household, friends, or extended family members! Set up an impromptu pretend "recital" and have the student play their favorite pieces for the family. Or even do this online for remote family members.
Praise and encourage this sort of musical sharing, so that not all family conversation is centered around practicing.
Allow the student to "teach" you! Students often love to play teacher, and you can pretend that you would like to learn something and ask them about an area you know they feel competent in. Have them explain a concept or demonstrate a piece for you. Ask them questions about how they use their fingers; how they know what a certain note is; or anything that is their special interest.
Encourage the student to talk to the teacher (or talk to the teacher yourself) about the possibility of learning a favorite song. Apart from curriculum books, any piece of music can be adapted for any level. Simplified versions of pop, rock, movie, or gaming themes and melodies can greatly enhance a student's enthusiasm.
Most of all, show your own appreciation for having music in your life!