Practice Tips for the New Music Student

River Heights School of Music Practice Tips

At some point many parents with a child taking music lessons says, “My kid loves the lessons but just won’t practice that much. How can I get them to practice? How much is enough?”

After 25 plus years of teaching students of all ages, We’ve put together some suggestions to help students, and/or their parents, get the most out of  music lessons. The first section provides suggestions for encouraging practice. The second section focuses on practical suggestions for increasing/optimizing practice time. Please note that this is directed toward the beginner student and although it focuses on children, these suggestions can be applied to adults, especially if they are brand new to music.

If you are new to music lessons, it is important to realize that, unlike almost all other activities, music is different in one basic way: Most activities (sports, crafts, etc.) you go to and do that activity and leave till next time. With music you go to the activity and then go home and do the activity some more. That is called practicing.

TIPS for encouraging practice:

  • Begin at the end. When parents get frustrated with their child not practicing as much as they’d like, they usually sit down with them to make sure they do. In reality this is where we should start, when the lessons and musical concepts are easiest for the non-musical parent to understand. Once the pattern of regular practice becomes instilled, it becomes easier to get them to practice and becomes something they expect to happen. At some point you can stop sitting with them every time or for the entire practice session and eventually you only need to remind once in a while as opposed to every day. In some cases the student will practice the amount needed independently.
  • Make practicing the first thing and therefore the fun thing. I’ve noticed that if you stop a child from doing something they consider fun to do anything else, that anything can seem unpleasant. So stop playing that video game and practice, the practice can become a negative thing. So, the time, right after breakfast, dinner or school and before TV, sports, gaming or free play, are great times for practice.
  • Make it the same time each day. This makes it as regular as eating or bathing. Make it part of a routine.
  • A little each day. Just like athletic training or studying, doing a little bit spread over a lot of days accomplishes way more than any sort of cramming could. I recommend a relatively small amount of practice each day. If they are going to skip a day, the day of the lesson would probably be the best. I will say that practicing after your lesson is one of the best ways to retain the information but practicing just before your lesson is more like cramming.
  • Give them a choice. One of the most effective ways to get young people to comply is to give them two choices. For example, “What would you like to do first, your homework or music practice?”
  • Don’t rush or cram the practicing in somewhere. “Aunt Jeannie is coming over in 20 minutes so get up there and practice!”
  • Be there when they practice. You can monitor their practice, check their progress and enjoy some homemade music at the same time. (A note to the student: practicing while someone is home is a sure way to guarantee they know you are practicing).
  • Create a positive environment for practice. With piano, keyboard and drum-set students, the instrument is hard to miss but with guitar, violin, ukulele, wind, voice and bass students, there is a temptation or even a tendency to leave the instrument in the case until needed. Therefore we recommend students have an instrument stand so the instrument is out and therefore is easy to access. Except for the piano or keyboard which both of which have built in music stands, budding musicians should also have a music stand. This promotes a greater sense of importance to the music and the lessons. It also allows the posture and positions indicated by the teacher to be better realized.
  • Get Them to Teach You. This is an idea created by one of our parents. They got their child to show them what they learned

Practical Suggestions for getting the most out of practice

So now that we have some helpful hints we move onto practice scheduling. I like to keep it simple:

  • Every day
  • Everything
  • Practice System

Every day is the first one because it will set the tone for a lifetime of practicing. It is easier to increase 15 minutes a day to 20 or 30 than it is to increase 3 days a week to 5 or 6. Trying to practice every day gives more room when life gets in the way.

Everything practiced each time is important as well. Sometimes a student really connects with a piece of music and focuses on it so much, they miss the learning found in the other pieces or in the technical practice. Or they spend so much time trying to get one thing perfect, they don’t have time to practice the rest; it happens. So, if you only get ½ of your assigned practice done on one day, start with the 2nd ½ the next day.

What is a practice system? For the young ones I think their practice is managed best by not mentioning time. Ten minutes of practice verses ten minutes of TV are two completely different lengths of time to a 7 year old. In these cases I prefer they play this piece or that exercise a set number of times. That number can be set by the teacher or the parent but a good rule of thumb is three times.

With older students we have another simple formula:

Three minutes per line of music but based on the whole piece. So if a song or exercise is 2 lines long they should practice it for 6 minutes. For drum students we have to modify it a bit. Provided with single bar or single line examples (most are 4 bars long) and playing them once a day is all that is usually needed. Exercises that are 16 or 20 bars, again, need to be played once a day for positive results. I also give single bar ‘beat’ examples, that make up the bulk of early drum instruction, and these need to be played for 3 minutes each once a day. The three minute mark is chosen in this case as most popular songs are around 3 minutes long and drummers need to build up that stamina.

Another practice system we have recommended, is time blocking. This is more complex and usually for more advanced students who can monitor their own progress. This system is where you block out your practice time and divide it by your work. So if you have an hour to practice and 4 things of various lengths and difficulty you divide your time to give each item its full share.

The last system I mention is last because I do not recommend it but it seems to be used a lot. This is where the student plays the music over and over until they ‘get it right’ and then move on to the next area of study. I see two major flaws in this system.

Firstly, if you play something 9 times, get it right on the 10th and then stop, your brain and fingers will remember the 9 times you got it wrong more than the one time you got it right. If you wait until you get the first thing right before moving on you will, more times than not, practice the first assignments way more than the rest. Although, I do not recommend this system but it is better than no practicing at all.

Now of course these are very broad guidelines and do not cover every situation but I can tell you they do produce results.

I hope this helps everyone. If you’d like to discuss individual situations please call or write.

The River Heights School of Music
202-2025 Corydon Ave
Winnipeg Manitoba
R3P 0N5