Practicing for Success, Part 1: How Long To Practice?
"How Much Should My Child Practice?"
Every year I get asked this same question, and my answer remains just as confusing as ever:
"Better to practice a little a lot than a lot a little."
(One of my new 4th graders claims to know what this means, which makes me so happy)
One thing I hear, year after year, from a lot of students is: "my parents make me practice a half hour a day."
While the time limit is set with the best intentions, it doesn't always bring about the best result, and in some cases, actually backfires.
When I was a young piano student, my mother would make me sit at the piano for 30 minutes every day. She'd tell me I could "practice or don't practice, but you have to sit there for a half hour." Some nights I would actually practice 10-15 minutes, but other nights I would just sit there staring off in to space, never playing a single note. Was this productive? Some could make the argument that since I became a professional musician and have a 2-hour daily practice routine, my mother succeeded in "teaching" me discipline.
But many teachers (including myself) feel that this is not a good way for 99.9% of kids. Most children are not going to grow up to be musicians (just like most kids won't grow up to be scientists just because they took biology in high school), so why make it more difficult for them to appreciate and love music? The lesson I want my students to walk away with is that music is fun, and makes your life infinitely better. I don't want it to be a chore or a drudgery, and neither should you. Kids should practice for their lessons, of course, but they should not be forced to practice.
If you find that your student is not practicing, like at all, it might be time to reassess if music lessons are right for you. It costs money to pay for lessons, so why put the money into this activity if they're not going to take advantage of it? They can still belong to band at school, while not costing you the extra money for lessons. I don't like to see anyone quit lessons, but I understand the financial considerations that have to be made when deciding if lessons are right for you.
On the other hand, you may have a child who loves their instrument and the music so much that you can't get them to take a break to do their homework! This is, of course, ideal, so work out a schedule that your child can stick to. For example, come home and practice your oboe for 30 minutes, then do your homework, practice again, eat dinner, relax with some tv, then practice again!!
(wouldn't it be wonderful if all the kids were like that?)
We all know this isn't the reality. Of the 400+ students I have taught (in schools & privately) over the last 22 years, only 4 have become musicians. I don't labor under the delusion that kids are doing music for any other reason than for fun. So the last thing we should all want to do is turn them off from music.
I use a simple equation to figure out how much a student should practice:
Lesson length X 2 = 1 week of practice
If the lesson is 30 minutes, then aim for an hour of practice per week. That could mean 10 minutes, 6 days per week, 15 minutes 4 times per week, or any way you can slice it. That doesn't seem like much practice time, I know, but you'll be amazed at what allowing your child to "stop practicing" before they get bored or resentful will do for their achievements.
Beginners: Even with this formula, beginners will still find this expectation difficult to stick to as they don't have enough material to work on to cover an hour in a week! For example, in the first few weeks of beginner flute, they are only playing on their head joints, working to just make a sound. They can't possibly do this for 30 minutes a day, so be patient at the start. It can take a couple of months, on all instruments, before you hear any real music coming out of your young musician.
Middle School Students, may not have disciplined practice habits yet to budget their time properly. If you hear "noodling" it may mean your child has run out of things to practice. In that case, let me know: I may be able to assign supplemental material to keep them busy.
High School Students have a whole new set of issues, including increasing amounts of homework, new and difficult classes, sports, jobs, college testing, you name it. They may have enough material to practice an hour a day, but don't have the time in the day to do it. This is when the shorter but more often practice sessions come in handy.
If your high schooler is not going to become a music major, then this is not an issue. Let them practice the way they have been through middle school, with no pressure. But if they have declared that they want to audition into college music departments, then there has to be an understanding that practice time is essential to winning not only a place in the incoming Freshman class, but also large scholarships for music study. Dedication to your practice, your instrument and music in general is absolutely necessary for success.
Please know, that an 11th or 12th grader preparing for college auditions will easily have 90 minutes of practice time per day because of all the audition material we need to cover.
If you need help figuring out how to handle college preparation, you can always speak to me at any time. I will publish another blog covering this topic later this fall.
I assign practice materials according to how much I believe your student is willing to practice vs how much they need to accomplish in that week. When your child is practicing, you should hear certain things on a weekly basis: scales, exercises, solo pieces, school band music. If you sit in on their lessons, you will notice that every week we work on material in exactly that order. I am trying to impress on the students the proper method for practicing while training you (the parent) to hear certain things in a certain order. If you are not hearing the same things you heard in their lessons, ask your student to show you what they are working on, and of course ask me for any help in organizing their practice sessions.
Kids are much more interested in practicing when they have the right tools! So get them a music stand and a supportive chair that can all stay set up in their bedroom or a quiet corner of an appropriate room. It would also be great if they had a stand for their instrument so it can stay out, put together, and ready to go whenever the spirit moves them to play! I have put links to new accessories on the Store page.
Just like homework is the most important way for teachers to reinforce the information given in class, practice is essential for progressing on your instrument. A little practicing goes a long way. So encourage your kids to practice! Remember: you're paying for lessons, you should hear results. But keep it fun, keep it interesting, and enjoy the live music going on in your home.