Practicing for Success, Part 2: What To Practice
You finally convinced your child to sit down to practice, you have a schedule in place, but now what are they supposed to be practicing?
If you've been sitting in on their lessons, you know we always follow the same format (regardless of instrument): scales, exercises, solo, band/orchestra music. I do this same format every lesson so that the students not only know what to expect when they're at the lesson, but will hopefully fall back on this routine when they are alone. If you don't sit in on their lesson it's probably because they are older, more advanced students, and we all expect them to take responsibility for their musical experience.
All students need to be bringing a single subject spiral notebook or composition book to their lesson so that I can write their assignments and expectations for them to refer to while practicing. It's also the only tool you have at your disposal to know exactly what they are supposed to be working on.
EXAMPLE PRACTICE SESSION: Advanced Flute Student
It's exceptionally important that the student practices with a routine. This could include practicing around the same time every day (perhaps 3:30-4:30 when they arrive home from school, perhaps 7-8pm after dinner), but should certainly always follow this format once they are in their seat:
Set a Goal: The first thing your student should do when they sit down to practice is decide on their "goal" for the day. Is it to learn a new scale? To produce a nice tone? To fix a technique problem we worked on in their lesson? To play 6 notes in a row? Your daily goal doesn't need to be "lofty" or "noble", it just needs to be attainable. Don't expect your child to learn their new solo in one week -- but do look in their notebook to see what they are expected to get through.
Goal: For this example practice session, we'll set our goal to be: "play full and loud in all music."
Assignment: This advanced flute student has been assigned an F scale, a new etude from their book, and to "polish up" the solo we've been working on for a "performance" in their next lesson so we can start a new solo. This is an assignment that will apply to all woodwind instrument students. I am assuming this advanced student will practice 45-60 minutes per day while they prepare for youth orchestra auditions.
Scales: Now that the goal is set, it's time to begin! All students have a copy of the Circle of 5ths. They have been taught how to learn their scales from this diagram; they do not memorize their scales from a book. Each week, they are encouraged to warm up on all the scales they already know, but will be assigned one scale to "focus on" each week.
This week, the example child has been assigned a 2-octave F scale, an easy scale for them, so that they can practice playing with a loud full sound through the entire range of the instrument, practice their vibrato, and clean up the fingerings of the highest notes in the scale (D-E-F). They are expected to practice slowly, setting the metronome to 60 bpm, playing whole notes and half notes. At this speed, the student is also able to work on a slow vibrato, something we've been working on in lessons. When they reach the difficult high notes, they have to remember to open up their sound, play "loud" and not be shy! In our lesson we worked on having a "loud, crass, gross, unacceptable" tone.
Looking in their assignment book, you will see that I have written "do not go faster!" regarding this scale. That means you should be hearing a tediously slow and obnoxious scale coming out of them this week.
Warming up on all the scales they know, plus the focused work on the F scale, should take the student 10-15 minutes.
Etude: Etudes are, in my opinion, the next most important thing we practice outside of scales. I tell the kids "if you can play a boring etude with musicality, then playing actual music will be so much easier!"
This portion of the practice session should always take the most amount of time, 15-30 minutes. This student has been assigned an etude in a difficult key for them. I know, for a fact, that they will play through this etude once or twice, not stopping to work on technique or note reading, and that I will have to walk them through this etude in their next lesson. So in their assignment book, I have written "go slow, don't worry about rhythms, just learn the notes." Usually, when I give kids permission not to stress about complicated rhythms, they learn them! Sometimes, removing some pressure from their minds, they take care of certain problems on their own.
This particular exercise is also very long (1 whole page), and looks complicated (lots of accidentals and sixteenth-notes). The first week of an etude should sound scattered, with little snippets of "melodies" starting to shine through.
I would never expect a student, no matter their level, to practice an etude by starting at the beginning and playing straight through to the end. Many times, I will mark of 4 distinct sections and remind them to play one section per day, not to put them together until I give them the assignment to do so. Learning an etude in chunks makes the pieces a lot more approachable and again, relieves some of the pressure. But, since the chunks are shorter, this means I am expecting them to work on things in those sections, notes, rhythms, articulations, trills, adding vibrato, whatever the assignment may be.
Solo: By the time a student gets to this point in their practice session, they may be tired (especially reed players) and not able to play more than 10-15 minutes from this point. This is ok. As long as scales & etudes are getting the bulk of their attention, things will be just fine.
I encourage my reed players to take breaks between the sections of their practice. This allows them to extend the amount of cumulative time they practice, while spacing out their attention span.
This student knows that they will need to perform 2 solo pieces for their upcoming audition, and we have already worked through solo #1. This piece has been going well, they are sounding ready to audition, and time to move on to the second solo! But this week, they are expected to clean up, polish, the old solo so I can hear how they will sound in the audition. So what you should hear coming out of their room is this solo 2-3 times during the practice session, from start to finish, ignoring mistakes during their private "performance". When they finish the piece, they should go back and clean up the trouble spots, then play through the piece again! If you've read "performance next week" in their assignment book, ask if they can play the piece for you!
Band/Orchestra Music: This is the least important of the things they should be practicing. This flutist has a big solo in the upcoming holiday concert, so they need to practice this solo. Don't be surprised if you hear the student skating over the entire piece, playing 6-8 measures of their solo, then putting it away. Band and orchestra music is usually much easier for the student than anything else they have to practice. So, we don't normally work on band or orchestra music in their lesson unless they specifically request we work on a trouble spot, or if their music teacher assigns an excerpt for testing purposes.
Some parents are anxious about getting involved with practicing because they "can't read music" or "never played an instrument", and that's not really something you have to be all that worried about! All you need to know is this: you should hear music coming from their room, you should ask to read their assignment book, and you can always speak to me about what should be happening at your house between lessons. I know our lives are very busy, and quite frankly I don't have enough time or energy to be 100% involved in every activity my own son participates, but I do as much as I can. And that's all you can do as well.
Many parents ask if they should stay and listen to the lesson. I encourage parents of younger students to stick around. If your child is a little shy with you in the room, you can sit around the corner in the other seating area out of eyesight. If your child is ok with it, you can sit right behind us in the same room. Older students, generally, do not want their parents around. This is perfectly fine. Feel free to look in their assignment book for details and never ever hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.
Practicing is the most important part of the musical experience! Without it, they will stagnate and eventually get so frustrated they will quit. Remember what I said in Part 1: it's better to practice a little a lot than a lot a little!