This is a guest post by John Skelton. He is the author of “Best Practicing: A Parent’s Guide to Beginning Strings” and the soon to be released “Take Note Method” for beginning strings. He has over fifteen years of experience teaching in private and public schools at all levels. Since becoming a professional educator, he has dedicated his career to finding better methods of instruction for school and home.
There are many questions that parents have when their child brings home an instrument from school for the first time. Will my child enjoy learning this instrument? Will they get anything out of it? How far will they go with it?
The reality that quickly sets in after the first or second lesson, however, is that these philosophical little questions give way to more practical concerns: Are they practicing enough? Are they practicing the right thing? Are they doing it the right way?
From my experience as a teacher and a parent, practicing boils down to six main questions:
1) How important is practicing?
2) How much should I be involved in my child’s practicing?
3) How do I solve the “I can’t find the time” problem?
4) How do I solve the “I don’t know what to practice” problem?
5) What does my child’s teacher mean by “work it out”?
6) How do I know if my child is making progress?
The Purpose of Practicing
I would like to suggest that the purpose of practicing is to develop an independent musician. If practicing is approached conscientiously, your child will learn how to teach themselves in a systematic way. Therefore, you need to consider yourself a temporary, but essential, part of the process.
Your child does not start off life as an independent musician. Basic musical skills and literacy takes many years to develop. Add to this the technical challenges of learning an instrument, and your child would need to be exceptionally motivated to learn without any help from you. You need to be involved in your child’s practicing.
How to Find the Time
There are no shortcuts or hacks to get you out of the harsh reality that your child needs to find the time to practice. But how? First, make practicing part of their daily routine and don’t have them do a lot of practicing all at once. What your child will benefit from most, especially in the beginning, are multiple, shorter, more focused sessions. Find five to ten minutes, three or four times over the course of the day.
The other thing I encourage is to have them use down-time to do “mental work”. Techniques such as “the pledge position” and “shadow bowing” (shown in my book) are very useful to work through the music when your child is in the car (or bus or train or plane…) It’s not a perfect substitute for practicing with an instrument, but it’s better than nothing.
How to Know What to Practice
When your child comes home from their lesson, you should have three questions for them:
- “What did the teacher say you needed to work on?” (Start simple. Usually this involves an assignment of some sort.)
- “Did the teacher tell you anything that you should do to make a better sound?” Getting a good sound is not only a good motivator for your child, but it has rewards for you as a parent as well.)
- “How good does the teacher want your pieces to be for next week?” (There might not always be a clear answer to this one, but sometimes there is.)
If your child is unsure or evasive, email the teacher. Don’t let any of these questions go unanswered for the entire week.
Working it Out
Without going into too much detail, the nitty-gritty of learning music comes down to “working it out”. Generally, the best advice is to play through it slowly for accuracy of notes and rhythms. However, that isn’t always enough. Your child needs to have some additional strategies available to them to help with the more difficult parts. (This is the part of practicing on which my book “Best Practicing” focuses.) Having the right tool for the job makes the time spent much more effective.
When it comes to showing progress, it’s best to have evidence of it. Keeping a log of your child’s practicing comes in handy. I don’t mean simply writing down that they practiced for 30 minutes. I’m talking about meeting an objective within the available time. So, you have to help them plan out the practicing and then let them compare the expectations with the results. The most useful tool for doing this is to record your child’s playing. Not only is this a good diagnostic tool, but it also gives you a portfolio over time.
The first year or two of being the parent of a beginning string student can be very challenging, especially if your child is in a school setting. However, you don’t need to be musically trained to guide their progress. As long as you stay involved and informed, and help them meet the challenges methodically, you can ensure their success in becoming an independent musician.