Developing Practice Independence

What can they do on their own?

Parents want to help. But we don't always know how to cultivate independence in practicing. 

Students can easily get stuck if left to their own devices. This results in missed practice sessions, and lack of progress between lessons.

But when I talk about this in lessons, it often results in parents telling their children, “See, you need to practice more.” The problem with this quick-fix approach is that they are expecting their child to be independent, without first giving them the tools.

We wouldn't expect a child instantly to know how to walk or ride a bike when first learning that. And yet we can stick an instrument in their hands and say "Practice!" as though they know what to do.

I want to empathize here with all the parents who are trying  to figure this out. I am a parent and I have children who are trying to incorporate practicing into their busy schedules. This is hard!

We try mightily to balance and multi-task, reminding our children to practice while attending a myriad of other responsibilities, including working from home, taking care of other siblings, making meals, managing households, figuring out transportation, and on and on.

It would be great if we had a clear, linear path to helping our children practice on their own. The good news is that this is possible.

In the next series of posts I will share seven practical steps that will assist you in guiding your child to greater independence:

  1. Set a start and end time and stick to it every day
  2. Have a strategy for tuning
  3. Use a timer for each element of practice
  4. Make a listening station in the practice area
  5. Use a practice chart
  6. Have a system for figuring out notes (click here to see finger charts for example)
  7. Know what to do when they run out of things to do

I'll take each of these in turn. Let's start with the first one:

Set a start and end time and stick to it every day

I believe that this is the first and most important habit in the journey toward practice independence. If a child knows when she is supposed to practice and for exactly how long, she will be more likely to do it, and do it consistently.

The three times that I have found are most effective are:

  • Right before school (have breakfast first)
  • Right after school (have a snack first)
  • Right before bed (as a cooling down routine)

Pick one of these that is the most realistic, and see you and your child can stay with it for one full week. If you find that you chose an unrealistic plan, that’s ok, just choose another time and try that for another week.

For example, I have a father and son who practice together at the end of the day, and really like this time. If done as a way to bring centeredness and calm to the child, it can be very effective. But if it feels like cramming one more thing in to a child's tired brain at the end of a long day, it would be counterproductive and stressful. You know your child best.

Managing willpower

Not knowing when the practicing is going to happen leaves too much to chance. Or better said, it leaves too much to a child’s willpower. We only have so much willpower in one day. A child often has to spend his willpower during the day at school, sitting through math class, or simply behaving quietly. It takes willpower to decide to practice, instead of watching TV. When you decide together to set a time beforehand, no energy has to be expended in the moment. The decision making is already done.

Taking care of your mental health

For your own sake, you need to set a specific start and end time for your child’s practice. This will give you peace of mind for two reasons: 1) You will know when the practicing will happen, so that you aren’t worrying about it at other times, and 2) You won’t have the feeling like practicing is in conflict with other things like homework, family time, down time, chore time, or bed time.

Use Rewards

You will go farther toward reinforcing good choices about practicing by using rewards. Every time your child honors the set practice time, be sure they know they have earned a tally mark or some other tangible item of reward. For more on this see Practice Tip #5 - Use Rewards

Remember, The time of day matters!

Empower your child to find an independence by helping them choose - and honor - a set time for practicing.

What has worked for you in the area of developing practice independence? Please share your feedback by leaving a comment.

Taming The Savage Beast - Or, The Magic of Group

"I don't get so mad," one of my students said, "when I play in group." 

 I was surprised to hear this. This student has a history of drama and overreaction when making mistakes. 

“What do you mean?” I asked. “I dunno,” he said, thoughtfully. “I guess it is because when I make a mistake in group, we just go on.”

When children give us drama - tantrums, anger, crying, rolling around on the floor, slap-happiness, physical silliness - it can make us feel like we want to tear our hair out.

In frustration we want to demand that they stop the ridiculous behavior. We want them to understand the rules, and have the will-power and self control to follow them. We try to reason with them and often find that only increases the silliness.

Why does drama happen, and how can we address it?

Children don't realize they are doing something irrational, and when they are doing it, often they are feeling something so physically in their bodies that they cannot hear or communicate in any other way than through a dramatic display of physicality or emotion.

Understand: when children become overdramatic, they are often not capable of rationally "deciding" to change and behave differently. They will not change until an outside stimulus prompts them to change. 

We make it worse because we are trying to change the inner state of child, instead of changing their environment.

Enter Group Class

Girl and Boy.jpg

The magic of group class is that it supplies just the right environmental shift for students to be able to get past their own individual motivational walls.  Playing with other students is a way to modulate the many moods and reactions that can come over a child when practicing.

The student who gets mad at her own mistakes is a perfectionist. She wants things to come out perfectly the first time, and reacts angrily when they don't. She fixates on mistakes and has trouble following through on practice sessions when she starts making errors. And of course this emotional state produces more errors.

But this downward spiral of negative emotion dissolves when it occurs while the child is nested in group.

The group is like a big barge floating down the river. It may hit an individual rock, or tree branch, but it will adjust around it and keep going. Psychologically this releases pressure from the individual child. Not only are they out of the spotlight, they cannot fixate and get mired in their own mistakes.

Group class provides the environment where a successful performance is possible, even though any particular individual may not be able to play 100% successfully. It gives each child a vision of a larger whole, into which they can fit themselves with a better sense of proportion.

Everyone feels better after group. Mistakes are mended, moods are soothed, and the music gets to have its effect on even the most intractable child.

The next time you want to put your savage beast in a cage, take him to group class!



How To Gain True Devotion - Let Them Invent

Butterfly Scroll

One of the ways we unwittingly destroy motivation in children is by teaching them that there is only one right answer.

Usually, in music and in life, there is more than one answer, more than one approach. When children are allowed to explore all the options available to them, they can take personal ownership of them in a deeper way.

Children are more likely to engage and commit to something they have discovered on their own. If they are allowed to experiment and realize for themselves what is good, effective, beautiful, they are more likely to engage with it and remember it long term.

Because beginners don't know the technical skills required for getting started, these must be taught and practiced. By necessity much of this teaching is done in a "do-it-this-way" approach. But this rule-based way of doing things needs to be replaced as quickly as possible by a more exploratory framework, or the creative soul of music is dulled.

Moreover, many children are perfectionists. They already assume without our telling them that there is one right way, and immediately feel like a failure when they don't get it. That's a sure way for them to lose motivation and stop practicing.

By recovering a spirit of invention and exploration, you can overcome this loss of motivation. By changing the framework. you will make it easier for your child not to assess self-blame, and eliminate the fear of doing it wrong. 

Letting your children invent is an important life skill. They will use it not only in music, but in every other area that they are trying to learn and master. By framing goals in terms of creating, exploring, and moving toward what is good, instead of only conforming to what is correct, we establish a long-term mindset that guarantees true devotion and love for one's work.