Why Must Practice Time Be So SCARY?

It’s that time again. The howling, the haunting, the general air of unease and spookiness. No, I’m not talking about Halloween. I’m talking about practicing. As you take a deep breath to tell your student it’s time to practice, (and hope that you’re met with the good natured and cooperative Dr. Jekyll rather than the ill-tempered Mr. Hyde…) realize that there is hope! Practice time doesn’t have to be a battle.

Several months back, Andrew shared several tips and specific things students should be working on during home music practice, as well as tricks for making practice time part of your student’s daily routine.

“But I’ve tried all that,” you say. “He just doesn’t like to practice.”

Let’s be real here: Who LIKES to practice?! (I won’t lie, I’ve met a few people who do, but I am not among their number.) Basically, practicing is working on something to make it better. Which means that wasn’t perfect to start out with, and who really wants another reminder that they aren’t perfect at everything they do? Not me.

I vividly remember the days of shuffling into my music lessons in tears because I’d either A) not practiced or B) had a horrible experience while practicing that week. My sweet mother recently recounted the tale of a time that I completely blew up at her because she told me that I was playing an F natural instead of an F sharp. (Sorry, Mom…) We had a good laugh about it, but it reminded me of a conversation I had with the parent of one of my students just a few weeks before our annual GCMT recital.

“He just gets frustrated with me when I help him practice.”

That feeling of frustration is bound to arise at some point during a practice session, especially if the student is being assisted during practice. Think about it. Having someone sit and tell you what you’re doing wrong, making you play one little part over and over, anyone would find it frustrating! I’ve been there. Many of you have been there. It’s hard to stay motivated when you feel unsuccessful.

Here are a few little tricks (or treats) I like to use during music lessons to tackle those tricky spots, those feelings of failure or of something being “too hard.” I’ve put a little spin on them to make it easier to implement them when helping your student with home practice.

  1. Make it routine. Lana’s recent post about routine and transitions is applicable to so many parts of daily living! When students are aware that practice time happens after homework gets done, or at a certain time of day, it is likely to be an easier transition. If you intend to help your student while they practice, establish this as part of the routine early on.
  2. Make it fun! Everyone is more motivated when things are fun, especially young children! They are much more primed to learn when they perceive it as play. It’s rare in this day and age to set aside “together time.” Make practice time a time to learn and have fun together. Jam out to one of your favorite songs (and don’t worry about playing the right notes).  Reverse roles and have your student teach you one thing they learned during their lesson. My favorite fun thing is to make a music video of my students playing one of their pieces, complete with my best announcer voice and our most impressive “rock’n’roll” faces.  Keep reading to see how I use these silly videos as a teaching tool!
  3. Provide problem-solving opportunities. This is where my mom had her big practicing breakthrough with me. I would treat her horribly every time she would try to help me practice. (I wasn’t the best at dealing with criticism then…) Thankfully, she and my teachers were able to help me learn to problem-solve and self-assess what I was doing well, and what could use some extra attention. How did they achieve this miracle? They got me a tape recorder. I’ve got a bunch of cassette tapes lying around somewhere full of pre-teen Andrea playing the piano. We would listen to the tapes together, and Mom would ask me to pick out the spots that sounded amazing, the parts that didn’t sound quite right, and what I needed to do to make them sound better. Then, I would work on those spots and see if they improved in the next recording. Hopefully you won’t have to resort to this ancient technology, but you can use your silly music videos to achieve the same goal!
  4. Don’t be afraid to take a break. Sometimes you have to step away from whatever is frustrating you for a few minutes (students AND parents!). So don’t be afraid to take a short time to allow your student (or you) time to cool off. Keep it to a few minutes, at most. The longer you take, the longer it will take to transition back into the practicing mindset.
  5. CELEBRATE SUCCESSES! I cannot stress this one enough. It is so easy to get caught in the trap of everything that is wrong, and we often forget to delight in what is right. I encourage you to find something, anything, nice to say about what your student just played. Let them know if that is your favorite song. They may find that a motivating reason to practice it more often. Tell them if their posture looks so good that you want to take their picture (and then take their picture so they can see how good they look). Let them know how impressed you are that they were able to play that song so well with the metronome (and then bump it up a few clicks the next time).

Be sure to talk with your student’s teacher/therapist for additional ideas and games tailored for your needs. Practice time doesn’t have to be scary. In fact, it can be a real scream. Muahahaha…

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Image credit: andrewmalone