It’s that time of year again! I’m seeing photos pop up on Facebook and Instagram of my friends’ children ready for their first day of school — backpacks on, fresh new outfits, big smiles. And while these courageous kids may be a little nervous to tackle a new year, it’s often the parents who feel more overwhelmed when school starts up again.
We’re getting a glimpse of that at Kennedy Violins as parents call us in preparation for orchestra season. There is so much to worry about — filling out registration forms, buying new school clothes, sizing up that endless list of school supplies, getting everyone fed and dressed in the morning, meeting with the PTA, getting to know your child’s teacher, hoping your child has good friends and stays out of trouble . . . it’s enough to make you want to just sit still at a desk for a few hours while someone lectures you about the Civil War.
And then there’s homework. Before you know it, the dining table is buried in notebooks and papers and textbooks and (these days) a laptop or iPad or two. And somewhere, underneath a pile of backpacks and sports equipment you might find your child’s violin.
For children in school music ensembles, there’s yet another somewhat-intangible task that needs to be accomplished between all that homework: PRACTICE. Because not all music teachers require their students to keep a practice log that will be graded, the expectations to practice are vague for most studens who don’t know how much, how often, or simply when to practice during the school week.
As a parent, you want your child to succeed in both academics and extracurriculars, but finding a balance can be a real challenge. (See “Back to School: Music, Extracurriculars & Life Balance.”) So when your child is stressing out about a book report due on Friday, is it possible to step away from Bronte to spend some time with Brahms? Does practice interrupt study time, or does study time interrupt practice?
Hopefully neither. When it comes to encouraging your child to practice AND do well with their studies, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Homework and practice are both important. Neither are superior to the other; rather, they complement each other. If you want your child to take music seriously, emphasize how important practice is to becoming a great musician. Likewise, your child’s love for music shouldn’t keep them playing Rock Band for hours on end when there’s a huge exam coming up. Balance is key (see below).
- There IS time to practice during the week. Hard to believe? Yes. Impossible? No. Scheduling and setting aside time for both homework and practice is key. For elementary students, even ten minutes of focused practice every day is a huge accomplishment! Older high school students serious about their musicianship might commit to practicing an hour+ per day. Maybe practicing every other day works better for your child. But no matter what the goal is as far as how much time to spend practicing, the key is consistency and regularity. Practicing doesn’t have to be a huge undertaking. Just carve out a slot of time in the morning, while dinner is cooking, right after school, or whatever works for you and your child.
- Establish a place to study and a place to practice. Most students have a study space at home, whether at a desk in their room or at a table or in an office. Similarly, designate a place to practice. It could be a room or simply a corner somewhere where there is already a music stand set out, a metronome at hand, a shelf for music, a storage spot for the instrument, and decent lighting. So when you say, “Hey, Johnny, it’s time to practice!” he knows exactly where to go to make it happen.
- Being well-rounded is a good thing. Academics, arts and music, and sports/physical fitness are all wonderful and each require discipline. Encourage your child to embrace both academics and practice as exercises for different parts of the brain. Music sharpens the mind and will likely help your child do better academically as a direct result of learning an instrument.
- Practice can be seen as a nice break from time at the desk. When you notice your child’s eyes glazed over and drool trickling down onto George Washington’s face in the history textbook, try for a change of pace. Doing something physical like standing up to play an instrument is so invigorating after reading or writing for too long. Practice can be actually be really relaxing and rejuvinating when the brain is otherwise fried.
- Homework can be a nice break from time at the music stand. After practicing a really difficult exercise or piece, encourage your child to take a break–like flopping down on the couch to read an assigned chapter before returning to the music stand to finish up.
- Practice can be fun. Mix things up. Keep the act of both practice and study far from grueling. Keep a positive attitude about practice by talking about practice as if it is (and because it totally can be) an enjoyable activity and something fun to do. Talk about the instrument as something special and worth respect. Avoid treating practice as a form of punishment or your child will begin to view practicing and eating slimy green vegetables as similar forms of torture.
- Practice is a form of homework. If practice is seen as an optional activity, it may never happen. Treat practice like an assignment, as something that must be accomplished.
- Family time is essential. Doing homework and practicing don’t have to draw away from positive family relationships and time together. Try practicing with your child. Ask them (in a positive, inviting way) to play what they’re learning for you or to perform for the family. And when it’s time to hit the books, try sitting down to study with your child by helping them with their assignments or simply sitting next to them while you do your own reading, study, or work. Being present is a simple way to be supportive.
- Don’t take anything too seriously. Keep calm. Don’t panic. Everything is going to be just fine.
We wish you the best with the new school year, whether you are a parent or student. As always, feel free to contact us with all your musical questions–we always happy to help. Visit us at kennedyviolins.com or on Facebook and keep in touch. It’s an exciting time, so we hope you enjoy the ride!
Feature image by Phil Roeder.