Tag Archives: how to practice

Back to School Tips for Parents: Practice vs. Homework?

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, homework, homework. (Photo by John Morgan)
Homework, homework, homework. (Photo by John Morgan)
  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

    Need a change of pace? Try practicing outdoors with a friend! (Photo by John Benson)
    Need a change of pace? Try practicing outdoors with a friend! (Photo by John Benson)
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

Deliberate Practice Makes Perfect

Practice what is hard, not what is easy

Everybody knows that if you want to be better at anything, you need to practice. Most people would also agree that while practicing is good, practicing more is better.  It’s also quite obvious that more accomplished musicians practice more than the people who are not accomplished musicians.  However, what many people are not aware of, is that talent plays a very small role in the overall success of any person wanting to master an instrument. Many studies have been conducted and what they show overwhelmingly, is that the amount of hours of practice and HOW you practice, will determine your success.

As a viola teacher, I’ve had the pleasure of instructing many students over the years. When I first started, I assumed (as most people do) that the level of talent that a student had, would probably determine how well they would comprehend my instruction and also determine the level of their charismatic performance abilities.  After a few years of teaching and seeing many students travel through my pedagogical system, it became very obvious to me that the sheer amount of hours that were put into practicing made the biggest impact on success.  If a student put in many hours of practice, pretty much every aspect of the learning process was easier.  In fact, I found that often the more academically capable students were usually the laziest when it came to practicing.  I believe the reason for this, is that they were used to not having to try very hard in the classroom and naturally expected learning an instrument would be just as easy for them.  When they found out that mastering an instrument like the violin was incredibly difficult and cognitively demanding, they lacked the determination and drive needed to overcome tough obstacles during a typical practice session.

You've got to MAKE time

The second thing that I learned a little farther down the road in my teaching career was that the virtuosic level a student achieved, had a lot to do with the material that I had them practice.  More and more I found that if I gave the student very targeted exercises utilizing scales, arpeggios and etudes, they became much more technically proficient at their instrument.  In turn, this greatly assisted them in being able to learn just about any piece and it made the entire learning process easier and more fun.  As I became more experienced, I developed my own step by step systems to enable any student to master advanced techniques through a very controlled process. I directed them to work on specific techniques repeatedly until they could accomplish the exercise with ease. After I developed my own focused exercises for a particular technique, it became increasingly obvious that how much a student practiced was not nearly as important as HOW they practiced. The practice sessions and materials needed to be focused, specific and repeated until perfection was almost an imminent outcome.

Little did I know at the time, but I had stumbled upon a phenomenon known as deliberate practice.  I recently read a book entitled Talent is Overrated (By Geoff Colvin), in which the author goes into great detail about the benefits of practicing a lot and practicing properly.  He sites study after study in which it is proven beyond a doubt that mastering an instrument or anything else in life, is achieved by practicing a lot and practicing deliberately.  He also shows that any natural proclivity that a student may have towards a given task, has little effect on the overall success of the student.  

To be more specific about what deliberate practice is, I will give a few real world examples.  If you set out to learn a concerto, you could play a page at a time and play the page over and over again.  You’d repeat the page until you reached the point at which you felt it’s finally acceptable to perform or that you’ve reached the point at which you can’t improve it anymore.  This practice technique will yield results and you will improve your ability to play that particular page.  However, this is a very inefficient way to practice and while it may eventually make you a better player, it will never enable you to master your instrument.  To truly master the piece as well as your instrument, you’ll want to take a particular measure and practice it until you’ve mastered the particular technique that it is requesting of you.  For example, if you have several measures that have trills, make sure you know exactly what note the trill starts on AND ends with and practice the trill over and over again until it is controlled and consistent.  After you’ve practiced it over and over again, and can play it consistently without fault, play the same measure but in context with the rest of the page.  Play several measures before and after it, to make sure your mind can properly transition from one technique to the other without musical interruption.  Lets say you have a few measures where you have to play a descending scale with off the string spicatto stroke.  Instead of playing the line over and over again that includes the spicatto section, practice your spicatto on a note or two on a string of your choice and practice it until it is clear, controlled and relaxed. Next, practice just the passage with the spicatto technique and play it until it is just as clear, controlled and relaxed as the single note spicatto that you just practiced.  Once you’ve mastered this, add the measures before and after the spicatto passage and you will have mastered the entire section and will not have to be filled with fear when it comes up in your solo performance.

Regarding spicatto specifically, I have about 9 exercises that I give students when it is time for them to learn spicatto.  The exercises are always done with a metronome.  They start off with a very simple exercise.  First they play a 2 octave scale and bounce every note 4 times.  Their goal is to reach a certain speed of stroke, clarity and relaxation during play.  Once they’ve mastered this, they go on to a 3 octave scale.  The next exercise will be a little harder.  They will slur two notes and play the next two up bow and go up and down the 3 octave scale. There are many exercises after this.  Each exercise practices a very specific bowing technique that they will assuredly come across in their solo and orchestral repertoire and when they see it, they will be ready for it.

Determination and Focus will WIN the day!

The point of all of this is, you want to practice A LOT. You can’t get anywhere without it.  Studies have shown that the average best players at most conservatories practice 25-28 hours per week and there are NO exceptions. If you want to master your instrument, this is what you’ll have to do.  However, making sure that your practice focuses on very specific techniques, will ensure that you are practicing deliberately.  Remember, an ameteur practices a passage until they get it right.  A professional practices a passage until they can’t get it wrong…

Happy practicing!