As a private lesson music teacher, the most common question I get asked is how to get new students to practice. If you are the parent of a young student, you will have to set practice expectations and times for your child. Rarely will they practice on their own. Just like school homework, practice time must have rewards when completed and punishments if not completed. If you use the tips below, your child should be successful and after 4-5 months they will usually practice on their own. If you are an older student, these tips will help to give your practice time structure and focus.
1) Find Time Every Day
Because learning a new instrument, a new dance move, or memorizing a monologue is kinetic, it is imperative that you work your muscles daily. It is better to do a small amount of rehearsal every day then do long rehearsal periods once or twice a week. If you are learning to play an instrument you have to learn to control your minute muscles, and are often learning how to read music which is like learning a foreign language. Both these skills require daily repetition.
2) Set a Time Limit
Set a timer for about 5 minutes longer than you think you can do. If you are a beginner or the student is very young, 15 minute practice sessions every day is successful. As you progress and your interest grows, keep extending your practice time by 5 minutes. An intermediate student should easily practice 30 minutes to an hour every day, advanced students can practice anywhere from one hour to six hours a day. I find it successful for young students especially to practice 10 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the evening.
3) Set a Goal
Especially for young or beginning students, it is important to set goals. For example, play the song five times, each time at different tempos. Find the hardest parts and repeat them 9 times. Ask your teacher what you should be working on, if they are not already giving you homework.
A) Work Your Technique
Half of your practice should be making sure your muscles are doing the proper technique. For example in ballet class making sure your hip to toe position is correct and then repeating the movement so it becomes part of your subconscious. If you are learning to read music, do music flash cards or other music theory worksheets so the note names and rhythms come easily to you. As a singer, I like to record myself either with a voice recorder or by video so I can really hear what I am doing and watch my posture and chin to make sure I am in the optimal position to create the best sounds. My voice students who practice by listening back to our lessons, then use a voice recorder for their personal practice time, progress twice as fast as those who do not. They are able to hear themselves as others hear them, experiment with different sounds, and guide themselves to their desired sound. Sometimes watching yourself back on video will reveal small tics or habits that you were not aware of. Once you are aware of undesirable habits, then you will be able to modify them until all that is left is good technique.
B) Work Your Memory
The other half of practice is memorizing repertoire to perform. Personally I’ve found that I must practice a musical phrase or dance routine about 9 times before my muscles can really start to memorize it. If I am learning a dance routine or blocking for an acting scene, I find it is helpful to review a video so that I do not add anything or skip anything. Once the routine is in your body incorrectly it is twice as hard to fix it, so do take your time making sure it is correct before you go about memorizing it. If you cannot get a video, make sure to write down the routine or blocking right after you first learn it. I will write tips about how to memorize in another post.
4) Do NOT Restart From the Beginning Every Time You Make a Mistake
It is a waste of time and energy to go back to the beginning every time a mistake is made. It only reinforces the part the student already knows well, since they continue to repeat it, and it causes anxiety that at any mistake all their hard work will be destroyed. I like to tell my students that practicing is like eating a meal; we don’t shove the entire plate of food in our mouth but take bite sized portions. Some of the food will go down easy, but other bites may take extra chewing. Meaning, break your task into smaller manageable tasks and then focus on the hardest parts of those smaller tasks. For example, if you are learning a 10 page song, do not try to play it all in one practice session. Instead play just the first page. After your first run through, go back for the hardest measures and play them until you feel you have mastered them, then repeat for the next page and so on.
5) Record Your Work On a Practice Log
For young learners and beginning students, seeing their goals and progress on a chart can be very encouraging and can keep them motivated. Also over the years, a practice log will help you to remember how you started and to truly gauge how far you’ve come.
6) Give Yourself a Reward
For young students getting a small treat or privilege after every practice session will help keep them motivated. Try putting the treat or reward near the practice area so the student can see it and know it is coming. As they get better at practicing for longer periods I usually make the rewards bigger, like a larger toy or special outing, but less frequent. For older students, treat yourself accordingly. I can’t tell you the number of times I have used a cup of frozen yogurt to motivate myself to memorize a song, or a trip to Disneyland to get myself through a six month rehearsal process for a show. Knowing a prize is waiting at the end of all my hard work helps me to keep going, especially when I don’t feel like it.
Learning to practice daily takes practice. For children, the discipline of learning to do a task they may not always feel like doing will help prepare them for adulthood and the amount of work it takes to be successful. Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes habits. Practice the habits you want to have until they become part of you.