Perhaps the biggest challenge for families with private lesson students is establishing a productive practice routine. I ask my students to practice twenty minutes per day, five days a week. The reasons for this consistency are to build and maintain muscle tone needed to play a brass instrument, to provide motivation through constant improvement, and to be able to progress through a well rounded curriculum. The opportunities, benefits, and artistic satisfaction that result from mastering an instrument are well documented, but how to get there is less clear. How to Get Your Child to Practice Without Resorting to Violence!! by Cynthia Richards is a thorough, practical, and enlightening book on the subject. Mrs. Richards draws on her experience as mother of eight children and twenty years as a violin teacher, as well as a survey of successful musicians. The following are excerpts from her book, available from Ithaca Talent Education (800-338-7483) and highly recommended. It should be noted that practicing a brass instrument can be especially demanding: combining the physical exertion of athletics, complexity and logic of mathematics, newness of a foreign language, and the intricacy of a sewing project. Who wouldn't need extra support and encouragement in such an endeavor!
"Practicing is not a childlike activity. Although human musical interest may be innate, the discipline, vision and willingness to endure are not. Children love to play their instruments, not to practice them. The process of practicing over and over to perfect a certain technique is biologically and psychologically opposed to a child's nature...practicing requires a daily time commitment which most children find cumbersome. If something else comes up that they would rather do, children without commitment will not stay to practice...The drilling over and over for the perfection of a certain technique does not appeal to them because they do not have the maturity to appreciate the long range implications of their work."
"The contact once a week with the teacher is usually not sufficient to sustain a young child's interest in practicing through the week or to insure that practicing is not done incorrectly."
"It is unfair to expect children to shoulder the entire burden themselves without the continual help and encouragement from an adult in the family...Children who do like to practice are neither abnormal nor especially gifted. They have probably been helped to achieve a routine that is acceptable to them and from which they have been able to develop a level of competence which is rewarding to them...For most children there are times when they like to practice and times when they don't."
"How can you get your child to practice without resorting to violence?
- Start early and practice with him until habits and routines are established.
- Set up the family rules for practicing and use natural consequences if the rules are not complied with.
- Use incentives when needed.
- Don't allow yourself to get emotionally involved or upset when conflicts arise. Be friendly. Be matter-of-fact. But don't give in.
- Enjoy the music they make and praise them for their successes.
- Look for stumbling blocks and do your best to remove them."
"The basic goal of all practicing, whether it be music or some other activity, is improvement of skill.
"For children, leaving any rewards of practice to be realized only when they finally begin making music sound beautiful may be one of the things that causes such a high drop-out rate among children studying music. Each step of progress should be congratulated and enthusiasm for work on the next step encouraged."
"An attitude of learning and of try-until-you-succeed is a frame of mind that children absorb most readily when they see the example of their parents. If they see that Dad is skilled at something and that he didn't get that way without working at it, they are more likely to be willing to make their own commitment."
"While an adult might be able to wait for results, a child must realize some kind of return for efforts now. That is why it is important for parents and teachers to set specific goals in music study which can be realized by the child, preferably within the practice period itself, or no later than the next lesson."
"Instead of saying, "Make sure you practice a solid hour today," a more productive approach might be, "Decide when you want to practice today and write down your schedule." Children function better if their lives are organized, and they are more willing to follow the plan if they make the plan themselves or, at least, have some input."
"Once the time for practice is decided, it should be upheld, and practicing should become as much a part of the daily routine as eating meals. When it becomes a habit, an expected part of the day, a part of life, there is no room for argument. The mere presence of a structured routine is conducive to motivation. If practicing is left to be done whenever the child feels like it, it is too easy to be distracted from it, and then the parent starts to nag. Parents, too, must be careful to give practicing top priority during the designated practice time, not allowing other chores or responsibilities to interfere...If the child senses the importance of practicing and receives encouragement in upholding the time commitment, he or she will usually not question what is expected for that period, even though at times the motivation may be weak...Teachers understand that life is not always stable and that occasional bad practice weeks must be tolerated or even expected. But the child learns to judge the importance of practicing by how lightly it can be set aside."
"I would not give my own children a choice as to whether or not they were going to brush their teeth. In terms of basic education, why should the study of music be any different than that of math or language or science? Children are not the best judges of what is good for them. However, you can lead children into wanting music by giving them many musical experiences in early childhood."
Some further guidelines from Brian Kay on brass instrument practicing:
- A good place to practice is important with a music stand and simple chair for good posture.
- The instrument must be in good working order for effective practice. Clean and lubricate valves or trombone slide if there is any stickiness.
- Sessions should usually follow this outline:
- Warm-up for basic skill building
- Work on lesson goals - learn notes and rhythm, go slowly, use practice plan
- Fun playing: favorite tunes, etc.
- Brass players should give the lips a short break when they get tired and should try to keep the amount of playing consistent from day to day and increase the practice time gradually. If the lips are tired or not strong in the first place, the sound from the instrument will not be as good.
- On vacation, the mouthpiece can be buzzed without the instrument to help keep the lips in shape. A few minutes will suffice--buzzing tires the lips out quickly. Encourage your child by requesting simple tunes for him or her to buzz.