Music practice is absolutely crucial so that children can go from being an absolute beginner on an instrument to becoming a musician. Getting your children to practice can be really frustrating, and lead to a lot of battles between parents and their children.
So what can you do as a parent to support and encourage your children to practice, how involved do you need to get in your children’s practice, and why do they need to practice?
Why do you need to practice?
Playing a musical instrument is something that requires learning a lot of different skills:
- They need to have the physical ability to play that instrument – so they need to learn how to actually get their instrument to make a sound; by pressing keys, using a bow, or blowing down or across their instrument. Often several of these physical skills are required to get a sound out of their instrument. Those physical skills need a lot of practice to develop.
- They need to be able to listen to the music they play, to hear how their instrument sounds, to hear whether they are playing the correct notes with the correct tuning; if playing music with other people, they have to be able to listen carefully to everyone else they are playing with to know how their part fits in.
- Children have to learn a new language – both the (often) Italian terms used in sheet music and the series of dots and squiggles on the set of 5 lines that is music notation.
- They have to learn a lot of patience and perseverance. When you first start playing an instrument, it can be a bit dull – the pieces you play are very simple, maybe even just one or two notes at a time. It possibly doesn’t sound too nice (no, not thinking about the violin or recorder here at all!). It takes a long time to get to a point where your child can play something that sounds great. And it takes a lot of patience and perseverance to keep going with learning an instrument to get to the point where your music sounds great, or good, or even just not too bad.
When I was a child I absolutely loved performing. I loved to put on shows for my parents, relatives, frankly anyone who would put up with listening to me. I loved to play something or sing something for about 5 minutes then stand up, take a bow and wait for their rapturous applause.
Unfortunately, I did not like the practising side of things and so outside of sitting down to perform for my long suffering parents I hardly played in between lessons. I started taking violin lessons when I was about 5 – I am not a violinist. I moved on to guitar – I do not play guitar now. I moved on to flute and took lessons for several years. I was about to give up as I was still not practising or getting anywhere, when my teacher decided to put me in for my Grade 1 exam to see how I would do.
On the day of the flute exams my year had a school trip to the science museum and those of us who were doing our flute exams stayed behind in the school library to wait for our exams. There were about five of us, four doing Grade 1, and one doing her Grade 5 flute. The girl who was taking her Grade 5 decided to practice her sight reading for her exam by playing through all of our exam pieces that we had been working on for ages.
It dawned on me in that session watching a girl who had practiced and played more than I did, that she could play whatever she wanted of out pieces, that she had so many more options as to music she could play because she knew what she was doing. She could pick up any of the pieces and just play them. I went home and that night started practising properly for the first time and never looked back, more than making up for lost time in the next few years. Sometimes I wish I had come to this realization sooner, but mostly I am just glad that I came to it at all.
What are the benefits of music practice?
Music practice clearly helps your child develop their musical skills, but are there any other skills that learning an instrument can give them?
- I mentioned at the start of this post that playing a musical instrument is a very physical activity. And so it stands to reason that practising helps your child develop physical skills – manual dexterity, that can help with things like drawing, or writing; learning how to recognise and play with the rhythm, or pulse of music, that can help with dancing, walking, games and PE, even with reading skills as language has a rhythm whether it is poetry or prose; playing wind and brass instruments or singing can help strengthen lungs.
- As you see from my little anecdote above, the more you practice, the more music you can play, and the more fun you can have with music. You can find music that suits you, that you like listening to, that is fun to play. And music tends to get more interesting the better you can play – the more musical skills you have, the more choice you have over what to play.
- Part of being a musician is learning to perform, and performance is a great thing for building a child’s self confidence. Performance doesn’t have to be a solo performance with everyone staring at one person, although it can be, but performing as a group can be hugely rewarding. Playing music with your friends can be a really fun, bonding, and brilliant experience. It can help build your child’s self esteem.
- Playing with other children in orchestras or bands, or ensembles is great for learning skills such as turn taking, co-operation, listening skills, whilst also working on the physical skills involved in learning to play an instrument. It is also a lot of fun, and can help make learning a musical instrument seem so much more worthwhile.
- Music is a very creative activity, whether performing a composer’s works, improvising (messing about?) or composing their own pieces. Music helps your child express themselves, express their emotions, or express their own point of view; it helps them find their own voice. Music can help with regulating your child’s emotions, both playing and listening to music and writing their own. And of course, the more your child practises, the more they understand music and can learn how to express themselves through music, or find solace in it when they need to.
- Music can also be very precise. You have to learn how to use your breath or your fingers to make the right sound to be in tune. You have to count to know how many notes in a bar, to know where you are in the piece you are playing, to know how to play that piece, or to know where to play when playing in a band or orchestra. To play with other people (unless you are all improvising), you have to play exactly what is on the paper you are reading. Skills involved in mathematics and other analytical skills are developed when learning an instrument.
- Music and playing a musical instrument is something that involves the whole of the brain. Children’s developing brains are highly benefitted by playing a musical instrument, helping their brains form new connections as they play and practice.
- When your child gets into the habit of practising, they are learning how to be self motivated. They may be set certain tasks by their teacher, but they have to manage their time in between lessons to accomplish those tasks.
- Above all, playing music can really help to deepen your child’s enjoyment of music. We are surrounded by music – on TV, on the radio, on the internet, when you are put on hold on the phone, in shops, everywhere. As they get older, children bond with their peers through their love of music, they start to push back against their parents and start finding their own interests often through the music they share with their friends rather than with their families. Having spent time playing and practising an instrument can deepen their love of music, and this will last them a lifetime.
Parents’ role in practice
So, what should you do, as a parent, to help your child with their practice and how involved should you get? If you are not a musician yourself, how on earth can you help with your child’s practice when you do not play an instrument?
The good news is that whether you have any musical experience or not yourself, you can be a very valuable support for your child, and you can help to support your child’s music practice. And there are some very easy ways that you can do this. Your level of involvement will vary depending on how old your child is, and what stage they have got to in their musical journey.
The first thing to do is to communicate with your child’s instrument teacher. Have a chat with them to find out what they expect from your child in terms of practice. Some teachers may say that they expect their students to practice every day/most days. Some may specify a length of time they expect students to practice for each time they practice. Some may not talk in terms of amount of time/days of the week they expect students to practice for, but may instead set specific goals. Find out what those expectations are, and then you and your child can work together to try to meet those expectations and find out if they work for you and your child as well. And talk to your child’s teacher if you find that you can’t absolutely meet their expectations, for example the teacher says your child needs to practice every day for 45 minutes, but you find that they can’t do that because of other after school activities/homework. Talk to them and you should be able to work it out together.
You can help your child develop the habit of practising. Help them to find a good time of the day or week to practice. The main thing with setting your child up so that they can practice well independently in the future is for it to become a habit, something they just always do. In our house, my son usually practises as soon as we get home. We drive home from school and he has a snack in the car on the way home. Our habit is to get in the door, take shoes and coats off and then I go into the kitchen to start getting books out ready for homework, and he goes straight to the piano while I am getting the books out. He knows that he has to do his practice and homework before he gets to watch TV or play video games, and he knows that he doesn’t have to do either homework or practice on a Friday. It has become part of our routine and is just what we do.
I mentioned above that some instrument teachers will suggest that their students need to practice for, say 30 minutes or 40 minutes a day, but some may not specify how long a student’s practice session should last for. How long your child will need to practice for will depend on many factors including how old they are (my 4 year old simply cannot sit still for as long as my 7 year old and so when she plays it is just for a few minutes at a time before she moves on to something else), what stage they are at with their studies, and what other pressures there are on their time. My son has after school clubs 3 days a week at the moment, and other school homework, and so he is practising for 10-15 minutes a day. In the absence of any other advice from your child’s teacher, then especially at the start of their musical studies (see above about forming the habit of practising), then it is better to play for a relatively short amount of time – 10,15 or 30 minutes say – every day, or most days, than it is to have one or two long practice sessions each week and little to no practice the rest of the week.
Don’t underestimate how much your child will value you being with them in the room, or close by, as they practice listening to them and showing an interest in their music. Find things you liked about the music they played, something like:
I loved how you played that piece both loud and quiet
I liked the section with the short, spiky notes
I can hear how much you enjoy playing that piece of music
I really liked that piece of music, Can you play it for me again?
Encourage and praise the effort they are putting into their practice. Tell them you are proud of them for working hard with their practice. Talk with them about how you can hear improvements in their playing. You don’t necessarily need to tell them that all of their playing sounds great or literally applaud your child’s practice session, as I often demanded from my parents, but if you praise the effort as much as, or more than, the results of their practice, then it will encourage your child to keep going. Especially while they are young. I haven’t yet hit the teenage years with my two, so I am sure my practice encouragement techniques will need to change at that stage!
With musicians, as with all arts, you often hear people talk about someone who is very good at playing an instrument, singing, composing etc as being very talented, a natural talent. It sounds like something that only a few blessed or gifted people can do. In truth, that very talented person may well have some natural ability, or affinity with music. They may enjoy it more than many people. But they will also have practised, practised, practised and practised some more. Practising the physical skills involved, spending time learning how to play loud and quiet, fast and slow, when to play strictly on the beat and when you can be a bit flexible with playing the notes exactly how they are written, these are all skills it takes time to learn.
The only way to become a musician, whether your aim is to become a professional musician, or just to be able to sit down and play something as a break from your other studies or work, it all needs practice. And the more your child practises, the more fun they will have with it, the more options they will have as to what to play, when to play and how serious or not they want their musical journey to be. It may even make learning some of the skills they need for other studies (like self-motivation or team work) easier for them in the long run.