What makes so many of us resist practice, and how can we learn to embrace it?
Christine Goodner's new book, Music Practice Makeover: Strategies to Make Practice With Your Music Student as Painless and Efficient as Possible offers a host of effective answers. Just released today, it follows her first book, Beyond the Music Lesson, which I've found to be useful for families of beginning violin students.
In her new book, Christine beautifully and effectively addresses the practice concerns facing music students, their parents and the teachers guiding their practice. It offers strategies for managing stress and overcoming resistance to starting practice. It also offers different models for practice at different ages and levels - with plenty of options for variation depending on a specific family's need. This book really has it all. I loved reading it, and can't wait to share it with my studio families.
Last week I spoke to Christine about her new book and her own practice journey, as well as how teachers can help parents of young music students, how to motivate pre-teens, and practice as a separate skill from instrumental skills. Here is our conversation, please enjoy!
Claire: When did you first get the idea for this book, and what were your primary inspirations for writing it?
Christine: Over the past few years, I’ve been giving many online workshops and talks about how to reduce stress in the practice room for young musicians. I talk a lot about how parents and practice partners can support students in this process. I realized that only a few people at a time can attend events like these, so I decided a book would be a good next step to share these ideas with more people. Writing a book is such a labor of love! My biggest hope is that it helps more young music students stay engaged in music.
Claire: How did you first become interested in practicing, and how did you get into the business of helping others practice?
Christine: I always tell two stories about this.
First, as a young musician, I loved to play - but practicing was a whole different story! I am so, so grateful that my parents didn’t decide that this meant I didn’t like music. Instead, they persisted in telling me to practice all through high school. They also put me in situations that made me want to practice for the results, since the process was not my favorite thing. So I played in orchestras and took performance opportunities. This was so important for me, and I want to share that.
My experience as a parent also changed my perspective on practice. At the same time as I was starting my training as a teacher, I was also starting to practice with my own children. I realized very quickly that some tasks that seemed like simple assignments to do in a lesson or send home to practice -- were not simple to make happen at home.
That was a real gift. I learned right away that it can be challenging to practice at home with our children. Of course, for some people it’s easy, but not everyone has that experience. It’s important to know that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with us - as students or practice partners.
Brad Montegue says, "Be who you needed when you were younger." I love that quote. That’s why I talk so much about practice: I needed the support for practice growing up, and I also wished people talked more about the hard parts of this process when my own children were young. I needed that reassurance and support.
Claire: What do you wish you could go back and tell yourself when you were first practicing with your own children?
Christine: I would tell myself to trust the process! It will get easier, and we will learn to work together over time. I would tell myself not to expect my child to fit into the perfect box of an "ideal student" practicing but to explore what works with her and create a warm environment to learn together how to make practice work at our house. It might not have been any easier, but I would have been more patient, open and curious if I had known then what I know now.
Claire: What are some of the most common practice challenges that people have shared with you over the years?
Christine: I did a survey a few years ago with over 100 practice partners, and literally all reported some kind of struggle with practice.
Some people struggled at the beginning of their time in lessons, and then it was smooth sailing. Others cycled from one challenge to another, navigating them on an ongoing basis. So many factors that affect that! We can be doing everything "right" and still have many struggles.
Common struggles include: having the time to practice, the motivation to practice, the willingness to practice, and sometimes even understanding how to practice, especially in a way tailored to the needs of children.
Music teachers can fall into the trap of taking it for granted, that parents will understand how to solve some of these challenges. After all, music teachers have been practicing for a lifetime!
Claire: I did not start music as a super-little Suzuki kid, and I was impressed that your book offered concrete practice suggestions with options for different personalities and families, while reassuring the reader that it's okay if a particular idea doesn't connect with them. Could you talk a little about the danger of a one-size-fits-all practice mentality? And what is the best way for teachers to give practice directions that might need to be tweaked or changed to meet the needs of the modern family?
Christine: I like coupling the ideas of being creative and thinking like a scientist.
People tend to give practice advice based on what works for them. It can be fabulous advice, but it may work better for some people than others. We have to realize that our own results may vary.
We can count on basic principles that will help us: practicing on a regular basis, high-quality repetitions, attention to detail, and so on.
But how we make those things happen can vary, especially when working with young children. If we think "our way" is the only way, that is going to leave out some students, who think and learn differently. Shinichi Suzuki said that "Every Child Can." To make his beautiful philosophy becomes reality, we have to adapt our approach and get creative.
That's where the "scientist" comes in: try different tactics and see what works for each child, at this point in their development. Do they thrive with a bit more guidance or a bit more independence? Some students love to choose the order of practice, others feel more comfortable following an order made for them. Do they thrive on positive feedback? Or, does nonverbal feedback work best to keep them focused and productive in practice?
I have been teaching for two decades, and each student who comes in my door has a slightly different combination of factors that helps them thrive. It takes some experimentation, it takes sometimes finding out the hard way that some approaches are counterproductive, and it takes time.
Teachers acquire great insight about what helps each child focus, feel motivated, and love music. In turn, children learn those things about themselves, and that knowledge helps them when they start practicing independently. And that knowledge can apply to all aspects of life.
Sometimes we have to get really creative to find what works best. The students that force me to be the most creative make me a better teacher. I add all sorts of ideas to my toolkit of strategies because I have to research and experiment along with them.
Claire: Sometimes parents seem to want or need students to be more independent in practicing than they are. A parent may decide, when the child is 11 or 12 (or younger!) that the student is completely ready to practice on his or her own. Our culture also prizes independence over "needing help." How can a parent best support a child this age - even if they're not actively coaching the practice?
Christine: I am all for independence. I also know how it feels when children start to gain enough skills that they may not need a parent to talk through rhythmic patterns, or fingerings and bowings anymore. There may be a lot that the student can do on his or her own. But students still need parents, caregivers, and mentors to support their practice and musical growth, at the very least until the student is practicing well and practicing consistently on his or her own.
Preteens and teens still need encouragement, but it may take a different form. For example, telling them, "I can see how hard you’re working!" or "Oh that piece that you’re playing right now is my favorite!" or "I’m really proud of you for making time to practice even when you’re so busy right now!" As a parent with kids now in their 20s, I've learned that these kinds of statements can be very powerful. My own children didn’t always appreciate it in the moment, but later I would learn comments like these had meant a lot to them at the time. Our encouragement still matters.
Pre-teens need help with logistics like getting places and getting the needed materials. Also, executive function skills are still developing into the late teens and early twenties, so skills like initiating practice, planning a practice schedule, prioritizing tasks, etc. will still need support and coaching.
It’s easy to mistake a pre-teen's developmental lack of focus or organizational skills for lack of interest or discipline. But it is simply part of their ongoing brain development.
It's important to give pre-teens more ownership, but if we leave them to fend for themselves completely, they will likely waste time, play straight through pieces over and over for lack of a plan, and default to other unproductive practice habits.
Claire: You mention in your book that practicing is a skill entirely separate from learning an instrument. What are some of the most important skill sets that make up practicing, and how can music students work to develop them?
Christine: Yes - practice skills and technical skills on our instrument are two separate things, and they don’t always grow and develop at the same rate.
My friend and colleague Kristina Turner said to me in a recent interview that we have to think of literally everything as a skill: how to take a lesson, how to interact with a teacher, how to organize a quality practice session - the list could go on and on.
Some students will simply catch on, and that’s great. But for most students, these are skills that need to be taught and practiced. A parent or another adult, acting a practice partner, can help guide practice and support the student in developing these skills, along with guidance from the teacher.
Of course, not every student has someone to practice with at home, depending on the student's age, method of study, and adults available to help them. In that case, the music teacher will want to spend more lesson time talking through practice skills and strategies.
Thinking of instrument skills and practice skills as two separate things helps a lot.
Claire: In addition to being a fantastic guide for parents, this book is an amazing resource for teachers. A teacher's job is to help students learn to practice, and also to help their parents learn to help them practice. In the early years of my teaching, I felt hesitant to tell parents what to do at home, and I also felt like any advice or suggestions I gave could be countered with, "Well, you're not a parent so you don't understand." What advice would you give to a teacher who is not a parent and who may actually be younger than the parents they're coaching?
Christine: It’s important for teachers to remember that they are aren’t coaching people on how to parent. Teachers are providing student and family support for music practice, or for success on their instrument. I don’t want to tell people how to parent or come across like I know it all - no matter my age or theirs.
As a teacher, you know how to teach the instrument and you can help parents by sharing what helps young musicians be successful. You can also work with them to discover what helps their individual student thrive within those goals.
For example, we can all agree that improvement on the instrument will come from consistent practice. How we get that done may vary.
As a violin teacher, I know a student needs to develop a functioning, well-developed bow hold, with practice and attention to detail each day. How they make those repetitions happen or get their child to buy into the repetition needed may vary from family to family and from student to student.
Claire: What is one thing that you wish everyone knew about practicing?
Christine: That human beings to like the results from practice, but they tend to feel resistance to doing it, or at least starting it.
I have interviewed about 30 professional musicians, music educators and performers, this year for my podcast Time to Practice. Only a couple of them said they always liked to practice. And these are professionals.
We can love our instrument, love making music with others, love performing, love our lessons -- and still have a complicated relationship with practice.
Daily practice is like running laps for a sport. Some people love running for its own sake; they join the cross-country team where all they do is run because they love it so much. Others run the laps because it makes them stronger at their sport -- but it always feels like a chore. The do it for the results it gives them. The important thing is that they do the running.
Practice can be like that. Some of us love it right away, some of us grow to love it over time. And some of us do it for the results, to become stronger musicians, but it always feels like a chore. There’s nothing wrong with that. And there’s nothing wrong with your child, or yourself, if you want the results and wish you didn’t have to practice. It’s just human nature!
Claire: If you had to recommend one book that you didn't write to help parents, teachers, or older music students practicing independently, what would it be and why?
Christine: I’m going pick two!
One of my favorite books for working with young children is called Self-Reg by Dr. Stuart Shanker. I recommend this book if the typical advice about practice is not helping, or if the cooperative relationship is breaking down. It describes a powerful way to reframe behaviors in children.
A recent book that affected my own practice and performance mindset was The Mindful Musician: Mental Skills for Peak Performance by Vanessa Cornett. There are so many helpful ideas for the mental side of practice in this book. Highly recommended!
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Christine's book, Music Practice Makeover, is available on Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com. You can also contact Christine through her Instagram to place a bulk order of ten or more books at a discounted rate.
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Great interview! I can't wait to dive into this book :)
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March 24, 2022 at 10:41 AM · A superb interview. There's a lot of important psychological aspects to practice here, so I appreciate the nod to scientific experimentation when finding a method. Will look out for this book!