Practicing - schools of thought

April 20, 2007 at 02:43 AM · I have posted on something like this before, but decided to bring up this topic again. What are your feelings on kids' practice habits? What do you ask students to do? I have worked with teachers who use these various schools of thought, and I was wondering what you do.

1. Practice at least ___ minutes a day/week.

2. It doesn't matter how much you practice as long as you know your pieces.

3. Other

Currently, I am asking my kids to practice a measly 30 minutes a week.... I am thinking about changing the requirement to at least 15 minutes daily to work on consistency and retention. HOWEVER, sometimes I feel my kids use this time to goof around and not work on their assignments. Basically, I wanted to know your initial thoughts on practicing, keeping in mind that parental support on average is minimum.

Replies (24)

April 20, 2007 at 03:30 AM · Greetings,

I very much err towards the school of thought described in great depth in a book called `The Practice Revolution.` This argues that the amount of practice is a function of completing clearly defined tasks to a clearly defined level. Whetehr this takes a long or short time is irrelevent.

This approach entails the teacher having a very clear idea of what the studnets capabilities are, what kinds of levels are apprpriate and so forth. It does not mean making a generalization such as `Get this piece ready in rough by next week.` This approach is all too common and , in my opinion, meaningless.



April 20, 2007 at 04:11 AM · I think if you dissected individuals, there would be very little commonality. Being self motivated, and generously spending bunches of time as a youngster playing, it is honestly very difficult for me to relate at all to the proscribed approach--a'tall.

What I'm 'trying' to get at, is that if somehow beyond Suzuki for example (not that you use Suzuki,but it's general philosophy) if there were somehow to inspire a child (though I have problems with this because it feels like programming) to practice based on accomplishment, then that would be the approach.

I was never really praised when I learned something because I was just so much into it. SHOW ME MORE!!!!... Whether it was little Mozart pieces, or pop or whatever, I thought it was so very cool that I was learning something classical from Scribner's even at ten or eleven that, the experience was engough to push forward most times.

Then there's Hilary Hahn, paraphrased, "if it were not violin it could have been any instrument" thinking. I can't imagine had it not been violin of course, but there's a lesson there.

Soooooo: (humanistic soapbox follows)

...connect for real with the child on it's level.

...praise, cheer, blaze trails, show off, open doors and, and, and, stand aside.

...connect and communicate with parents concerning 'the child's' propensity to follow a work ethic--rather than the teacher's or the parent's. This doesn't mean some will fail, though it could mean they may take a different direction.

For me music was one hundred percent cool and fun, and when I would learn something beyond my ability I'd spend literally days memorizing measure by measure--we were poor--no teachers pretty much--the entire piece.

So, because I believe so much in communication, I would personally take the Suzuki notion of parental involvement a new direction and use a team effort that covers you, allows you to connect with the child for inspiration and whatever may come; and, sometimes, you will likely get lucky and run across a couple kids who will have a work ethic. This is probably the ultimate personalized approach.

April 20, 2007 at 06:21 AM · First of all it depends on the age of the child.What is really important is daily practice even for short periods of time.A couple of prolonged study periods during the week will not have the same effect.With children make sure they understand what they are supposed to practice.It is useless assigning a study or piece if it is a real struggle for them to sight read as children are notoriously lazy and will not make the effort.Therefore move forward in small steps at atime and no giant leaps.For very young children I just tell them to play the assigned material three times each day as they do not have the same in built quality control as older students.Always assign something easy to practice so that the child will struggle to get the more difficult piece sounding as good as the easy piece.

April 20, 2007 at 07:55 AM · Model it on daily food: some vegetables, but finish off with desert.

With my daughter, her teacher sets her very clearly defined tasks to do every day. After they are done, she and I have fun working our way through simple duets, with zero pressure or judgment - just for the hell of it. She is always up for this desert - and so am I (and it is great for our intonation). I'd say she does about 15 minutes on the first bit, and maybe a bit more on the desert.

April 20, 2007 at 09:04 AM · Some thoughts... 1. Approach every student differently. Your assignments and expectations will differ according to the student's needs, natural abilities, personality, amount of parental support. etc. 2. With younger children try assigning more work on specific measures or phrases and treat playing the whole piece as a "reward". [Actually, this works with older students too.] 3. Devise and write out specific exercises to solve problems or teach new techniques. 4.If a child needs encouragement to practice you might suggest that a parent light a candle when the child begins his or her practice session. After the candle burns down (several days) the student gets some kind of reward. [One of my student's parents came up with this idea and now three of my students practice with a candle.] My parents never once had to remind me to practice. Maybe I should have forgotten and received a reward! 5. With some students I have used the kitchen timer idea from Break up each practice session into three minute segments. The student sets a timer for three minutes when he practices. When the timer goes off he resets it and goes to the next specific assignment. 6. Make listening to good (specific) examples of violin playing part of the weekly assignment.

It's getting late so I'll sign off. But first, although it's a little off the subject... Did you see in STRINGS (May '07) that Chloe Hanslip received three two hour long private violin lessons per week when she was five years old?!

April 20, 2007 at 08:48 AM · I personally tell them to get after it every day, and I don't care how long, as long as they practice every day. I dole out the assignment as a list of pieces and etudes with specific goals to accomplish, which varies according to their appetite and ability. I adjust their weekly assignments as I assess their progress.

April 20, 2007 at 01:44 PM · Thanks for the advice...and fortunately, I am blessed to have a small handful of self-motivated students.

April 20, 2007 at 05:22 PM · it is a blessing to find those self motivated kids....every teacher's dream.

my suggestion is to challenge them to do the impossible (oh, they are too early to try this and that piece, oh they need to go through this book and that first, oh they are not ready yet,,,,please)

yes, for the average kid, that is a safe route to take. but for a motivated one, one that is hungry, it takes much more to satisfy the need which is often not recognized, or ignored on purpose because we have in place already a,,,,,"system".

push them hard, reward them, make them proud of themselves and their achievement. there should be no shame in being the best they can be. not for money (maybe ice cream), not for fame (may be a friend's attention), just simply be the best they can be. if the kids believe you, about that the glorious feeling of being able to be their best, then nothing is too difficult with violin. minutes and hours become irrelevent. you can sense that with some of the adult beginners. once they feel they are learning on borrowed time, everything becomes so endearing and precious, every note they play has meaning.

i don't think a time limit is essential for the motivated kids. they should be taught early on what is acceptable vs what is not in terms of quality, not minutes or hours. this allows for more independence and more independent thinking. (having said that, it is important to point out that no matter what you do, violin included, if you want to go the distance and climb the top, and do not put in hours to amass the sea of skills and knowledge, forget about it)

i would prefer a style that sets the bar very very high, one that is impossible to reach, which alone will help select those kids that can go the distance so you can help them to try to achieve it. chances are you both will fail miserably, but the game is in the process and fun part is in the trying.

for regular kids you need regular treatment. give them a cookie cutter so at least they will carve out some predictable shapes.

for irregular kids you need irregular treatment. let them mold their own style with their own inner voice.

what we see often is to treat irregular kids regularly, to play it safe, to go with the norm, to be considered "nice" so that they turn out to be regular as expected.

isn't that freaking beautiful?

April 20, 2007 at 05:15 PM · This may not be exactly relevant, but with even my most self-motivated students, it is very rewarding to see the difference between boys and girls... the girls tend to "play it safe" and make sure everything is precise and correct, and the boys tend to experiment with different things... I have students who have discovered shifting on their own! It's really cool.

April 20, 2007 at 06:50 PM · I do the 15 minutes every day thing. When that doesn't work, I shoot for a weekly goal. it varies per student and works occasionally. I like the candle idea, I am going to suggest that to a few of my students.

April 22, 2007 at 02:58 AM · Al, I agree with your observation about adult beginners--indeed, I shall quote you in the future. With the exception that I don't really feel the pressure of being an adult "on borrowed time", violin has been all encompassing for me.

With that said, someone else really micro-assessed what a personalized approach should be--I tried to express the same thing earlier though in more abstract terms. And I more than agree.

Though most people, like music, not everyone breaths music. And though music is great for underwriting academic excellence, there is a perspective that might suggest that one layer of greatness in a teacher is in recognizing who is doing it for attention or other motives versus who is simply doing what comes naturally--breathing music.

While I find that Montessori, perhaps Suzuki is a little too experimental in some ways, there is some wisdom I think in nurturing children's love for music contrasted to rote finger slapping with ruler piano teachers that I know existed in the past.

The world of learning, regardless of the cry to return to basics, has left forever most rote discipline based methods--though of course discipline or at least self-discipline obviously is still important. Even in training horses: no more spurs, no more whips, only postitive reinforcement using gentler approaches is beginning to change things pretty much across the board.

So today's teachers have to almost be some sort of zen aware master, to assess what the student is made of. Taken out of context, I have to think the parental involvment of Suzuki could be very important in helping a child find it's directions, though of course, as in public education, 'the teacher is expected to do it' more often than not.

Given that parental involvement in fact is not a commodity, it seems wise to spend the first couple months communicating to the parent: 'if this' is in place, then this can happen; and, if it is not in place, I make no guarantees. You know your child better than I do and though I have confidence in my own abilities, I am neither a genie or a mind-reader. I cannot take this journey with your child after they leave my presence but will do my best.

And in the past also, many were called but few were chosen. There were more undeveloped decisions to take music lessons than there were kids who really breath music. So this has not changed; and, drop-out was accepted, probably more readily than today.

So, if you really want to go the distance with getting your kids to practice, use some easily available tools like a weekly progress note that the parent must sign and return as one idea--Surely it wouldn't take more than a couple minutes if that much time at the end of a lesson. Another would be to have their assignments on the internet if done in a simple clean uncomplicated way. With computers, these types of things are a lot more reasonable than the teacher having to take the time to handwrite things(But I type 70 words per minute cleanly when paying attention).

Successful teachers in the past were sometimes half-tyrant. Reminds me of a joke:

The kid was having trouble in math. Mom and dad got him a tutor with no luck. They changed schools to get rid of what they thought might be a bad teacher with no luck. They pleaded and prodded and wrangled their hands, and finally enrolled the child in Catholic school.

Every single day for the next term the child came home and went straight to it's study room. When the report card arrived at the end of the term, whalah: an "A"... Curious as to how they had gotten the child to improve so greatly they decided to ask their kid.

The child hesitated and then said, "when I walked in that classroom and saw that plus sign with a man hanging on it, oh yes--I took them seriously".

I think the moral of the story is that if the child is not consistenly developing beyond bloopers, a teacher today should have the courage to let them go gracefully, as a part of a predetermined and communicated understanding with the parents.

If they are inconsistent but have shown promise in the past, that too should be communicated nicely.

And if they are simply doing it because the girls at the beauty shop are having all their children take lessons, with little or no involvement after attempting to connect with them; and, having set the standard yourself--just don't sweat it, but take good notes yourself. You can take a horse to the water.

April 22, 2007 at 11:52 AM · al, if you quote me, both of us will get into trouble:)

everyone has talent. what is rare is the courage to follow the talent to the dark place where it leads. ----erica jong

striving for excellence motivates you. striving for perfection is demoralizing. ----harriet braiker

it's good to have an end to journey towards; but in the end, it is the journey itself that makes the difference. ---ursula k le guin

till what's empty. empty what's full. scratch where it itches. ----alice roosevelt longworth

April 23, 2007 at 03:52 PM · As a parent, I take notes at my sons lessons. His lesson goes for around 1 1/2 hours with his teacher, so he has to be prepared to make the most of it, and he knows this. I don't see how 15 minutes at that age will do much. I am of the opinion that kids don't do much if you don't expect much. As no parents are very involved in your program, it seems the kids could need a checklist or something to guide their efforts that is specific and high in expectations. Stephen B. is on the mark though! Based upon the teachers recommendations I insist my son play scales, his intervals exercises, shift work, and arpagios in the key he is working on with his teacher.

The key is to have a goal. Specifics are a must and not everything at once. His teacher does a lot of duet work with him and he likes to work on those so that is the big treat for the end.

My son is 9 and very independent. I check his position and then he says, "Make me a pile of what to do." I then read my notes from the lesson to him and stack up the books in the order he needs to do them in. My only comments are usually about intonation and counting the hard timing things. If he can't decide on what to review, he asks. I am always very specific. These two measures, this line, this issue, this shift, right off the notes from the lesson. It seems to work.

Also, on most solo work if there are recordings, I buy at least two versions of great musicians playing the piece.

Good luck...Maybe see if you can maybe work in groups to get some peer pressure going so they push each other.

April 23, 2007 at 03:59 PM · It's amazing reading some of the posts- how different the phylosophy can be depending on the teacher. My daughter started violin when she was five, up to age 9 or so I practiced with her every day- 45 min to over an hour, depending on what needed to be accomplished.We took the violin with us every time we went on vacation, too. Not that I expected to do that when we started, but because that is what the teacher expected. I have to admit that he is very demanding, but I think he bases his requirements on what he knows the child can achieve. I remember after a few months of lessons I tried to tell him that we are not really expecting my daughter to become a violinist, and he told me that's the wrong approach- you either work with a VERY high standard, or you might as well stop. The parent was accountable at the lesson, somehow more that the student, because at such a young age is up to the parent to create the right environment for practice, to set a routine for later work ethic. And I might be old school, but I told my daughter that is her PRIVILEDGE to be able to take music lessons, not too many kids have that chance. So I really don't think that an ice-cream or sticker is a good reward for practice. I use to tell her that as her father and I have the duty to work and support the family, her duty is to do her best with HER WORK- practice and homework. She is now 12 , mostly practicing on her own- two hours per day, playing in a local youth orchestra and enjoying it.

April 23, 2007 at 05:15 PM · Michelle,

Your daughters teacher sounds just like my son's teacher. He believes the teachers job is to make the student conscious and not a rote learner.

We are at 1 1/2 hours most days with really bad days at around 45 minutes. I do not agree about vacations though. I see that as family time.

But if it works for her...that is great.

April 23, 2007 at 05:23 PM · Michelle,

Your daughters teacher sounds just like my son's teacher. He believes the teachers job is to make the student conscious of what they are doing and why, and not a rote learner. Music is a great privledge, so I guess my age is showing a bit. Why work to be OK?

Back to the original post, it is important that the work ethic you desire for your students is rewarded. Some children will never try, but try to identify the ones that share your work ethic and don't sacrifice them for the goof offs.

April 23, 2007 at 05:44 PM · Hmm. I disagree pretty strongly with the idea that you work with a VERY high standard or you "might as well stop." Why "might as well stop"? What does stopping get you except a sense of failure, a habit of quitting, and an alienation from music?

I had an au pair a couple of years ago who was, at age 20, horribly self-conscious and negative about her singing voice and musical abilities (even though music actually meant a lot to her and she liked to play our electric piano with headphones on, in "secret," so no one could hear her) because a teacher had told her when she was younger that she wasn't good enough and "might as well stop." Let's go ahead and turn even more young people off classical music. Push them out the door if they won't leave fast enough. Sheesh.

As an adult amateur myself who didn't always (or even often) have time or inclination to practice up to a VERY high standard as a child (and never took my instrument on vacations--which I agree, are family time), I'm still glad I didn't get, or take, that "might as well stop" advice. No, I'm not a professional and never will be, but so what? I'm "OK." I think my life as a musician is still so much richer than that of those who quit playing along the way.

Why work to be "OK"? Because music is about so much more than personal achievement.

April 23, 2007 at 07:56 PM · Keep in mind that I am teaching in a public school setting...not privately in this case.

April 23, 2007 at 08:38 PM · Karen,

I agree, I guess what I meant is that you can work hard and achieve great things, or work hard and do just OK. The difference is working smart not hard. I don't think having low standards accomplishes much. Perfection and mastery are noble goals, seldom achieved, yet something to aspire to. Why else listento the great players, look at great art, read great books if the purpose of art is not to be your best as a student. I agree, you can play some days and not be at your best, but still we try and hopefully a student will try and try again. As far as public schools, I guess it is a habit to have lower standards for public schools because you can't pick who gets in. That is a legitimate point. I work in special education, and find that kids can read your expectations. If you require 15 minutes, make sure they know you expect the best 15 minutes they can muster! It is OK if a child does not dream about being good at music or anything else, but those that want ot achieve and work, might be grouped together to raise the bar a bit, was all I meant. In our district, some really great players are coming out of public schools. If a child goofs off, they are probably goofing off in other school areas as well. I would not let them rain on the parade of a gifted, or motivated student who is willing to try and try, no matter how young the children are or their ability. Some students have passion for music, art, or writing very young. While we might consider them gifted, they just know what they want younger than most people and are willing to work to get it.

April 23, 2007 at 09:46 PM · J. Kingston, I think we're actually pretty close in our views, but with one pretty big caveat: I don't think perfection is a noble goal at all. Excellence according to one's own internal standards, yes, perfection no. I'm not a perfectionist myself, but I have some experience with perfectionism in others and I really believe the perfect is the enemy of the good. I've seen it paralyze people and make them miserable.

I also don't think taking on some generalized dichotomy of "high standards and high expectations" vs. "low standards and goofing off" is really all that helpful. I like much better the more individualized responses at the beginning of the thread that talked about meeting each student where he or she is and tailoring the expectations accordingly. I think "perfection" is a pretty meaningless and even hurtful concept in that context, whereas "excellence" is not.

My daughter was not thriving in Suzuki violin last year; she was 6 and I don't think she was ready for it. Some kids are at that age, or apparently even before, but she really wasn't. Sometimes she started crying in lessons and was afraid of her teacher. And her teacher wasn't objectively mean, she was pretty gentle and overall a nice woman. I liked her, myself. She had "high standards" and wouldn't tolerate "goofing off."

My daughter, though, seems to be more of a generalist, interested in a lot of different things and really didn't have the attention span for more than 15 minutes or so, even in a lesson. I don't think she was "goofing off," it was something else. She also complained a lot about having back and leg pain from having to have "correct" violin posture.

This year I play violin with her sometimes, when she wants to, but formally she's taking piano this year instead, she's able to sit down and never complains about back or leg pain, she's learning how to read music and being inspired by learning about a lot of different kinds of instruments and music.

She's still not practicing every day but she really does still seem interested in music, she doesn't cry at her piano lessons, she looks forward to them, and she does something musical almost every day. Sometimes I see her playing Minuet in G on the table with both hands when she's not at the piano. It seems to help her relieve anxiety and calm her down and help her be at peace with her thoughts.

I suppose in a way, she has "stopped" and she "might as well," given that she wasn't dedicated to practicing violin the way these sorts of teachers would have wanted her to. She's not taking professional violin lessons at all any more, and is happier for it. But I think she wants to stay in the broader game of music and should be allowed to. She may catch fire with violin in the future, or may not ever--she was very enthusiastic about violin at the beginning, begged for lessons, and it was kind of heartbreaking to see her start crying in her lessons (it was for her teacher, too). But I still don't think the experience of being told to practice according to a VERY high standard or else quit altogether is something she ever needs to have in her life. Certainly not at age 6 or 7.

April 23, 2007 at 11:18 PM · Carolyn, I actually think your 15 minutes a day idea is a great one, when coupled with the specific goals that people have suggested. Laurie Niles said something on another thread that I really liked: that it takes 21 days to establish a habit. I think she then said that she requires students to practice every day for 21 days straight to establish the practice habit (Laurie, correct me if I'm wrong).

I like that for so many reasons but this is the biggest personal one: It has helped me as an adult. I've always been bad at consistency and self-discipline, my whole life. But I have found at an advanced age (better late than never) that just the sheer momentum of habit is the best friend to consistency and discipline. It's a way to get yourself to do things you don't "feel like" doing. If you just practice every morning when you get up (or after dinner, or whenever works for you), like brushing your teeth, without having to think about it or make a choice, eventually (in 21 days or so) you just do it no matter what. And you feel weird when you don't do it, like something is missing.

The best part of that experience, for me, has been that it takes away any moralizing, pious, or judgemental aspects of teaching and learning music. I got a big dose of that kind of moralizing as a kid in school: that somehow people who practiced (and "worked hard") were better people than people who didn't; non-practicers were weak and morally inferior and to be shunned. They were punished by being periodically publically humiliated in front of their friends and family, threatened, and finally booted out of the club altogether.

I found this moralistic baggage associated with practicing to be somehow so intimidating that I could never really embrace it. Paradoxically, it scared me away rather than motivated me to want to join the club.

But a simple everyday habit isn't intimidating. It's just something you do. Something anyone can do.

April 24, 2007 at 04:08 AM · Thank you,

I learn a lot from these seemingly theoretical discussions. You are all great!

This violin teacher, Carloyn, deserves the respect of the students whether they feel like practicing or not. It is the parents job to see the students respect her if she is reasonable. If they hate practicing, they should do it out of respect for the teacher and her dedication to their learning. She should not have to encounter disrespect by students when she is trying to help them. I cherish opportunities, and sometimes see them as "wasted" due to what I regard as indulging the children instead of teaching them to be grateful for the gifts their teachers, parents and grandparents have worked to provide them. I will work to understand your ideas that let the children decide what is best. We are not from America, but are Americans now. If my son was fortunate to be in a public school with a music program, like how this post started, I would insist he work hard and not goof off for this teacher who cares about the children and wants what is best for all of them. That is respectful to the teachers time, and respectful to classmates and not about only what one child wants.

April 24, 2007 at 04:40 AM · Hi, yes, for private students, every day. Here's the parent lecture , and it really, really works.

But, in the public school setting? It's difficult. I have a big chart, and I give them a sticker if they bring their chart and show they've practiced three times a week. I'll let you know when and if I ever figure out how to get the public school kids practicing. Next year, I'm planning to hold a big, required, parent meeting at the beginning of the year to lay out some expectations.

April 24, 2007 at 12:41 PM · I really like the idea of cumulative reward. I did the same thing as an adult and made it about up to 140 before not I, but circumstances interrupted. And of course I'll start again.

It came to mind that maybe something like week>month>2 month>...> with augmenting reward systems might be pretty good too, if not already mentioned.

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