Practice Buddies?

Edited: January 5, 2022, 1:19 PM · As a child, I desperately despised practicing. I found ways to smuggle books and ipods then phones and laptops into my room and sneakily try to use them. One of the standout quotes when trying to excuse the lack of sound coming from my room was "I'm looking at the bridge, I'm not sure it's straight"!

When I was just beginning and my mother was able to help me practice it was alright, but as I progressed through the ABRSM grades and was left to my own devices I was unable to maintain my enthusiasm for practicing. I would show up to lessons and end up practicing with my teacher instead of learning new things because it was just easier to engage when there was someone else there to guide me and keep me focussed.

There is a growing trend in Singapore of hiring advanced music students to practice with younger students and it seems to work well from the stories I've heard! It's rarer still in Glasgow where I'm studying now but I've been testing out the concept with some young students here. Their father usually comes home after work and sits in the room to make them practice. He grew tired of expending up to 3 hours every day trying to get them to focus, can't blame him! He then asked me to spend 1.5 hours a few times a week to practice with them. Working with the kids for a few months now I've noticed the following behaviours:
- The kids seem to enjoy that I'm closer in age to them and perhaps more energetic than their father
- The kids appear to respond to practice better when there is someone to demonstrate or play along with them
- They respect my skill as a more advanced musician and will concentrate for longer periods of time with me and will follow my instructions more easily than with their parent. They're also not as automatically rebellious with me as they would be with their parent which definitely makes it easier

There are more but these are just some of the key observations. Feedback from their father has included:
- They achieve more in the short sessions with me than the longer sessions with him
- Both teachers have noted the greater improvement in their playing
- Both have better posture as I am able to correctly set up their shoulder rests before practice whereas the father may not be able to and am able to consistently check for tension or strange posture habits
- They enjoy their practice sessions more

In Singapore, a high school level student could charge about SGD 20/GBP 11/USD 15 for an hour as a practice buddy. I'm interested to know if this is a common practice in other parts of the world and if you think it's a worthwhile investment? What do you think of the practice buddy idea in general?

(And if there are any parents of music students in the readership, I'm actually researching this topic for a module so if you could help a girl out and fill in this form, I'd be really grateful!!

Replies (24)

January 5, 2022, 1:26 PM · I see no reason why one shouldn't outsource the more tedious or specialized of one's parenting tasks. And in fact the emotional dynamic that exists between parent and child can be detrimental to violin practicing. And if one can hire skilled help for $15 per hour (less than one is typically paid for babysitting or dog-walking), so much the better. Just don't let the local musicians' union find out about it.
Edited: January 5, 2022, 1:31 PM · It seems like a fine idea, as long as it's used to teach how to practice, and not seen as the practice itself. Honestly, the standard teaching should do a lot of teaching how to practice, but it has its own format.

I would think that this would work well in a case where certain things are emphasized:
-The context for why we practice (being clear about overall goals in music and how practice will help us achieve them). Without this piece, a child won't clearly understand what practice is for, and then won't see the point of learning how to build their own practice regimen that furthers their own goals.
-How to fit practice into their life (I imagine that the practice buddy should be going to the kid's house and reinforcing the routine of getting into a practice session).
-Building the skills of different practice techniques (are we working on something very narrow where we will play very small chunks like in training intonation, or are we learning passagework, or are we connecting bigger parts of pieces, or are we doing memorization work)
-Knowing when to do what kind of practice (figuring out what needs prioritization)
-Managing attention during practice sessions (so that we stay as fresh as possible and so we are being mindful of our own internal signals of tension, tiredness, boredom, etc)
-Reviewing the session (seeing what went well and what didn't, so that we can adjust the next practice session)

I would think that this kind of coaching would be immensely helpful, with the overall goal of encouraging more and more independence in the student, so that they don't become dependent on the coach to actually practice. All teaching should encourage a student to become increasingly self-actualized. If the student doesn't become a better practicer as result, there may be disconnect where the student isn't actually all that interested in playing violin, or it could be that the coach is instilling a learned helplessness in the student, which would be a NO-NO.

Really Paul?! $15/hour? Has the gig-economy propaganda infected you too?

January 5, 2022, 1:31 PM · Paul, if the person hired is not a member, why not?
January 5, 2022, 3:58 PM · I would have loved this as a kid (Heck I would love it now!). One of the things I didn't like practicing was how lonely it was. It is like hiring a math tutor or writing tutor. For my stepson who had ADHD we hired a homework tutor. I was his homework tutor several days a week and this highschool student was the other days. Some kids have their own drive and can do fine on their own but I imagine there are kids who are musically inclined who could go far but can't focus on their own nearly as well as they can with this kind of support.
Edited: January 5, 2022, 7:04 PM · If you really can't bring yourself to practise, why are you a musician?

Presumably as a creative person you can think of ways to make your practise interesting and at the very least engaging. Otherwise, why are you wasting time on a hobby you don't, or rarely, enjoy...

I don't see any sense in hiring someone to practise with you. That's some dystopian blade runner type stuff, minus the robots, and it's probably distracting. Start a band instead!

January 5, 2022, 7:14 PM · Cotton, don't pooh-pooh my exoskeleton idea - It literally makes you go through the motions, regardless of your personal conception of free will. Could be a game-changer...
Edited: January 5, 2022, 8:34 PM · When I was a kid violin student the only other violin players I knew were my teacher and my father. What little time my father had to practice he did not waste on me or my stuff and I only saw my teacher(s) once a week.

It would have been nice and (perhaps) motivating to have a "practice buddy" - at least from time to time. With that stimulus I might not have quit when I was 11. Fortunately, I resumed playing when I was 12 or 13 and had gained enough in the earlier years that I never had another violin teacher. I now know it certainly would have helped to have a later competent violin teacher - something I learned by having a cello teacher from age 14 - 17. But I did OK during my enjoyable life as an amateur.

January 5, 2022, 9:01 PM · I think that it’s a terrific idea, as long as the buddy is working in tandem with the teacher, and is aware of goals and challenges. My daughter’s school has reading buddies that are similar conceptually, and both parties seem to gain from the experience.
January 6, 2022, 1:18 AM · No need for the gratuitous shot at the musicians’ union. Most locals don’t even cover teaching (ours doesn’t), and this is a job more akin to specialized babysitting and suitable for a student anyway.
January 6, 2022, 2:55 AM · Greetings,
I have to admit I can’t quite get my head round this. Some of the tasks mentioned so far belong in the realm of teaching and therefore the practice buddy is actually a teaching assistant
. If that is the case then it should only be done with an assistant of the main teacher. There are always conflicts when more than one teacher is involved in the formative stages.
On the other hand, if the person is just a violin buddy like a ‘study buddy’ then they will, presumably be of a similar level and I am not exactly clear what they are being paid for. If you are talking about peer study groups working on the same materials that would be a diffent and good thing to me. Or better yet, chamber music.
With all due respect to the OP , I would be more concerned with directly addressing why the student is lacking in motivation? This may well be fault of the teacher being uninspiring, incompetent or whatever. However, it may simply be that the student in question needs to start making adult decisions about what they want to do or not and get on with it.
The violin always has been a lonely road. Fortunately , there are plenty of metaphorical bordellos, bars and amusement arcades on the way in the form of collaborative activities.
January 6, 2022, 9:03 AM · My younger daughter has a once a week (usually) practice buddy provided by her scholarship and mentorship program. She is a college student at a major local music school. We have found it to be very good for my daughter, for many of the same reasons the OP mentioned. She tends to listen and focus better. My daughter is 12 and can practice by herself (and will without issue) but the practice buddy keeps her better on task, gives her a little extra boost, and makes it more fun. The buddy is instructed to periodically communicate with my daughter's teacher to help emphasize the things they are working on.

I still try to supervise her practice for a short amount of time the other days, but at age 12 she is getting that teenager attitude and it goes WAY better with the practice buddy than with me!

Edited: January 6, 2022, 10:21 AM · Cotton wrote, "If you really can't bring yourself to practice, why are you a musician?" From this statement I conclude that he does not have children of his own.

Like Andrew, I would have benefited from having a practice coach as a child violin student. My childhood teacher showed me how to *play* the violin, and he conveyed his ideas about what things should sound like, but he did not spend much lesson time on how to get there. For example, let's say the student is working on a "student concerto." The teacher might listen to one or two whole sections more before stopping for comments. The practice coach might read in the lesson notes, "Transitions between sections need ironed out. Shifts in measures X, Y, and Z are rough -- practice with ghost notes." Then the coach might not need to listen to more than a few bars at a time because a great deal of violin practicing is about shoring up very specific, isolated weaknesses.

January 6, 2022, 3:47 PM · I think practice buddies are a fantastic idea, especially for younger kids. I've actually tried to get something like that going in my own teaching studio, but found it too difficult to motivate any of my more advanced students to want to do it.

I don't know how it is in Singapore, but where I am (California, USA), I have found that none of my students are motivated by money. Seriously, none! This is confounding to me. Another factor might be the difficulty involved in traveling, since many of my high school age students either don't drive, or don't want to drive 30 minutes just to help someone practice.

A variable I have not yet experimented with is having an online practice buddies system that would utilize Zoom or Skype. Perhaps that would make all the difference, since neither the parents nor the "practice buddy" would need to drive anywhere. And since most of the goal of the "practice buddy" is motivation, rather than actual teaching, a lot of the disadvantages that typically arise with Zoom lessons wouldn't be present.

Thank you for bringing this idea up. I had sort of forgotten about my own ideas on it, but now I'm motivated to explore it again.

January 6, 2022, 4:33 PM · Greetings,
Paul, I like your comment about practice notes. Working this way, it would certainly put some pressure on less able teachers who don’t bother teaching how to practice to provide some decent guidelines! SMART goals springs to mind. A practice buddy in the role of ‘coach’ (in itself a very high level skill) could discuss the notes with the student and encourage them to talk about how they are going to tackle the problem in this practice session , kind of thing.
January 6, 2022, 5:13 PM · My thoughts on a "practice buddy" were somewhat different.
As I wrote earlier, I knew no other young violin players, although they were there at when, at age 9, I was switched from private teachers coming to my home to a downtown music school, but since I had a private teacher there too, I did not meet any other students and my weekly Saturday lesson was followed by a theory class, where we did not play or interact in any way that I can recall.
In fact I never knew of a single other kid in New York City who played a portable instrument (my younger sister studied piano).

But after quitting violin for a year or so, moving to the boondocks of crural entral Maryland and joining the high school orchestra (about 40 musicians) and a 100-piece concert-&-marching band, I had plenty of "music buddies" and 2 hours a week of conducted playing together.

What I learned from that experience was that playing with other people can be both a learning experience and a competition (which can also be a learning experience).

At the end of my freshman year our concertmaster graduated and he was chosen to play the graduating-student's solo at the ceremony. He chose Bach's "Air for the G String" and the the non-graduating orchestra students comprised the accompanying ensemble. I thought during our rehearsals that if I could play that music, perhaps I would be chosen as concertmaster the next year. I don't recall well, but I do know that I did not have much experience above 3rd position at that time. So I worked on that Bach and other things of increasing difficulty (Mozart #3 & #5) that summer and "won" the chair when school resumed in September - and held it for 3 years.

I believe there are "buddy benefits" when buddies are equal in skill and when they are not. As an adult I sat concertmaster in my community orchestra for 20 years, my stand partner for a several years was a high school girl who was very good - so we sort of played up to each others' standard. After she graduated from high school and earned her college degree in violin performance she returned and the orchestra board decided we should re-audition for the CM chair and she won (as rightfully she should have). I got to sit beside her (on the inside now) for only one set of rehearsals and concert - and I realized how much I was going to be inspired and learn sitting there - but the conductor moved me to principal 2nd - so that continued experience never occurred.

January 6, 2022, 5:17 PM · Greetings,
if you haven’t watched ‘Hikaru no Go’ (in English if necessary…) then that would be my recommended binge watch. One of the main ideas in it was that it requires a friend/rival to create the conditions whereby one can move one step closer to perfection.
January 7, 2022, 10:54 PM · Well, yeah, it's a bit early for me to be a father. But it's not a statement—it's a question, and the op is not a little kid (I think). I don't mean "if you aren't having fun then quit", but if the op isn't having fun practising then they should start thinking about why.
January 8, 2022, 1:16 AM · Practice is supposed to be fun? How?

I don't think my daughter ever had fun with Shradieck or Vamos double-stops (no offense to Mr. Vamos).

It's just like Hanon for piano. Not a fun territory but sometimes, they are necessary. My daughter stopped complaining about all the technical studies since she decided that she doesn't want to struggle through a piece and she sees how etudes and exercises help. It took many years to get this point but she wants people to hear the music, not be distracted by her technical problems.

I'm all for practice buddy. For awhile, my daughter had a practice buddy/baby sitter who was a brass student. That worked out super well. I did not want to come home after working 12 hours to sit through her practice. Not so sure if her violin teacher would accept a violin student though. He wouldn't want someone else interfering with his teaching.

January 8, 2022, 2:35 PM · Greetings,
‘fun’ is not a useful word here. ‘Joy’ might get closer to the mark. I believe the goal worth striving for is to experience a kind of deep satisfaction from Playing anything technical a la ‘Flow’ psychology. Ultimately we are listening for the same kind of things (sound, rhythm, intonation and ease) whatever we are practicing and the practice of technique should not really be mentally or emotionally so different from public performance on stage. Other wise how doe sit it rtruly relate to our performance?
This is, or course, hard for a child to come to grips with but perhaps more attention should be paid to this issue.
Idle thoughts,
January 8, 2022, 5:19 PM · That’s a a really good point Kiki. Someone who isn’t a violinist but is familiar with practicing and what it entails.
Edited: January 9, 2022, 2:26 PM · For many years, my wife and I have had "practice partners" in our studio, which usually were the more advanced college-age students. For a relatively modest fee compared to private instruction (but still much better than minimum wage) they saw some of our younger students several times a week for 30 minutes at a time and helped them go through the appropriate structure of practice. This wasn't a long term thing, and it helped lots of our younger students develop an efficient practice routine. This was very helpful in an area where the cost of living pretty much guaranteed that both parents had full time jobs and were not able to practice with their kids, especially the ones in the single digit ages.

It also served as a training ground for our potential future teachers to get involved with helping a student without being entirely responsible for their success, and ongoing communication between us, the practice partner, and the student (and parents) helped to create a strong level of community engagement in the student's music experience, especially when we met for group classes, youth orchestra, and summer programs where all were involved.

January 9, 2022, 4:41 PM · Gene's structure is exactly the one that I've seen previously. The younger the practice buddy, the more they tend to get paid just slightly above babysitting wage.

I don't think that enjoying playing necessarily means that one enjoys practicing. When I have time and energy, I enjoy practicing, but most of the time my life doesn't have an abundance of either spare time or spare energy. I tend to enjoy practicing the most at the very beginning of learning a piece (the most puzzle-solving-oriented phase), and towards the end of performance preparation (the most musically-oriented phase).

But I play because I enjoy performing, and because I enjoy playing with other people (where I enjoy the rehearsal process more than I enjoy performing, though I need the motivation of the upcoming performance). Practicing on my own feels like a chore the majority of the time. In recent years I've set a relatively relentless performance schedule for myself in order to push myself to practice.

January 11, 2022, 11:51 AM · I found that my practice was quite proportional to how much I was playing with others, be it rehearsals/practices or actual gigs, jam sessions and similar. With time, gigs and jam sessions started to dwindle as did time spent jamming with other musicians, and so my enthusiasm to practice also started to dry up and soon after my enthusiasm to play at all was tanking out. My persuit in music was to play with others for others I lost sight of that.

I've rekindled my own interest in music when my children started to learn to play instruments. I try to attend practice sessions once in a while and we do small (practice) duets (and lately even a trio) from time to time. I think it also helps them realize how fun music can be once you start playing with others, but to do so one must practice first.

It's hard to say where practice buddy becomes practice assistant becomes teacher assistant becomes second/other teacher becomes main teacher.

January 12, 2022, 11:49 AM · This idea can take various shapes: coaching, supervising, various peer pressures (competition, support, team spirit). The broader point being that motivation is of particular importance for many ambitious parents.

The deeper point though is that being a human being is not automatic. We have to learn, among other things, to set and pursue goals. That's an art a person can be really bad at, but it's also something that can be done at a master level.

If you are in a position to teach a child, you are having a deeper impact if you teach them skills related to goal setting and pursuit, particularly with a focus on self-motivation.

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