Practice Makes Per…sistence

This afternoon I was going through some old articles I wrote for the School of Performing Arts newsletters. Here’s one from five years ago that may still be of some benefit.

One of the most common issues that parents have brought up over the past year is one of practice time. How much should a young music student practice? Should parents “force” them to practice?

First of all, it is important to know what practice is, and why it is important. Repetition is the key to successful learning, regardless of the subject. With music, it is doubly important, because musicians are not only learning concepts and patterns—they are also developing physical endurance and mental focus.

Studies have shown that maximum retention occurs if repetition, or in this case, practice, occurs within 24 hours. There is a drastic drop in retention rate after 48 hours (skipping a day), and virtually no retention after 72 hours (skipping two days). Because of this, daily practice is essential for progress.

It is, of course, unrealistic to expect any student to practice seven days a week. One day off per week will not greatly affect a student’s progress, and can actually help prevent “burn-out”. The day before or after a lesson, however, are going to be the most important practicing days, and should not be skipped.

Ideally, beginning students should aim for about thirty minutes per day of practice time, preferably split into two or three short sessions throughout the day. Practicing for more than thirty minutes per day is, of course, perfectly acceptable! Just know that for everyone there is a law of diminishing returns, where we stop learning and begin overtaxing ourselves. The key is to practice effectively, remembering the assignments and instructions given by the teacher. Practicing bad habits can be more detrimental than not practicing at all!

So how do we achieve effective practicing? There are several things that you as parents can do to help. Set up a consistent practice time. When practicing becomes part of a daily routine, you’ll find that progress comes much more easily. One of the best times to schedule practice time is right after schoolwork is finished. It may help to view music lessons as part of a child’s overall educational curriculum, and practicing is their “homework”.

It is also beneficial to have a “quiet zone” for practicing. Everyone in the house needs to  respect a student’s practice time. He or she needs to be able to concentrate on practicing, not whatever else may be going on in the house. A room free of distractions such as TV, computer, or toys will also help accomplish this goal.

Sometimes we just need to “spice up” practice time a bit, to make it more fun. Practice time is a great opportunity for experimentation. Encourage your children to improvise (making songs up as they go) or to try to play a melody by ear. Go back and play some old songs from time to time. One of the best ways to observe progress is to be able to say, “Remember back at Christmas when that was so hard?”

All children occasionally need reminders to practice, regardless of their level of commitment. If you are constantly experiencing resistance from your children about practicing, something is wrong. It may be that he or she (or you) did not realize the thought and effort necessary to learn to play an instrument. Or perhaps an outside influence is affecting the student’s practice time (a pestering sibling, disparaging remarks from parents about results, etc.) If you are having these issues, talk to your child’s teacher about possible causes and solutions.

Music is misleading: those who are very good at it make it look so simple! But as spectators, we only see the finished product… we never get to see all the work that has gone into reaching such a high level of proficiency. Practice isn’t always fun, and it’s never easy — but it should always be rewarding. The end result will be worth it!

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