Let’s Talk About Practicing – Practicing Tips Part 2

Hello again.  I am here to continue our conversation about practicing. I am sure that if you didn’t already know, by now you are getting the idea about how very important practice is. There is a direct statistical relationship between hours of practice and achievement. No shortcuts. In his book, “Outliers: The Story of Success”, author, Malcolm Gladwell claims that, “It takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in any field”. 10,000 hours? Well, while Mr. Gladwell does present a very convincing argument, our goal today is to determine how frequently and for how long the music student in your life should realistically be practicing. In addition I will discuss some of the ways to motivate students to actually want to practice (though a gentle reminder might still be helpful).

As stated in a previous post, your music teacher can help you determine the answer to both how often and how long to practice based on the age and skill level of the student. However, even if you don’t have the luxury of being present at the lessons you can still take what you know about your child’s schedule, learning style and general work ethic to help them come up with a reasonable practice plan. Ideally, practice will take place daily. If that is not realistic perhaps you can create a 5 or 6 day a week schedule.

First, lets state the goal of practice time. Ultimately, it strengthens the fine muscles and motor skills of your hands, it increases your dexterity and hand to eye coordination, and builds your endurance so that you are able to play for longer periods of time.  Practice is like any form of exercise.  As previously mentioned, in determining how long a student should practice keep in mind that a solid block of practice time can be great but it is sometimes more productive for students of all ages and abilities to break the time into two or three shorter sessions.  With all of this in mind, here are some general guidelines to help decide how long a student should spend practicing.

David Dzubinski, music director and piano teacher here at the NJ School of Music frequently speaks of practicing as the means of getting the music into your fingers. What he is referring to is practicing to achieve muscle memory. This means that the student plays often which then strengthens the connections between the brain and the muscles of the hands. The goal is to practice enough so that your hands will respond by doing whatever you like on the instrument. This is what is really at the heart of practice. The way violinist and educator, Mark O’Connor says this is, “Practice a piece until it is easy not just until you know it”. As you can see, both of these philosophies will automatically yield age and level/ability appropriate results. If you prefer a number oriented guideline, Mark O’Connor suggests that for children under 12 you multiply their age by 5. That number represents the time, in minutes, of recommended daily practice. Caution: this formula assumes that the older child is not a beginner!

With this information in hand, you are now in an excellent position to help your child create a practice schedule. Now, I am sure you would like your child to actually want to practice. Wanting to practice is synonymous with knowing what to practice and how to practice both of which can best be addressed by your music teacher. While we want to be sure that the lesson assignment gets the time and attention it needs, don’t forget to encourage free playing. This is time to just mess around on the instrument for fun (preferably after regular practice). Free play can be seen as a reward with the bonus of still providing good exercise, deepening not only a love of music but our abilities and curiosity about music and the playing of music.

All that’s left is why practice? The numerous long term advantages of studying music are well documented and certainly material for another post. However, most students need to be working toward a much shorter term goal. As you know, music is a performing art and there is nothing as motivating as working toward an upcoming  performance. Always encourage performance opportunities! One way to do this is to participate in your teacher’s recitals as well as the countless community performances that we make available to our students. Other opportunities arise at school or church or synagogue. You can also have your child play at family events and gatherings with friends. Performance is a priceless experience for every musician, no matter how old they are or where they are in their studies.

In summary: What? Practice! Who? Every student! When? Every Day! Where? At home! How? Ask your teacher! And of course, follow my next post. I will discuss how to deal with the frustrations that come from dealing with problem areas in your music practice. Do you have a music practice problem you would like to tell me about it? I’d be happy to address it for you.

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