It’s no secret to those that know me – I love teaching music. Sharing all of the knowledge and passion I have learned over my formative years to the next generations, and also to adult learners is my true calling in life. I feel so fortunate to be surrounded by music on a daily basis: my music studio is full of inspiring educators, children, youth and adults sharing in the music making process. It’s truly a joyful, magical place.
But with making music comes music practice. And that word – practice – has such a heavy load with it. Right now my middle child, who is 8 years old, is going through the heavy load. The minute I ask him to practice, I see a big sigh, shoulder sagging, and his face turns down.
The hardest part about watching that reaction is that he’s truly talented. Currently he takes guitar and drum lessons at the studio with fantastic teachers. He has exceptional beat and rhythm, a great ear, and he is a pleasure to teach as he takes constructive feedback and works on it. So why dread the practice time?
I remember this with our oldest. He is now 11 and will play piano on a daily basis without being asked, with ease. He now can pick out songs by ear and wants to do that. When did the shift come from loathing practice to having it as natural as eating breakfast?
I want to move you to the hockey rink for a moment – our second home from October to March ? This year has of course been a different experience for hockey. For most of the season, parents have not been allowed into the rink. Recently we have entered back in, and I have had an eye-opening awareness. As I sit more than 6 feet away from other parents with my mask on, I look around. I see parents smiling and I see kids looking up and waving. My 5 year-old told me she was so happy I could watch her again. My 8 year-old has definitely been more eager to go to his practices since parents have been back in. Team managers and volunteers have gone above and beyond and created private groups so that if we cannot go to the rinks (there are limits on # of spectators) we can still watch games via livestream.
It led me to look at my son’s hockey practice versus his guitar practice. The obvious difference is a group activity compared to something much more individual. When you are practicing by yourself, you don’t have your team to lift you up and challenge you. But then I took a hard and honest look at how music practice is set up in most homes. “Go do your music practice” is a typical statement that students are told. But what if the student needs someone to watch; to listen?
A couple of weeks ago I shared this with my husband and we made a change. We asked Breton if we could watch him do his music practice. I asked him to gather his things and bring everything to the kitchen table while I worked on supper. I am telling you, the instant change in attitude was amazing. He would play a bit, and I would comment. We would look up his next requirement and he would play again. There was no stress, no struggle, and in no time it was completed for the day – success!
The next day, falling into regular habits, I told him to get his music practice done. Right away he said, “I liked it when you watched me yesterday”. Boom. The honesty was right there and made perfect sense. He needed a little bit of attention to help him navigate the learning curve. Someone to listen and watch and support – just like at the rink.
Learning to read, write and perform music is learning a whole other language. It is hard work and requires extensive brain strength, physical dexterity, and attention span. It taps all the learning domains of the brain and every little step of achievement should be celebrated. It is a process, and there are many highs and lows.
We see at the studio all the time when a student first starts and it’s so exciting and then this time comes along, where suddenly the process of music making is difficult, and they need someone to cheer them through. It’s too hard for them to see the bigger picture – the joy that will come from learning an instrument as part of your lifelong journey. It’s part of why we do our Musical Olympics competition every year. We are constantly trying to find ways to support our students through the practicing process and make it fun.
So I will share these few tips with you that I like to share with many parents that come to the studio. There are definitely ways to set up a wonderful musical experience at your home and here’s my top five suggestions:
- Make your practice space warm and fun, and make sure it is where the main living area exists – near the kitchen, dining room, living room. A child’s bedroom is not an ideal practice space. Proper chair/bench, lighting and space are key.
- Get any instruments, teacher notes, music, etc out as soon as you get home from your lesson. It seems that the unpacking at the start of a practice session can be very frustrating for some. There are stands you can buy to have instruments out all the time – fiddle stands, guitar stands or even wall mounts. Look into it!
- Take 10 minutes to sit and “Listen to the Music” – Doobie Brothers anyone? In all seriousness, give your child that attention – pour yourself a cup of tea and just sit. No phone/media unless you are taking a video of them. Appreciate that they are learning a language – the same way you would be in awe when they were first learning to read. The same you feel when you watch them skate around the rink, or learn to ride a bike. It does make a difference.
- Make a practice schedule – 5 days a week for 10 (beginner) to 30 minutes is ideal. Of course students working on a more rigorous schedule of exams or festivals will set up their practice schedule with their teacher. Connect a reward to it – remember – there is no team to enjoy this learning with – only you. So find a way that does not break the bank to reward them. You know them best –one family shared with me that they placed a bubble gum machine on top of the piano because their daughter loves gumballs more than anything!
- HOT TIP: Morning is BEST. Our brains are best first thing. If there is any free time in the morning at your home after breakfast but before the bus, that should be practice time. It’s incredible how much stronger those neural connections are, and for those of you that work out first thing in the morning – you know exactly what I am talking about. If that time of day does not work – have them play for you while family dinner is being prepared. You get musical entertainment – they get their practice done 😉
We all hit plateaus in our learning. That is a natural part of life’s cycle. It’s what we choose to do with that plateau that defines us.
I challenge all parents to take the time – make the time – and set your child up for success. Listen to the music. Appreciate the high level of purpose and work that goes into music practice and celebrate it.
One thing this pandemic has shown us over and over again is that people turn to music to find solace, to regulate, to feel good, to grieve, to sleep, to celebrate. We were all born with a heartbeat and that’s our natural rhythm. Music is a part of us. Let’s help our children find a way through the tough practice and the path to enjoyment.