Monday, March 15, 2010

Don't Tie Me Down to a Time: How kids should NOT practice

By Mark T. Burke

"My son practices daily Mr. Burke, trust me. Every night before dinner, he gets his instrument out, goes into his bedroom and puts in at least 30 minutes.  If he forgets, I remind him to practice. He's dedicated and wants to learn."

"Yeah, but he can't play!" (my usual reaction). 

I've lived this scenario, oh, at least 1000 times in my life.  See, it's clear that during these conversations, the art of practicing has been boiled down to time.  In this case, the parent knows what time their son practices, and for how long and most disturbing, when it's a good time for him to practice. With all bases covered, the kid should be a child protege :-) 

Now I know some will criticize my comments saying, "kids need structure."  I think structure is a good thing.  Providing them with a point by point "to do" list however, is not.  If kids are expected to truly love music, we have to provide a structure that makes sense and teaches them to make choices.

I try to instill in students the value of understanding the following aspects of a solid practice routine.

  1. When:  Having a set time each day is not the greatest way to practice.  If something interferes, practicing may get pushed off the schedule due to inflexibility. Also, I don't know about all adults, but sometimes, I am in the mood to practice more than other times.  If I had a set time, goodness - I would hate that. Students should recognize their attention span and physical abilities change throughout the day.  Making music should be something we can do at various levels of attention and energy, something impossible to do if we always practice at the same time each day.  In the example above, if I had to practice each day before dinner, I would be thinking more about how hungry I was than on practicing.  
  2. Duration:  We live in a society where the amount of time we spend doing something is more important than our accomplishments.  As professionals, we should be instilling accomplishment rather than dictating "practicing each day for 30 minutes is a must for a student your age."  What is accomplishment?  When a student can play the assignment, right?  Figuring out how long to practice is more about mapping out a weekly plan to reach the goal, not a simple task of setting an arbitrary elapsed time on all practice sessions.  
  3. Ease:  Every student past the beginning year should have an instrument stand.  Their instrument should always be available for them to pick up and play, when the spirit so moves them.  I know that's how I am. If my instruments were tucked away in a closet or under my bed, I would find it much too hard to start a practice session.  Kids should have easy access to their instrument at any time of the day and from various locations in the house. With an instrument stand, students can take their instrument into various rooms and locations to play.  Now I'm not saying kids should be practicing in the middle of the kitchen while family members are working on other projects, let's be sensible.  I do believe kids need to feel comfortable just picking up their instrument and making music.  If that bothers other family members, then life around the house has to change.
Kids make choices all the time.  Yet, we seem to want to tell them way too much about how to become engaged musicians.  I say it's time to give them the tools for success and stop focusing on the things that have little impact on their long term growth.  Don't tie them down to a time or a duration and make it easy for them to just pick up their instrument and create great music. 

What do you think?      

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