It's that time of year. The summer is winding down to a hot blah, the crisper mornings inspire us to take on something new, the young and not-so-young are donning backpacks and taking new classes. So why not take a dance class, do Goat Yoga (Google it), or learn to play an instrument, right? "If I take piano, do I have to practice?" Yes. The answer is and will always be yes. But my practice rules may surprise you!
Why should I practice?
...Because you won't improve if you don't.
Do I have to?
How long do I have to practice each day?
Here's the surprise! Not as long as you think!
The information provided below is not written to advise an audience of music majors, but rather, to the parents who have signed up their little angels for piano lessons and wonder what "practice" means, read on...
The practice time assumption is - you know this already - 30 minutes a day for children, and longer than that with increased attention span and maturity. Practice makes ______? "Perfect," right? Not always. My practice session will always result in a beautiful success, right? Not necessarily.
The truth is practice will make you better. But instant gratification it will not always supply. Those who commit to practice will reap its brain-training benefits in the long term, and will be pleased by steady improvement rather than instant wow. Thirty minutes a day may not be necessary. It may take 7 minutes, or 10, or 15 daily. When it comes to practice time, quality is better than quantity. Parents come to me apologizing because Johnny only practiced 10 minutes on Monday but he really put in a killer hour session on Friday. What I recommend for Johnny is daily practice, no matter the length. Ten minutes of conscientious practice every day will result in noticeably better playing than two 30-minute sessions in one week.
Ask your young beginner to play an assigned piece a certain number of times per day. Say, "Elizabeth, will you please play your piano piece for me 3 times? I'll hold up three fingers and take one away each time you play it." When Elizabeth is done playing it (even with mistakes) three times, she can walk away. Done. Lather, rinse, repeat tomorrow. By next week's lesson time, Elizabeth will be a pro and will "pass" her piece with a brightly colored sticker, a happy dance from me, and all kinds of confidence building in her sweet soul. High five to you for staying chill about it, Mom and Dad. Just keep using those magic three fingers, or three popsicle sticks in a jar, or three gold stars on a chart, or three whatevers.
Ask your older beginner to choose a time of day when practicing isn't too tiring and work on the piano assignment for about 10-20 minutes. Maybe Jack can set a timer for himself while he plays if necessary. I would be willing to bet, however, that if a parent suggests practicing for 10 minutes, Jack will end up playing for more like 25 minutes. Remind Jack that a ten-minute session may not result in a perfect piece when the timer dings. Instead, the brain is learning every second of those 17 or 18 or 12 minutes, prepping Jack for tomorrow's practice, which will be, surprisingly (even to Jack) better! Ask Jack to trust his brain more than his fingers; to put in the 10-20 minutes of brain work, and at next week's lesson, that brain work will flow out to his fingers. It will!
What do I do when my child or teen doesn't want to practice?
Stay calm. Ask the student to be honest with me, her teacher, to communicate why she's avoiding practicing. A concept may be difficult for Johnny, or perhaps there was a gap in Jessica's learning the previous week. Maybe she's tired! Maybe the brain is developing as your child grows and the concept is simply not doable yet. Or maybe there's something else. As a teacher, I have been the recipient of an outpouring of young hearts and minds filled with reasons why children/teens are struggling during a certain day/week/month that have nothing to do with ebony and ivory. I've helped children dissect complicated concepts due to their undiagnosed autism. I've offered Kleenex to the brokenhearted tween whose boyfriend just broke up with her. I've even received confessions of eating disorders and - take a deep breath, parents - listened to the teenage angst that threatened of suicide.
If I end up serving as an inexpensive counselor one week instead of piano teacher, it's okay. When your child doesn't want to practice, try not to be reactive. Most likely, he or she will return to the keys refreshed in a short while.