I've been a piano teacher for 25 years. I'm all about finding ways to make my students' lives easier, and their lessons more rewarding. And good music-practice habits are the key to great results from your lessons.
I myself was once a student with awful practice habits. :-) I've seen the Good, the Bad and the Ugly when it comes to practicing piano. Some techniques work, some don't, some are actually harmful.
This is the first in a ten-part series of posts about good piano practicing -- about what works. The information I'm sharing here will definitely up your game, and not just as a musician. We'll talk more about that last point in the final post in this series. Let's get to it!
First off, here's the full list:
1. Schedule Your Practice Time.
2. FIRST Master Your Rhythms.
3. NEXT Master Hands Separately.
4. FINALLY Combine in Short, Logical Chunks.
5. Learn Articulations and Dynamics WITH the Notes.
6. Set Realistic Goals.
7. Music is Art... So Be Artistic!
8. Music is Fun... So Have Fun!
9. Use a Kitchen Timer, Not a Clock.
Today, we're taking a look at number 1:
Schedule Your Practice Time
OK, this is one of those techniques that nobody implements, but IF THEY DID it would almost instantly transform the results they get from their music lessons.
Part of the reason music practice doesn't happen is that nobody likes to practice. Let's just say it. It's generally true. Especially kids. If they can find a way to "forget," they will. It's just human.
Another factor is: music practice takes place at home. It's easy for home-based schedules to unravel -- it's happened to all of us. One of the common excuses I get from students about why they didn't practice is, "I didn't have time." I get this from six-year-olds! When you dig deeper, you discover it's not that they 'didn't have time', of course; that's something they've heard their parents say, or their teachers at school. What's really going on is that the home-schedule is a constantly moving kaleidoscope, and piano practice is just always the thing that falls through the cracks.
Now, homework will definitely get done, because there are tangible consequences if it doesn't. Only one consequence generally exists with regard to failing to practicing your instrument.
We all know what happens: you (or your child) go to your lesson and your teacher instantly knows you didn't practice. But what can they do about it? Get mad? That accomplishes nothing. Have another talk with mom and dad? Yup, but you can only do that so many times. Sooner or later (depending what tradition they're from), they'll drop you. No detention, no "academic probation." It's kind of an all-or-nothing thing. The teacher deals with it, or they drop you. Not because they're mean, but because they don't have any alternatives.
This isn't about the teacher. It's about YOU getting a return on YOUR investment, of time, money, and sweat.
Remember that, as the mom or dad, you have the ability to BUILD VALUE for anything in your child's life. If it's important to you, it becomes important to them -- whether they like it or not.
Be careful that you're not the one who is constantly bumping piano practice in favor of other activities. Little Johnny notices! If he sees you constantly assigning more value to swim practice than playing his instrument, he'll definitely make that connection. If you have piano practice scheduled at 430 p.m. on Thursdays, and Johnny's best friend's mom calls to offer a really good playdate at that time, you'll send Johnny a very strong signal if you accept the invitation. Better to politely decline, explaining why, and make sure Johnny knows it happened! Value building at its best!
You're spending a lot on music lessons. Don't devalue your investment by telegraphing that it's "just enrichment" and therefore easily skipped. It's just flushing money. And it teaches bad habits.
How to Do It
The single best thing you can do RIGHT NOW to see to it that the practicing actually happens is to put it on the calendar. Put it in black-and-white right next to soccer practice and visits to the dentist.
One very effective technique is to tie the music practice to something else that will definitely happen. For instance: if your child is supposed to practice for 15 minutes a day, make their practice time be the last 15 minutes before dinner. Or before brushing the teeth. Or before their favorite TV show. Which can be withheld as a consequence for not practicing. ;-) Generally, it's better to place the practice before the activity your attaching it to. If you schedule practice for afterwards, there's a strong chance it'll get bumped for something else.
Here's the thing: everything else in their life is scheduled. What time they go to school. Lunch time. Homework time. Soccer Practice. Softball tournaments. Dance lessons. Music lessons. Everything.
So why wouldn't you schedule piano-practice-time the same way?