What material should my child cover in practice? What should they do while they practice? This article will tell you all the musical bases your child needs to cover in practice for sustained musical success. By the end of this article, you’ll know the seven primary categories of practice material and why each one is important.
Your child’s practice sessions should consist of a minimum of review material, warm-up material, and new material. If your child is more advanced, they may need to cover sight-reading, ensemble music, and Music Theory.
What is A Complete Practice Session?
You can use Four vital elements in every practice session and, potentially, many additional components.
For my new students, a complete practice session includes Review, New Material, and Listening. As my students advance, they dedicate additional practice time to technical exercises, music theory, ensemble music, and sight-reading.
Reviewing pieces is the second-most underappreciated and influential element of a complete practice session. Every student wants to learn new music as soon as possible, and every parent wants to see their child progress. This desire is understandable; new pieces are fun, exciting, and often show new abilities and skills. However, this has one fatal flaw.
If your child were only to play new pieces (and forget old ones), all the time they spent on the instrument would involve struggle and great effort. This struggle leads to frustration, tension, and discomfort with the instrument.
Accordingly, it is crucial for your child’s confidence that they continue to play their older pieces. This review allows them the opportunity to spend time on the instrument playing songs they are familiar with, comfortable with, and play at a high level. As they do this, their comfort on the instrument grows, and playing at a high level becomes the norm. As a bonus, they’ll develop a repertoire of pieces that they can play for friends and family at any time (rather than sayings, “well, I’m working on this piece, but it isn’t good enough to show you yet”).
Additionally, playing review pieces will help keep their musical muscles (both finger-muscles and mind-muscles!) in good shape while they work on new material. They’ll develop fluency with older pieces; it is through a constant review process that children (and adults) become musicians who “make it look so easy.”
Don’t overlook this incredibly important practice component!
Sitting down, playing through new material, and putting away the instrument is most children’s idea of a complete practice session. However, it’s important to note that this is just one component of a well-rounded practice session and one that can have many pitfalls.
When working with new material, be sure to use your child’s time wisely (more on that below). Don’t mindlessly have them play through the entire song or passage. Chunk it! Find a single spot that is problematic and solve the problem using your teacher’s guidance on improving the segment. Once the problem is understood, it can be corrected and repeated to secure it. Then, try playing the segment as part of a larger chunk of music to see if the problem creeps back in.
Figure out why and continue the process of improving and adding length until your child can play the entire piece.
Some days, working on improving a small section could take all day. Other times, you may move quickly through it. Remember that it is more important to solve problems and integrate solutions than get in an arbitrary number of repetitions or minutes.
Listening is, far-and-away, the most underappreciated part of a daily practice routine. It’s not even a contest. Listening is the easiest and most powerful way you can get your child to progress rapidly through musical material. It’s also the easiest to skip because it’s passive.
Music is a language, and so I’ll use language to illustrate why listening is so critical. This story is a humorous anecdote from my childhood and illustrates the difficulty of learning a language by reading.
On a school field trip, my two best friends and I walked into a Kentucky Fried Chicken. Walking along with us was my friend’s twin sister (whom I had a crush on). As we walked through the entryway, they had a picture of the founder of KFC, Colonel Sanders. I was an avid reader, so I naturally said to my friends, “Hey, look, it’s Call-Oh-Knell Sanders.” My friend looked at me and said, “It’s KERNAL Sanders, you idiot!”. I hung my head in shame.
When our children learn a piece of music without first knowing how it sounds, they learn two things by trial and error simultaneously; how it sounds and how to make that sound. Simultaneously learning two interdependent things by trial and error is very difficult. It is hard to tell whether the error is due to one factor (finger in the wrong place) or another (trying to make the wrong sound/not knowing the right note).
We can eliminate this confusion and dramatically speed up our child’s progress by merely playing recordings of their upcoming material. This
listening is essential for note-readers (traditional music lessons) and ear-learners (Suzuki and similar systems).
By focusing on listening, they’ll naturally absorb which notes follow one another and the performance’s musicality and beauty. By listening, you can give your child a leg-up on every single aspect of learning music. Now, all they’ll need to focus on is which fingers go where.
The best part about this element of the practice session is that you can do it anywhere, anytime, while doing other things. You can play music in the car while your child is playing or doing chores. It does not need to be loud; you can play it as background music. Your child will absorb it all without effort.
Technical exercises provide the backbone of skills that musicians need to approach new material with confidence in their capabilities. Scales and arpeggios are common exercises for all instruments; your instrument or teacher may have some unique workouts that they use.
Scales and arpeggios create a firm foundation for your child in two ways. First, they help them keep their muscles in shape. Additionally, these exercises familiarize your child with the most common arrangements of notes. By being comfortable with these exercises, your child will learn new music more rapidly due to the familiarity with the layout of notes on their instrument.
The most rudimentary element of music theory is one every student must approach eventually; reading music. Once your student is comfortable reading notes, it’s essential to continue advancing your child’s theoretical knowledge. Doing so will allow them to understand the music’s structure and layout on an intellectual level, which will speed up learning, deepen understanding, and aid memorization. This additional knowledge will provide them with the experience necessary to make informed interpretive decisions in the music they play.
Once your child is familiar with their instrument (via technical exercises) and note reading, they should begin sight-reading a little bit each day. This skill will allow them to learn pieces much faster because they’ll play through the more manageable parts of the song after only a few attempts. Your child will then be able to focus the bulk of their practice time on perfecting the piece’s difficult parts rather than spending time memorizing the simple details.
Even more impressive, though, is that they’ll be able to play pieces that they’ve never looked at or heard at a reasonably high level on their first attempt. Once they can do that, the doors open up to all sorts of possibilities.
Ensemble music is where the fun really happens. Playing with other people is an incredibly social, collaborative, and rewarding process. It provides the perfect balance to the alone-time that practice gives us. And it can be a low-pressure way to perform on-stage with other students.
Ensemble music, by its very definition, has multiple musicians playing. In this setting, the individual often spends much time playing more straightforward music that one would find in solo material (the music remains interesting because either someone in the ensemble has something exciting or the total of the ensemble’s parts is impressive). Because of this, music like this can often be semi-sight read. There may be only a few problematic parts that your child needs to practice, while much of their ensemble part they can get away with only practicing a few times a week.
Now that you know what your child should be practicing try implementing it using some of the games I talk about in this article. As always, please comment below with any questions or ideas about your practice sessions!
By the end of this article, you’ll have a clearer idea about how to structure your child’s practice session for success.