Practising is a physical as well as mental activity, and we should approach it as such. Stretching helps prepare the body for movement, increases blood-flow to the muscles and brain, and makes injury or strain less likely. A series of gentle stretches involving the arms, legs, shoulders and back will lead to a more productive practice session. Chi Kung movements can also be very helpful. Stretching before practice also helps physically and mentally separate practice from whatever activity has directly preceded it. It is a chance to let go of tension or anxiety, and quiet the mind.
Creating the right environment for effective practice is crucial. A feeling of calm, quiet and space is helpful – practising in a part of the house where you face interruptions or distraction will lead to stressed, disjointed practice. Do not underestimate the difference the right environment can make to ones mental state. For a child, it may take some experimentation to find the best place for them to practise. It may be in their bedroom, where they feel comfortable and safe – or the presence of their toys and games may distract them. They may practise better in a different, uncluttered, more neutral space that can be set aside mainly for the purpose of practising.
Parents are responsible
It is a rare three year old who will spontaneously volunteer to practise every day. Indeed, it is a rare 10 year old who will do so. Parents are ultimately responsible for practice occurring – at least until the child is approaching their teenage years. If the parent sets up a reliable routine (practice occurs at the same time every day, in the same place) then practice simply becomes part of the day, rather than something negotiable. Children should be given a voice when it comes to deciding certain aspects of practice (such as what order to work on tasks, how many repetitions or what piece to warm up with). Children who are given some measure of healthy control over the activities will be less likely to try and wrest control from the parent in ways that are unhelpful. If parents approach the prospect of practising with their child as a positive enjoyable activity, that attitude will rub off on the child. If they treat it as a chore, so will the child.
In order for practice to be effective, the parent must have taken detailed notes in the lesson. It is impossible to remember everything that happened in a lesson, and the notebook or video is the only way to combat this. Parents and teachers need to work together to make sure the parent understands and develops the correct note-taking skills. Many issues that arise during practice can be addressed by reference to well-written notes.
Age-appropriate instrument warmups or tonalisations are as important as stretching. They bridge the gap between stretching and working on pieces, and for a young child, this may involve simple open string notes or Twinkle rhythm repetitions. For older students, simple review pieces, scales and exercises can be used. The focus should always be on producing a consistently beautiful sound with a relaxed posture. It is not what you play, but how you play.
Review should form a significant part of practice. Students learn new techniques and practise memorisation with their new pieces. Review is their chance to develop musicianship and nuance in their playing. Practice that only involves tackling new technical challenges is tiring and can ultimately be demotivating. Book 1 students should be reviewing most of book 1 every practice. Books 2 students should aim to review all of book 1 every week, and Book 2 every two or three days. Students and parents should agree on goals for the review so that it does not become mindless repetition. Aim for growth and development in playing.
Habitual mental and emotional states
All of us – parents, children, teachers, students – will have habitual mental and emotional states. Often, these states are negative and prone to focussing on things that have gone wrong. We must try to recognise these habits when approaching practice. For a parent, they may realise that their attitude towards their child’s practice is influenced by their own experience of learning as a child. They may harbour feelings of anxiety, ambition, annoyance and fear that are actually responses to their own history and unrelated to their child’s experience. Parents must learn to recognise and address these feelings as they relate to their own emotional life, and not to let them interfere with their child’s learning. Older students may have developed their own habitual states when it comes to practice, such as over-focus on an immediate performance goal or a lack of awareness of how other emotional issues may be affecting their practising.
Build good physical habits
Practice should not involve pain, stress or unhappiness – none of these things are productive or necessary. A parent should make sure that – for both them and their child – various physical concerns are not going to get in the way of good practice (feeling hungry/ thirsty/ needing the loo/ over-tired). Older students who are practising more independently for longer periods of time should take short breaks and never ‘play through the pain’. Musicians are athletes who spend most of their time exercising the smaller muscles and tendons. Because playing does not tend to elevate the heart-rate drastically or over-tire the whole body, it is easy to assume that one can and should keep playing for hours at a time. We do not realise the strain we are putting those small muscles under
Evaluate and aim for growth
Practice is only practice when we evaluate our playing, otherwise it’s simply ‘playing through’. Whatever we do in our practice time, we must assess it and decide what we need to do to improve/ consolidate/ re-interpret. Goals for each practice session can be helpful. When children are very young, goals such as being able to play a certain passage a set number of times in a row with no mistakes are simple and understandable. As children get older they can decide on some of their own goals for the session, such as improvements in intonation, bow control, speed or rhythm. Always remember that the main goal of practice, according to Ed Sprunger, is ‘to make things easier’.
One of the simplest ways to avoid just playing through as practice is to create ‘boxes’ around particularly difficult passages or sections that involve a new technique. In the earliest stages this may simply be the section in Song of the Wind where the 1 stays on the A string and the other fingers hop across to the D, then back to the A. A box must be practised far more than the rest of the piece, and one can have a series of different techniques to work on them. Boxes can be practised at different speeds/ plucking/ just with the bow playing open strings/ with a different rhythm depending on what is most appropriate. Young children and their parents will then become very familiar with the idea that practice involved breaking down a piece into small sections before putting it back together again. As students become more advanced, boxes will probably constitute larger sections of their pieces.
Repetition is a cornerstone of the Suzuki Method, but in order for it to be effective it must be mindful. For very young children, aiming for repetitions to achieve certain goals (all being in tune/ all having all the correct fingers/ all being significantly slower) is a way to keep them mindful. Evaluation should be continuous, and young children can be asked to switch on their ‘recording ears’ to check for any issues or errors. Students who have developed these listening and evaluation skills at a young age should have fewer problems deploying them as they get older and tackle more difficult pieces independently. Always remember that the body does not remember what it has done right, only what it has done the most.
Positivity and fun
The older a child gets, the more independent and self-motivated they should become. There comes a time when they no longer need the parent to act as primary instigator, guide, interpreter and cheerleader. Until that time, however, an important part of the parent’s role in effective practice is to create an atmosphere of positivity and fun. There are many games that can be utilised to help young children maintain focus and engage with the process of learning (such as using their stuffed toys to help count successful repetitions).
Listening plays an important role in practice – whether to the CD or other recordings. Passive and active listening are both key to effective practice. Passive listening during the day helps create the blueprint of the entire piece in a student’s mind. Active listening can be utilised as part of the practice session (and even away from the instrument, if there is some reason – such as travel or injury) why the instrument cannot be played. Active listening is helpful when working on expression and interpretation, and can provide insight into how other performers have approached a difficult or opaque passage. It can also prove helpful when dealing with technical issues – especially since there is such a proliferation of videos of great performers freely available on the internet. I once discovered a new (and more effective) fingering for a passage in a concerto after watching a video of Jacqueline du Pré playing. Recordings give students a sound to aspire to.
It is very difficult to be fully mindful when practising something fast. Slow practice is not simply about playing things slowly so you can get the right notes; it means you can pay great attention to the process of how you are playing. Playing slowly helps to cultivate good habits, and encourages students to think in detail about their playing. The temptation to move towards concert speed As Itzhak Perlman says: “If you practice something slowly, you forget it slowly. If you practice something fast, you forget it fast.”
There is no try
It is possible to try too hard when practising. Students are frustrated at making mistakes and ‘try’ harder to stop making them. This can lead to tension and a narrow focus of attention that disregards the many other things that must be looked after in order to improve. When we forget the rest of our body and only focus on, say, the movement of one finger, the workings for the whole system will suffer. Improvement is rarely linear, and sometimes we must simply have the patience to allow ourselves to develop.
Bruser, Madeline: The Art of Practicing: A Guide to Music Making from the Heart
Klickstein, Gerald: The Musician’s Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness
Sprunger, Edmund: Helping Parents Practice: Ideas for Making it Easier
Starr, William & Constance: To Learn with Love
Copyright EC Butterworth. Do not reproduce without prior permission.