Wednesday, April 09 2014 10:08

"I don't like practicing..."

By Penny Wayne-Shapiro

If I had a dollar for every time I've heard a child saying that....Wayland School of Music would be housed in a custom-built, state-of-the-art facility with Steinway pianos in every studio. :)

Joking aside, though, I know just how these reluctant practicers feel, because sometimes I don't like practicing either! And you can bet that all professional musicians have had that same feeling at one time or another.

So why do we keep doing it anyway? And how can we encourage students to do it too?

"Well," you might say, "we all have to do things that we don't like doing. It's character forming." But that argument doesn't go very far even for an adult musician, never mind when you're hoping to inspire a child to learn and love music long-term, rather than see it as drudgery to be endured!

Should we point out that there are also things that we enjoy doing sometimes but not always - such as exercising, studying, taking care of a pet? We keep doing these even when we don't feel like it because we understand the benefits, and we trust that in a day or two we'll be more into it again.

That's an improvement, but it takes maturity to keep that long-term end in mind, and most young children are not yet at that point developmentally.

In fact, this blog post was inspired by a 7 year old student who had her lesson a couple of days ago. Like many students, she's enthusiastic about lessons and has made a great start, but she's just getting to that point where the initial excitement has worn off and the long-term benefits have not yet been experienced.

What she actually said was profound: "I don't like practicing, but I like playing!"

And right there, we have the seeds of a solution. If we can keep an age-appropriate balance of work and fun along the way we'll keep students engaged, and much more willing to practice regularly.

I asked this young lady what other activities she enjoyed. She mentioned soccer so I asked, "When you go to soccer practice, what's the first thing you do?" As I expected from my own experience as a soccer mom, the reply was "Drills." Does she enjoy the drills? "Not particularly." But she agreed enthusiastically that the drills help you play better, giving you skills that make the game itself more fun.

But drills are not the only way you learn skills, and they shouldn't be too heavy. You also get better at soccer by actually playing it, and the same is true for an instrument, as long as you're doing so with reasonably good habits.

Playing an instrument really is fun....and it's more fun the better you can do it. How can we maintain that balance of drill and pleasure for our young developing musicians, so they can find that out for themselves?

1) Make sure drills don't take up too much of the practice session.

Just as in soccer, it's best to do some "building work" first - scales or other exercises before pieces, and prep work on new material or tricky passages before playing a piece through. That way you're setting things up right.

But there should be plenty of time and stamina left over for the enjoyment of actually making music: trying new pieces through, and revisiting old pieces for fun and the pleasure of mastery - "This piece used to be hard for me, but now I can play it easily!"

2) Help the student to celebrate the intrinsic rewards of the drills.

There are immediate benefits that can be enjoyed right away. For example: "Did you notice how the third time you played that part slowly, your fingers almost seemed like they were doing it by themselves because they knew what was coming? You didn't even have to think about it! How cool is that?" Realizing we've just achieved something feels good, and makes us want to repeat that experience.

3) Find ways to make even the drills fun!

Here are a just few suggestions to liven things up:

a) Roll a die to see how many times to play a tricky measure.

b) Divide your piece into short sections and number them. Using regular playing cards or Uno cards, pick a number to see which section to practice next.

c) Play the practice lottery: write each scale, exercise or piece on a small piece of paper, shake up the folded papers in a jar, then close your eyes, pick one out and do whatever it says.

d) For a variation on c), write silly instructions such as "turn around in circles while playing", "play with your eyes shut", "stand on one leg", etc., and pull one out for each repetition of an exercise.

e) Turn the drill into a competitive game of "ding the bell". Many of my students love this! Set a challenge, such as playing a scale with correct fingerings, or maintaining beautiful hand positions for a section of a piece. If the student forgets or makes an error, the adult can "ding the bell" by tapping a pencil on a glass; the student wins if s/he completes the task correctly without the adult getting a chance to ding (or only dinging, say, twice). As I tell students, "You win if you can keep me quiet." It's amazing to see how intently they focus on the task at hand for the satisfaction of beating the adult!

As young musicians grow in maturity and skill they will begin to develop their own intrinsic motivation to keep practicing for the long-term rewards. Along the way, the principles above will keep them leveraging the short-term rewards - the fun of "playing", in both senses of the word - to help them get there.

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