"I Gotta Tell Ya...My Kid Never Practices"
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 15, 2013
Over the course of my career, I probably have not been any better than any of my colleagues at getting kids to practice. One speed bump that I put in front of myself in that challenge is the fact that I can't quite bring myself to get into a war over it with anyone: not my students, not my son, nobody.
I often quip with my students that practice, broccoli, and naps are three things that I used to avoid when I was a kid that I now crave.
In truth, I think I have always loved practicing the tuba. I have always enjoyed working on technique, musicality, literature, and everything about getting better. I think I was driven a bit by the comparison with other tuba players around, and by my aspirations to make music my livelihood.
I also love playing soccer. I enjoy going to the gym. I enjoy preparing and eating a healthy home-cooked meal. I like having a tidy place to live, and a clean car. I love updating this blog! I don't even mind doing the tasks required to have all those things in my life.
It's just that not all of them are not part of my routine. I have a hard time making those tasks a regular part of my day, or week, or month, etc.
They should be, and probably can be. I am learning very slowly that in order for me to do what I should do, in almost any facet of my life, I need to make it a routine. It has been a great Fall for improving a few aspects of that, and has encouraged me to further explore this with other aspects.
Without routine, kids practice "when they get a chance", and for many kids, that is never. My friend Amy teaches over sixty students in a week, and when practice becomes an issue, she makes them take out a schedule grid and program exactly when they will practice. Maybe they follow it without fail, but at the very least, they hold themselves accountable there being a routine, and if they do not follow it to the letter, they at least adjust to it. It's the same reason I always make a dentist appointment on the way out from the last. There is almost no chance that I will keep that very appointment, but I will reschedule it, as opposed to thinking every time I see a toothpaste ad or drive by a dental office that I need to get around to it. I have a routine with that. My practice routine these days is to take some of the planning time leading up to a class to play, and maybe even get caught at the end of it doing so by my entering students.
In general, kids enjoy playing their instruments, and they will enjoy practice. We just have to work toward finding a way to get the horn out of the case and the backside into a chair with the stand in front of them, and spend twenty or thirty minutes getting better and falling further in love with it.
Of course it is important that they use this time to prepare and improve, but especially when they are young and new at the instrument, it is equally important that they have some gratifying and enjoyable time with it, playing what they like. Often that's just a matter of letting it happen without adult interference, other than "Hey, go spend a little time playing your sax. I'll call you for dinner. Super Mario can wait."
Get that up and rolling. I would wager that their wanting to be prepared for band and/or lessons will help guide them into better using that time, once it's routine. In the meantime, getting the instrument out regularly will likely make them better if even by accident. Neither of you want a battle over it.
To that end, this was a communication with motivation and tips for parents and students regarding practice:
PRACTICE TEACHES YOUR MUSCLES
Most students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology could probably provide, in a very short amount of time, a very accurate and detail diagram with mathematical calculations exactly how much force and angle was necessary to put a 12" basketball through a metal hoop 24" in diameter who's plane is 120" above the floor by a human being whose feet are behind a line fifteen feet from the area directly below the hoop. However, any of us who follow college sports at all know that all of this knowledge has not put MIT into March Madness at any point in our lives. It's about getting out there and shooting foul shots, hundreds of them. That knowledge has to be followed up with practice. Your brain needs to know what to do, and your muscles need to how to do it. (In all fairness, MIT has a history of a decent NCAA Division 3 program. I guess they can find at least five men and women who are willing to put in the time to let their muscles catch up with their brains.)
PRACTICE IS HOMEWORK
It is not easy to work practice time into a busy routine of homework and other after school activities. For most of us, it takes a pretty strict routine to make sure it happens. Try dedicating fifteen minutes while dinner is being prepared, or before the evening shower, or something that happens pretty much everyday, but what might be most helpful is to include practice in what is considered 'homework'. It gives me a little touch of heartburn to hear kids say "I couldn't practice this week because of homework". What other homework didn't they do because of homework? I fully understand that band is different than any other class or activity, but a significant investment of time, money, and energy is being put into this activity, and where practice is so essential to its success, it is important to include in the routine, like other homework.
MANY SHORT SESSIONS IS BETTER THAN FEW LONG ONES
One of the challenges of practice is getting everything out and ready, and then cleaning and putting everything away. It stands to reason that if you just do it all in one 60 minute blast on Saturday, it saves that hassle. Unfortunately, the musician, from developing to virtuoso, needs to limit the duration of time away from the instruments as much as increasing the time spent with it. The muscles and the brain need to keep things fresh, and I assure you that you will see a difference if you can get to the instruments four to five times a week for a modest time instead of the long cram sessions.
PRACTICE CAN, AND SHOULD, BE ENJOYABLE
When one practices by his- or herself, there is no model, or support. The truth is out there, and it can be frustrating when it doesn't sound quite like it's supposed to, or even the way it did last time. As a teacher, I absolutely can tell the difference between someone for whom practice didn't go the way he or she wanted, and someone for whom practice didn't happen enough or at all. It is OK to fail, and from that we learn. Come to band or your lessons with lots of pencil marks and lots of questions. Those are allowed and encouraged. Enjoy the learning process! It is also so important to play something you love, and with which you are successful. Playing an instrument is work, but fun work. See to that. Have fun, and be patient with yourself!