Practice Strategies

Practice makes progress! It is essential to practice between lessons. You won't get a 6-pack by going to the gym once a week and you won't learn the violin by just coming to lessons. The best way to create a positive practicing environment is to make it fun. If practicing strategies are instilled at a very young age (5-7) the child may be hands free after a few years, so a little bit of extra effort from parents at this tender age will go a long way.

  1. Progress Mapping. Since learning an instrument is a slow process, setting up your practice to highlight its cumulative nature is a great way to make it successful. I recommend using a practice jar to collect small items (corn kernels, dried beans, pennies) or practice candle (perfect for the budding pyro in every child), you may even allow them to light it under your supervision. I recommend getting a small candle so it melts down in a reasonable amount of time. With the practice jar your child can earn a kernel for every so many minutes of practice or per task (preferable). Establish a reward before you start to fill the jar–maybe you could even write it on the jar. I recommend experiential rewards over physical ones because there isn't a price tag on it. Instead of a prize, consider a day at the beach, getting ice cream, or a sleepover.

  2. Turn it into a game. Here the ideas are endless and you can still use progress mapping strategies. One idea is to draw a picture. Every time your child completes a task another part of the picture is revealed. Another fun twist could be if they can guess what the picture is you can move on to another task. Have many games in your back pocket in case the games start to get boring. I've used barrels of monkeys (you can hang them from the music stand), counting coins/dominos, scoring points against a favorite toy, spinners. Also think about what your child likes, maybe even discuss it with your teacher, and then create games around that.
  3. What time of day? Highly effective practicers put practicing on a weekly schedule, that way your kids will know when it's time to practice and they'll be prepared. Time of day may also play a factor. Often times student are too tired at night, so be sure to schedule practice in the morning before schoolor before dinner.
  4. Establish Regular Repetitions. I ask my students to practice everything 5 times. This way they know how many times they have to repeat something and know when it will end. Knowing when it will be over takes a lot of stress away from the tedium of doing repetitions. You can also use diceor cardsto determine the number of repetitions, which makes it more fun!

Practicing With a Metronome

  1. Become the metronome. Stomp your feet to the beat while playing. This might be hard at first, so try it with a review piece. The beauty of this exercise is that it tends to slow students down who love to play fast.
  2. Set the metronome to the time signature to accent the down beat. Sometimes during practice you're not sure if the right rhythm is happening. Setting a down beat really helps to put a tough measure in perspective–if you start hearing the downbeat at the wrong part of the following measures, go back and see what you may have done wrong.
  3. Subdivide hard passages, slowly. If there are tough rhythms (dotted, ties, ), it is essential to subdivide when counting to ensure you're playing correctly. Think 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & for eighth notes and 1 e & a etc. for 16th notes. Sometimes it helps for triplets (tri•pe•let) or quintuplets (da•vid•le•tter•man) to use a word (or something funny). You can also find great metronomes that have subdividing capabilities in them. I use ProMetronome on my iPhone.
  4. Play in Rhythms. If you have a passage of sixteenth notes you can play them as dotted rhythms to help practice each note at a faster speed. This isone of the best strategies for active learning. 
  5. Start at a slow tempo and gradually speed up. Seems elementary, but I assure you the average student would rather blast through a piece than take the luxury of working out difficult passages. Play through the whole piece at a steady tempo, listening for errors. Then gradually speed up by 4-8 clicks until you get to the desired tempo–beware that for faster pieces this may take weeks.
  6. Clap it out! Sometimes the instrument gets in the way. Put on the metronome, set the downbeat and appropriate subdivisions, and then clap the rhythm out before returning to your instrument.

Useful Articles: