Seven things I'm learning on how to help your grade schooler have a happy and productive intstrument practice
1. At this stage it's all about posture and muscle memory.
I knew somewhat from potty training how difficult it is to teach body awareness and muscle control to a child. Playing a stringed instrument involves learning to use and coordinate many different muscle groups that most of us never think about. My main job as a parent in helping my girls practice is to be an outside set of eyes and help them be aware of what they need to learn to be aware of. To help them build muscle memory.
2. Be endlessly encouraging.
You're doing a great job. I can see you're really working on that. That sounded a lot better this time. Your teacher's going to be really impressed at your next lesson. You're putting in good practice. I'm glad you let me help you. That's really going to help you.
3. But don't let anything by. At all.
Two or three days of a bad habit can take weeks to fix. Or months. Years? Perhaps--but we haven't gotten that far yet. :) Also, if they learn to take correction and improvement as part and parcel of practice then it's not something unusal or something to get upset at. If I can offer correction in a routine, attentive, even bored manner, then they are much better about taking it as what it is--something to HELP them, a positive thing--rather than taking it as negative criticism.
4. Train the ear.
I was a piano player--hit the right key, and you get the right note. Unless the piano is out of tune, and there's nothing you can do about that. It took me a long, long time to begin to listen critically to my own playing. But string players have to learn to listen critically to themselves from the get-go. They need to hear how the notes relate to each other, not just see it on the page. Am I in tune? How's my tone? They only get 4 notes as gimmes . . . not all 88l.
5. Let them enjoy the music
There's always something to work on. If they want to spend an entire practice playing nothing but "Jesus Loves Me," we can do that. And do it a little straighter, a little more musically each time. In retrospect, one of the things I most regret about my own music lessons was how little I was engaged with so much of the music that I was playing. Why couldn't we have skipped many of those exercises that I didn't find interesting? And those ones that I absolutely loved? What if, instead of being told "Oh, that's too easy for you now, that doesn't count," or "That's not part of your lesson," I'd heard, "Oh, you really love that tune? Let's see what else we can do with that."
6. Keep your temper--and theirs
Getting angry isn't going to fix the problem. Getting frustrated isn't going to help them "get it." Making their practice time a time when they get yelled at isn't going to make them want to practice. In addition, their own frustration and convincing of themselves that they'll "never get this!" doesn't help practice. "Give yourself some grace. Give yourself some time." See #2. Remember . . . if it was easy, we wouldn't have to practice it. Helping my girls learn to work hard at something that isn't easy, that isn't natural, that takes discipline is one of the main reasons that we're doing this. After all, discipline and disciple have the same root. It's about training them in the tools that they will need to tackle all sorts of difficult, frustrating things over the course of their lives. It's about learning to disciple my children.
7. Remember that there's no deadline
We can just keep working at it. There's no getting ahead. There's no falling behind. We're not on a schedule here, and I don't need push my kids or make them push themselves. This is just an introduction and a tool for (hopefully) a lifetime's enjoyment of and participation in music.
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