6 FABLES OF PRACTICE
By Kevin Taylor
As many of you parents know, the issue of home practice is a thorny one. Taming the music monster is not easy in this day and age of recreational screen time, social media and the distractions of the 21st century. Since I’ve been at this 35 years, I can truthfully say that although the challenges to children’s learning were present in the 20th century the distractions were out on the playing field during the 1980’s and 90’s not carried around in the pockets of the kids at home. This is a very real and very new challenge.
Even recognizing the problematic process that often accompanies home practice, I’ve never had a parent come up to me and say, “I wish my parents hadn’t let me quit basketball when I was a kid.” Not so with music. As one who has taken my musical skill into adulthood, I am thankful that I continue to play – even though I don’t like to practice too much, either.
There are many notions about practice that those who have never pursued a musical instrument seem to get wrong. Even those who HAVE pursued it often have inappropriate expectations of what it takes to learn a musical instrument. Those who had a childhood of practice beginning at age 9 or 10 really have no idea what it is like for a 5 or 6 year old to begin learning in a practiced way.
I would like to address what I believe are some of the fables of practice (I do not elevate these notions to “myth” because myth often is a vehicle for truth.)
Practice is inherently interesting and enjoyable.
Practicing is usually not interesting and enjoyable by itself. If it were, this newsletter would not be needed and children wouldn’t lose interest. It frequently is “boring.” It can only be enjoyable if there are interesting and enjoyable connections to the child. In fact, there MUST be meaningful connections to the child’s life. And those connections must be relevant and appropriate to the child’s age. The young child may not want to play for the enjoyment of playing, but rather if practice becomes a tool for something else – catching the full attention of a desired parent, for example. Then the activity has meaning. That is perfectly fine. The imposition of adult motives on a child is a surefire herbicide for the child’s growth of their own motivation. Young kids below the age of 9 accept the need to practice if there is something going on that accompanies it; if it gives them strokes or is game-like. At those young ages kids are still years away from the pure love of music and art. They are just beginning the process of bringing pleasure to themselves through the activity, but not from the activity. The accompanying of extra-musical interests to stimulate the activity of playing is an important and necessary step in development.
Practice Makes perfect.
We’ve all heard this. The belief that the more you practice the better you get is frequently not true. One must know how to play perfectly before that occurs.
Only perfect practice makes perfect. Besides bodily functions, children do only one thing perfectly at first. The fine-motor control that is necessary to develop skill on a musical instrument is never perfect the first time – just as the first words the child spoke were not perfect and the first steps weren’t perfect. Children play like children with their hands and bodies. However, even infants do something perfectly that adults do – and that is focus attention (and some suggest it is actually better than adults.) Advances in the knowledge of learning that have come with brain imagery and research in the last 20 years clearly demonstrates that the critical ingredient for good learning is not time, but focused attention. In fact, there is a suspicion that repetitive, mindless drills can actually cause neurological impairment among musicians.
So what is important is not the “hour a day” but the whatever-is-making-the-child-pay-attention. There is not much we parents can do with a student who is distracted, but there is nothing a student can’t do if he or she is focused!
Games can create focus, a responsive adult can create focus, a parent just paying undivided attention to the student will create undivided attention in the student. Notice how many moments of focus the child exhibits during the lesson with the teacher. That is often perfect practice. A few attentive moments are priceless and rarely remembered by children.
Practice must be formal and routine.
Certainly routine helps but consistency is more important than routine. If routine is the only way to get the student to begin playing, then routine it must be. But routine practice doesn’t guarantee focused attention and may even inhibit it. I have often seen routine practicers make little progress. Quality practice can be hit and miss, at different times of day or night, long stretches or short spurts and still be effective as learning. It is likely that if your child initiates playing it is within this sort of framework. That can be very productive. If it is routine, it is likely the parent is initiating it. In the long run the student cannot rely on a parent to initiate the practice. No parent wants that. No student will want that. The important ingredient for a positive practice session is the setting of goals and the satisfaction of accomplishment. Parents can help the student format future practices by always asking about the goal of the practice: play a passage with correct fingers, memorize a passage, play a tune with declining number of faults, improve the tone, sit correctly throughout the practice, etc. If the parents set goals initially, as the child matures it is appropriate for the parent to ask the student what is the goal for the practice (or the week). Eventually that will become part of the practice and eventually the student will be asking those questions of himself. Goals focus attention and make practice effective.
Physical skill is developed only with physical practice.
The connection between the mind and the body is wonderfully interactive and mysterious. Physical practice develops meaningful skill and ability only if it is combined with the correct thinking. We know from mind-body studies that go back almost 100 years, that it is possible to improve physical performance by imagining that performance. The brain is the most powerful organ in our body. It is important that a student have a mental image of what they are trying to accomplish during practice. In the case of music the image is sonorous. The stronger the mental image, the clearer the purpose and the quicker the body can achieve it accurately. That is why we provide sound images for the students in the form of CD’s and audio files. When the mind controls the hands and fingers with purpose the hands can do extraordinary things.
More advanced students MUST imagine their music to elevate it beyond the notes on the page. For music to exist at the highest levels, it must transcend the physical. This is done by mental practice, listening to the music, and, as the student matures, imagining what it could and should sound like. This is necessary for the cultivation of high artistry. The seeds of that artistry are contained in the 5 year old who listens to a simple tune and tries to make it sound like the real thing.
Given the same quality and quantity of practice, everyone progresses at the same pace.
There is a current trend in sports and musical training that suggest that talent does not exist. Anyone can reach any height of performance with the right training and practice. This is obviously not true. Disparities in the speed of skill acquisition are cognitively based. 10 year olds acquire guitar skill approximately 6 times faster than 6 year olds. This is because the brain of the 10 year old is more developed. Identical twins learn with differing qualities of technique. No two persons think the same thoughts while practicing and thus the results of the effort will not be identical. Parents should not worry needlessly if their child is “falling behind” the others. Musical training is meant to bring out the musicianship in the child and that looks different in different children. There are no SAT’s in Childbloom. Parents need to say “yes” to whatever develops. The more positive and validating we are, the more our child will want to grow and the more purpose they will have when practicing.
If a child doesn’t want to practice, he or she is not interested in learning music.
Because a child doesn’t want to practice does not mean the child doesn’t want to learn. Children want to be able to play a musical instrument. They want to have that knowledge and ability. They see and hear the magic that is produced by performers. Unless their parents are professional musicians, they do not see the thousands of times those musicians played passages to perfect them, the hours practicing scales and chord changes, the effort of learning to read music and understand theory, the time spent going down blind alleys trying to figure out a tune or a fingering of a passage. All children see is the result. And they want it. But mommy and daddy can’t buy that and they must learn how to attain it. Learning to play music well is a process of learning to practice; to sit down with the instrument and play; to know what mistakes are and perfection is and to try to do better; to revel in the beauty of what one is doing and to do more; to show off what magic we can create from an inanimate object; to share our skill with others. That skill is grown by the child with his or her instrument, guided by teachers and parents who understands the capabilities of the child at any age, who validates the effort and shares in the aspirations of the child.
Practice comes in all shapes and sizes. The best practice is when the child is focused in pursuit of a goal, then practice is forgotten, and all that is left is learning.
Kevin Taylor is President and Founder of The Childbloom Company