A typical conversation between a student and music teacher:
Teacher: “Did you practice that song this week?”
Student: “I don’t have time to practice my instrument, I have:
Soccer practice 3 times/week
Religious studies 2 times/week
Basketball practice 3 times/week
Dance practice Saturdays for 3 hours
Soccer and basketball games all weekend”
Teacher: “How will you be able to improve your technique if you don’t practice at home?
Student: a big shrug…
This conversation seems to occur more often than not every single year. Let’s objectively look at the sheer amount of after-school activities listed above. (There are many students with even more than this.) If you add 8 hours of school 5 days a week, plus mealtime and family time, there’s no down time, let alone time to practice an instrument. This creates a big dilemma for a music teacher.
A Music Teacher’s Perspective:
I have noticed over the past 25 years, a serious decline in the amount of home practicing and the amount of self-motivation to work on challenging areas of music. Students look more exhausted and are less engaged to participate. As a result, pieces my students were able to perform 15 years ago are way out of reach for today’s generation. The only students who come close to performing at those levels are the ones who are encouraged to practice and have private teachers.
As music teachers, we have to find the fine line between how much material to give students to practice at home (so they can experience success) and giving too little and sacrificing students’ quality of learning. The 2 results of this dilemma are:
- The student will achieve satisfaction and success because their parents believe in the value of music education and have created a daily practice schedule to ensure that their child is learning at home.
- The student quits because there’s too much stuff on their plate.
What can music teachers do?
Every year, I adapt my program to be slightly above the level my students are at. I still want to challenge them to achieve and experience success, but I also have to do a lot of differentiating in every class so that everyone can have some satisfaction.
As part of the new Common Core, relating my program to other subject areas is a necessity. This has sparked some enthusiasm amongst students who see the connection between music and math, science, English or social studies. I have my beginning students learn to play many simple rote songs from different cultures (melodies and bass lines) by ear. This gives them a great feeling of accomplishment.
My 2nd year students make the transition to note reading, and play simple band arrangements and pieces for their concerts. I still make some time for them to learn to sing and figure out some simple songs by ear. Adding some creativity and improvisation with tonal and rhythm patterns has also engaged my students. Echoing patterns in jazz, rock or classical styles also builds their vocabulary. Many music teachers use interactive method books or technology to keep their students engaged.
Some use motivation systems (prizes and stickers) to encourage students to practice at home to achieve success. Some sign up for ensemble competitions or Festivals in the Parks. All of these methods have provided some levels of success.
Lastly, make your students and their parents aware of the importance of consistent home practice and keep on top of students who may be falling behind. A few words of encouragement can go a long way to motivating a child to work harder.
What can parents do?
Parents need to look at your child’s schedule. Can they really handle all these activities? If you put yourself in their shoes, could you really handle all these activities and still complete homework, study for tests and practice your musical instrument and do well in school?
I have heard the argument that parents just want their child to experience everything so that later on they can choose what they like. Some parents have even said they wanted their child to participate in all the activities they were denied when they were young.
Think about that for a second….is your child getting a full experience with each activity? Are they truly enjoying themselves?
Parents want their children to be happy. A good way to ensure this is to objectively look at your child’s schedule, and think about how your child learns. Maybe they need more down time: time to just relax, or time to just be a kid and explore and create. Maybe they do enjoy all the activities, but are they able to put in a good solid effort for each one? Are they able to learn something from each experience?
After looking at your child’s schedule, think about the activities that you feel are important to their growth. Music, I feel, is definitely one of them. Could you share in this activity with them? Many parents take the Suzuki method of string and piano instruction to share music making with their child. If your child is playing the same instrument you did growing up, perhaps you can re-learn how to play it along with them. How you approach practicing and learning will provide a great role model for your child. As an extra bonus, you can share quality time together.
Playing a musical instrument, or learning how to sing can provide a lifetime of enjoyment and satisfaction. I have lost count of all the parents that have told me how they regretted quitting their instrument when they were younger, and now feel it is too late to even learn again. Give your child the chance to experience this joy by structuring their schedule to allow for music practice and creativity.
For Music Teachers:
- Evaluate your program and see where you can add some more interactive lessons.
- Decide if you want to add a motivational rewards system. Try to think of prizes that are meaningful. (notation to popular songs, certificates)
- Keep track of students who are falling behind. Offer a few encouraging words to get them on track with practicing.
- Objectively look at your child’s after-school activity schedule.
- Think about how your child learns and whether all the activities are helping or creating more stress.
- How well is your child doing academically?
- Pick activities that you think are valuable and will allow your child to grow and learn.
- Think about participating in learning music with your child. It’s a great way to spend more quality time together.
- Want some ideas for setting up a practice plan? Read this: Setting Up a Practice Plan
- Looking for a teacher for your beginning music student? I offer Skype lessons, and a new Online Video Package with lessons that can be completed on your own time frame. Here are the links: Skype Lessons: Skype Lessons Online Video Lessons: Online Learning
- Any thoughts/suggestions for scheduling activities or providing motivation for home practice? Write them in the Comments below…
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I think the most effective solution to the practicing problem is to find ways to get the children to perform often outside of the school program. It helps to get them excited about playing for family, friends, at church, and so forth. With my own students, I send home cards saying how well a child has done in class that day, and asking the parent to listen to what their child can do. When the child comes back all smiles and tells me they played for their Mom or Dad, it makes my day, and I know it has made the child’s day too.
Absolutely Robert! Performing outside of school is a great motivator for musicians of all ages! Thanks for your comment!
Such an excellent blog! If only students and their parents could realize the importance of music and the importance of learning to play an instrument well, and the importance of regular practice. I’ve actually had a student quit piano “temporarily” until she can get through all the after-school activities and club competitions before she returns, because she doesn’t have time to practice. I’m not a revolving door! but I won’t turn her away when she returns, unless her spot gets filled.
Thanks so much Annette! You said it: the importance of regular practice. That’s such a great skill to hone because it builds independence and the desire to improve oneself. That’s a shame about your piano student. Playing an instrument requires such focus and concentration that can’t be “turned on and off” if one truly wants to enjoy making music.
Thanks for your comment!
When I was teaching privately I figured that if the kids were in a sport, a religious activity, and instrument lessons they were maxed out on what they were able to do. Only a few students could carry that full of a load and be successful in music. Usually music lessons ended.
Many parents think that music lessons don’t require any outside practice. It’s like any other after-school activity, you do it when you are there. They don’t realize that to be successful they need to schedule in the daily practice time.
That’s a great point you make about kids doing the activity only when they are there and not expecting to do any outside practice (I am paraphrasing). I think you’re right in that parents, especially those who did not play an instrument when younger, don’t realize that singing or playing an instrument requires consistent daily practice in order to see and hear real results. Thank you Debby for your comment!
I have this gorgeous little boy who loves music and enjoys his lessons. But of late he is somewhat disinterested and not quite eager. His grandmother who brings him for the lessons told be that On Mondays he has swimming, Tuesdays art, Wednesdays pottery, Thursday music (with me) Friday soccer and Saturday tennis! And he is only 6. Doesn’t this say it all?
Yes it does Surangika. That’s an exhausting schedule for an adult, never mind a 6 year old! Thanks for your comment!
I’m a piano teacher in the DC area. I think so many kids have sooooo many activities these days. They don’t have time to practice, play with friends, relax, and just be a kid. It’s too much! When I was a kid I played with my dolls, climbed trees, went sledding, played with the kids in the neighborhood, used my imagination…. It was a great childhood. My students are lucky if they get to do that once every couple of months.
Right on Cassie – I think a tremendous amount of creativity is lost when so many activities are “planned” or set as play dates. Thanks for your comment!
Donna great article! Ishare with you all your strategies and activities and totally agree that students don’t have for the most part develop the propper time management skills. I have been teaching Instrumental music for 22 years and the constant challenge is to get the students to develop the ability to focus on a practice routine and to be able to self evaluete… Im glad to see tha your approach is similar to mine. Thank you for posting the article.
MYP / DP Imstrumental Music
Colegio Internacional de Caracas
Thanks for the comment Glenn! It’s really interesting and amazing to me to hear that you are going through similar situations in Caracas.