Practice pleas(e)

Practice pleas(e)
Moving from dreaded arguments to positive outcomes: music educator Dr Majella Boland’s three-part blog addresses how parents and teachers can change the discussion around practicing for good.

The following extract is taken from Ken Wardrop’s documentary film Making the Grade (2017).

Mother:
I suppose maybe about 6 to 9 months ago John decided he’d prefer to do it on his own; and he sacked me (she laughs). Now, I think really that there might have been an ulterior motive here because I was probably maybe asking him to play it a little bit slower, put on the metronome, take his time. And I think maybe he decided this practice would go a bit faster if mum wasn’t around and if he was doing it on his own. Would I be right there, John? Being honest?
Son:
Maybe.
Mother:
I think so. It’s good that he wants to play on his own and it gives me more time for myself. So, we let him off. He’s very very good for a 10-year old boy and a boy who is very very busy with sport.
Son:
I do hurling, football, and then racquetball, tennis, swimming, golf, and soccer.
Mother:
He’s a busy boy.

Part 1

This light-hearted interaction between mother and son touches on a topic that will be familiar to teachers and parents the length and breadth of the country: practice. It also highlights three other aspects in relation to practicing that will equally resonate with teachers and parents alike: effective practicing, children’s busy lifestyles, and the role of parents in music tuition. Although practicing is at the centre of much discussion around music tuition, it is a crucial ingredient that is often left out of the mixture.

Indeed, the word practice tends to conjure up feelings of dread, so much so that the result can be a combination of procrastination from students on the one hand and negotiation from parents on the other. If not addressed, it can lead to groundhog-day moments in lessons that end up being about getting through grades after which the student doesn’t continue music; alternatively, lessons, like practice, become a chore and students simply decide to drop out. Yet, we initially sign up for music lessons to be able to play music and practicing should be about facilitating this, about developing skills, and about enabling a meaningful and enjoyable experience and relationship with music. Let’s protect this!

So, what is it about practicing that is so difficult, that sees teachers and parents pleading with students to do it, or that means there is a flurry of activity just before a lesson? This is not unique to children learning music of course, adult learners may also recognise some of these behaviours. On reflection, could it be that it boils down to misconceptions?

In this blog post I explore the multi-faceted nature of practicing music, while considering some of the challenges and perceptions surrounding practicing and ways of overcoming them. As part of this, it’s useful to align every-day examples – where developing a skill or reaching a goal is ultimately the objective – with how we understand and think about practicing. Viewed in such contexts, the aim is to change the discussion around practicing from a dreaded process to one that leads to a positive outcome. In doing so, we reflect on expectations, consider what developing a skill in music means, review approaches to practicing, and realise that talent alone only goes so far.

Over the years I have encountered students who, at the mere mention of practice, exclaim ‘but I’m just doing music for fun’. When students and/or parents say that they or their children are taking lessons ‘for fun’, it is always in the interest of openness (scales? Didn’t I mention I’m doing music for fun?), but to some extent it reveals a lack of understanding about what music tuition involves (even if the goal is to ‘have fun’) in terms of acquiring skills, while highlighting a persistent perception of music as something else, something extra that ostensibly requires less effort than other activities.

In a Music Literacy Ireland survey to instrumental music teachers (2020), it seems as though this reaction is not uncommon. When asked, in the context of students saying they want to play music for fun, ‘for you, what does “learning music for fun” mean?’, it was understood in a number of ways including: ‘I want to play pieces of music I like straight away’, ‘I don’t want to study classical music or do exams’, ‘I don’t want to learn theory, scales, or do sight-reading or aural work’, ‘I’m not as motivated as I used to be’, ‘I don’t have time to practice’, etc. The most frequent response was the one in relation to exams however, in which case learning for fun seems to be strongly associated with not doing exams.

Although music exams as part of music tuition can sometimes be problematic (this is a blog post for another day) they are in fact intended to give structure to develop necessary skills. The reason I highlight exams here now is to caution against putting music into groups – exams versus fun – because to draw such a distinction is to overlook what is fundamental in both cases: developing musically. Unfortunately, for some people exams have come to mean undertaking tasks that are considered unnecessary outside of this context as well as not fun; again, this should not be the case but too often it seems to be. On the other hand, playing for fun seems to be interpreted as not having to do specific work; work that should be about developing skills. For example, developing your ear musically is important and ties into many areas of music making. Opting not to do exams or learning for fun then should not mean avoiding aural work, or being off the hook with consistent practicing, because to practise is to work on building skills. Ultimately, music tuition should be about acquiring such skills regardless of what you would like to play, of what genre of music you are interested in, or your reasons for wanting to take lessons.

So, how would ‘but I’m just doing it for fun’ sound in another context? Take sport, an activity that, similar to music, has distinct categories in terms of engagement: leisure, amateur, and professional. Let’s say that other than short walks you don’t exercise, but you have decided you would like to run a marathon. You are doing it for yourself, not to qualify for the Olympics, not to break any records, and right now your intention is not to partake in any running competitions other than this one marathon.

To increase your fitness levels and for guidance you turn to a personal trainer. You agree on one session per week and a plan is put in place to help you reach your goals and to increase your fitness levels over time. As it’s all new to you, you have fallen into the routine of exercising only when you meet your trainer because it is more structured. Your trainer highlights that it’s important to exercise between sessions, to follow the plan that has been tailored to your needs, and they may even suggest changes to your diet to complement the process.

In this situation I feel one of three things may happen: first, you might decide that running a marathon requires more effort than you had envisaged and you aren’t willing or haven’t the capacity to make the necessary changes or dedicate the time that’s needed; second, you decide that it’s a one-off event and still want to do it, so you’ll continue as you are but acknowledge you might end up walking most of it or not completing it; or third, you take the advice on board because you want it to be an enjoyable experience even though it will require effort.

Should you say to your trainer, ‘but I’m just doing it for fun’, you both might have to revisit what fun means to you in this context: to tick it off a list of things you want to achieve before a certain age? Or to reach a certain level of fitness that allows you to be able to run the entire marathon at whatever speed that is comfortable for you? If it is the latter, you will come to realise that there are no shortcuts to building fitness regardless of the level you would like to achieve; you may also find that the effort you do put in eventually translates into a rewarding and fun experience and could even become a lifelong hobby.

You like football and want to join the local football team, you are doing it for fun, but you understand that you still need to train to have a chance of getting onto the team. Similarly, saving money, losing weight, learning a language, learning to drive, all of these achievements mean effort, be it mental or physical, and require a plan of action and seeing it through to get results; the process might not always be the most pleasant thing in the world, but it is necessary if you want to reach your end goal.

In many of these situations you pay for professional advice and whether or not you take it on board is your responsibility. Saying ‘but I’m just doing it for fun’ – in particular if it were with the expectation that progress is only made during your weekly sessions – would make little sense. And music is no different: whether you are self-taught, want to play pop, rock, traditional, or classical music, whether you avail of paid music lessons or not, do exams or play ‘just for fun’, work is needed to progress. The question then becomes, how much would you like to reach your goal? Instead of, what is your goal?

From this perspective, it’s useful to think of ‘but I’m just doing it for fun’ in another way.

Playing music for fun is:

  • engaging with music at a level with which you are comfortable
  • becoming competent enough to allow you to develop as an independent learner/musician
  • having skills to draw on to facilitate music making
  • exploring music at your leisure and at ease, either on your own or in a group.

Thinking about music and prioritising it in the way we would when undertaking any other long-term goal is the first step to rethinking your relationship with music tuition, its priority and value in your life, and to debunk any myths about the work required. Just like many skills though, you learn from others and guidance is often required, in which case it is useful to consider how the early days of music tuition might unfold.

Part 2

I have yet to meet a student (child or adult) who, at their very first music lesson, is not full of enthusiasm, not eager to learn, not curious about the instrument and the sound it makes, and doesn’t have aspirations for music in their lives. At some point the novelty wears off and this tends to happen just when practice is needed the most; it can often happen too when the student has found lessons relatively easy to date, but now they have reached a plateau where that bit more work is required to get on to the next stage. Feeling unmotivated is not a sign that you don’t like music anymore, it is not a sign that you should give it up, but rather it is a sign that you are engaged in the process of learning, are meeting challenges, are improving and now you have reached a point where you have the opportunity to improve some more; in other words, these feelings are normal.

Clear communication with your teacher from the first lesson is key to a successful musical journey or at least to avoid long periods of frustration. As a teacher, establish what it is your student is looking for, discuss the process, and ask yourself if you are the right fit for each other. As a parent, think about why it is you want your child to have lessons and ask yourself if you are imposing your own feelings about music and/or practice on your child (I have often heard parents say they hated practicing or that music should just be fun). If all parties are happy to proceed, put a plan in place and revisit it after a number of weeks. Check in to see how the student feels about music lessons and talk through any challenges they may be encountering and ways to overcome them. Even if you have had an initial conversation with the student about what to expect, it’s difficult to know exactly how you are going to respond to something until you are doing it. Communication is part of working towards a productive practice routine: if you aren’t on the same page in the lesson and if you aren’t working towards the same goal, it will be difficult to be on the same page where all things practicing are concerned. What, then, does practicing involve?

Practicing is well-organised, goal-directed, structured, and deliberate work.

Practicing is:

  • challenging
  • building skill
  • connecting information
  • setting personal bests
  • listening
  • being realistic
  • working towards being an independent learner and musician
  • engaging with tasks both physically and mentally
  • keeping the end goal in sight to motivate yourself
  • being consistent
  • taking necessary breaks
  • not looking for shortcuts.

For many people though, practicing is sitting at a piano or taking up your instrument, opening a piece of music, starting at bar one and playing/singing through to the double bar line or whatever section is being worked on. Too often this means encountering the same issues time and time again and eventually the student may opt to play the parts known best. This type of practice tends to focus on note reading with the purpose of playing a piece of music through, rather than securing the various skills needed to be able to play the piece fluently. Despite the effort that some students put into practice sessions, at least in terms of time, frustration may emerge when the hours spent do not necessarily correspond to satisfactory results. You might think, ‘what’s the point!?’

Going-through-the-motions-type of practice is very common, but not necessarily effective. Indeed, practicing is as much about mental labour as it is physical, it is having a plan and concentrating on any given task in hand to the extent that you are always aware of what and why something is happening. At the same time, it’s much more than just having to take on board one or two things: it’s a multi-faceted process.

When I was younger my teacher used to tell me to go home and practise my pieces and my scales; and I did. In hindsight, I now realise I was that student who would go home, spend ages starting and restarting from bar one and ploughing my way through to the end without any real meaning, or I would just practise the sections I liked the best which generally meant I liked them only because I could play them well; also important to note, I used to practise songs that we weren’t covering in lessons. Over the years I came to realise, however, that telling your student to go home and practise is like a sporting coach telling you to go home and get fit, or your English teacher marking B minus on your essay with a comment reading ‘getting there’; notionally, you know you need to improve and it requires some sort of change and work, but without precise goals, a strategy to achieve them, and regular feedback, it’s simply too vague, and possibly overwhelming. Indeed, without the necessary structure and support students may be put into a vulnerable position.

For this reason, practicing is as much the teacher’s responsibility as it is the student’s in that the student needs to be taught how to do it. As part of this, practicing and lessons should be viewed as complementary rather than separate events. Approached in this way, they should eventually become two sides of the same coin. For example, teaching a student how to practise is getting them to the point where they know how to carry out tasks at home in the same way they were approached in the lesson (it’s important that the lesson itself is structured and productive). The work carried out at home then should be the starting point or opening discussion for the next lesson. And so, the hope is for it to become a positive cycle.

In the lesson, refer to the task in hand, its relevance, and explain why a specific approach is being taken, all the while making clear that this approach should also be taken at home. Throughout the lesson, provide feedback and encourage the student to reflect on and critically assess what they are doing. Feedback is crucial in helping the student to grow in a way they are in a position to make informed decisions about what to listen for and what to do when they are on their own; it also removes ambiguity around what is happening. When students realise that music tuition is structured and that they are included and in control, it removes uncertainty and the whole process is much more rewarding and productive.

Ideally, students will be actively involved in the practicing process from start to finish. For example, I ask my students what days they can commit to for practicing. This question implies there is an expectation that work will be carried out, but it also allows the student to be the decision maker, to take control of their routine, and to commit to work on their own terms before the following lesson. This question, albeit straightforward, gives a strong message that practicing is not optional.

One of my students has a lesson with me on Tuesdays (online these days). At the start of the academic year I asked her what her schedule was like and what days she could set aside for practice. She went through her timetable with me and concluded that she could realistically practise piano work on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays. This means that my student and her parents don’t have to think about, or mention practice the other three days of the week. It has been factored into her week, it won’t be changing, and she can be content in knowing that I won’t be making requests for her to practise 7 days a week.

This does not mean that it will work like this 100% of the time. Indeed, some of my students have off days and if they tell me they just didn’t feel like practicing that week, I don’t challenge it (unless it is a regular occurrence, in which case I’d have a conversation about what might be the matter). Being comfortable with off days and weeks allows flexibility, while being realistic; after all, everyone has off days. Students will realise they won’t be in trouble and that not being able to practise at the same intensity at all times is acceptable. In these instances, I ask students to do the work in the coming week and I move on to something different, something that allows the student to have some breathing space. For me, lessons should be about learning and consolidating skills, not repeating what happened the week before or doing the assigned practice with the student, which could become an unhealthy habit.

Teachers are often asked by parents for how long their child should be practicing. The answer . . . ‘it depends’: it depends on your goals, on the teacher, on the student. There is no set practicing time for an age, grade, or instrument. As a starting point, figure out how much time they can dedicate to practicing. There is little point in saying an hour a day if this just won’t happen or even saying 15 minutes if there is no structure. As a teacher, you might need to guide students here, in particular if you are getting answers like ‘I don’t have time to practise this week’ or ‘I can only practise for 5 minutes’. From my experience when students are in control of making the decision you generally won’t encounter ‘I have no time’, but it would not be unusual for students to want to test the waters and push the boundaries regarding how much time they do have; notwithstanding that, depending on age, time as a concept seems somewhat arbitrary.

The student chose to take lessons (although I am aware that many students take lessons because their parents want them to). Whatever the context, as a teacher, it is our role to help students and/or parents to realise that reaching their goals is their responsibility and taking lessons is a commitment. For this reason, the student should think about what they would like to have achieved in the week or what they feel is achievable. Here again, you might have to guide and talk through decisions in particular if the student wants to have learned the entire piece of tricky music you have just started when in fact it might be more beneficial to work on sight-reading.

An important part of this process is also being realistic. I have worked with teachers who tell their students that anything can be achieved with practice. Although this is positive and encouraging, it is not necessarily realistic because it doesn’t acknowledge different skill sets and possible limitations. If students practise a lot and some pieces of music are just out of their reach, or even if they just don’t practise effectively, telling them anything can be achieved is setting them up to be frustrated and overwhelmed if they do not progress in relation to their expectations. I am by no means suggesting you don’t consider a student’s aspirations, but rather, have a conversation about how they might get there. Regardless of your students’ goals, always praise effort over ability. In fact, I find it useful to employ the ipsative assessment, in other words setting personal bests. This way each student measures their progress against their earlier performances, is actively engaged in their learning process, reflects on their progress, and celebrates their achievements along the way.

The hard part of practicing is putting a plan into action. To ensure that your student is not just setting goals without any real idea of how to achieve them, it might be worth asking your student to talk you through their approach; alternatively, you might ask them specific questions in relation to the goals they have set out: e.g. ‘you have chosen to work on this section before the next lesson, why that specific number of bars? What things should you consider? What isolated work do you think you will have to do to improve this? Why are you taking that approach? What challenges do you think you might encounter and how might you overcome them?’. Depending on the age, I find that students tend to engage with their plan more when they write down their goals in the lesson and when at home they note what they are setting out to achieve in each practice session; I also ask my students to reflect on how it went and to pinpoint why it did or didn’t work, which can also be written down. In writing it down you have to think about it actively, thereby providing students with a structure to practise deliberately rather than knowing what to do but having no real starting point. In reflecting on what was and wasn’t working, the student is once again actively engaged in the process and is problem solving. The lack of a concrete plan could lead to hopping from one task to another without reaching the required result.

Technology, in particular during the period of Covid-19, is becoming more and more integrated into our lives, so why not embrace it as an effective practicing tool? Encourage students to record themselves playing a piece or practicing a section. The idea is for them to look back at it with fresh ears, so to speak, and to be able to assess what they did: is the pulse steady? Did they speed up? Did they pause? Is the rhythm accurate? Are the notes correct? What’s their posture like? etc. Some students might prefer this method over writing. If so, the student should record their thoughts about it too to ensure they continue to reflect on what they are doing. Alternatively, or in addition, they can bring these videos to the lesson for discussion.

It’s important for students to grasp the relevance of the various parts of music tuition and how they relate to each other. This allows for greater meaning in the practicing process and for the student to appreciate the tasks they are engaged in. To achieve this, aim to draw connections between various aspects of music making and practicing. For example, a student of mine recently said she didn’t get to practise pedalling in a Chopin nocturne, but she was working on the pedalling exercises I gave her. I reassured her that this work was sufficient because otherwise the focus might turn into thinking about pedalling in the context of one Chopin nocturne only, rather than developing her pedalling technique in general; after all, pedalling ultimately boils down to listening not just pedalling a piece of music at the ‘correct times’. In the same lesson she was surprised when an octave section in a Mozart sonatina went particularly well before realising it was possibly because she had been working consistently on double octaves scales. In both cases it was useful consciously to make the connection between isolating sections or areas for work and the subsequent progress made in a piece of music.

Keeping track of your work is worthwhile as it gives you a sense of achievement and records progress, notwithstanding parents/teachers/partners/relatives/friends can engage with it. Practice diaries form part of many students’ learning material, but sometimes the enthusiasm of filling it in can wear off. Having a visual representation of your work (in addition to a practice diary) is one way of keeping track and encouraging practice. Some things to consider include: a scrap book where you can put in drawings and photographs, mark out milestones, highlight personal bests and how you celebrated them. For the computer orientated, keep a file for music lessons and if you like Excel, graphs, and charts - you might opt to map your practice time and goals reached. A video file might be a nice way of tracking overall progress. For example, from the very start, the student records whatever they are working on. At the end of each week or practicing session (depending on how much time is available) they will record themselves playing the work in question. After a month or two, encourage them to look back at how much they have progressed.

Part 3

Once again, I return to the extract from Making the Grade, used at the start of this blog, in relation to the role of parents in music tuition. From it we learn that the mother is supportive and has helped to structure her son’s practice sessions. We learn that at a certain point the son no longer wanted this help and we also learn that he was very busy. In the film itself we find out that at the age of 10, he is on grade 7 (out of 8 grades), but other than that we do not know whether his practicing is effective and how well he has done in exams so far. We might assume two things: his practicing might not be as effective as it could be given that, as his mother put it, he felt it might go a bit faster without her; or perhaps he had little need for guidance having reached a level of independence on his musical journey.

Whatever the situation, this interaction makes clear that parents play a crucial role in their child’s musical development. Despite this woman’s son partaking in a lot of sport, there is an implication from the conversation in general that if you are doing something, you are going to work at it. She refers to him as busy rather than not having time. One thing is not prioritised over the other, there is a schedule for all activities. She had been sitting in on his practice and seems to have taken advice from the teacher on board (slow down, use the metronome), thereby supporting the lessons through reinforcing certain things at home. Now that her son is practicing alone, time is still put aside for it and for herself in the process. She also praises her son and highlights the positive in him wanting to practise alone. Indirectly, it comes across as ‘it’s time to give him space’ and in doing so she shows she trusts him.

This is the ideal situation: the parent provides structure, makes time for music outside of the lesson, and knows what is going on in their child’s lessons. They are relaxed, have a respectful parent-child relationship, there is an expectation and understanding that work will be done, and they communicate.

Not all practicing sessions work out like this at home, which is completely understandable at a time when parents are stretched in so many directions and when children are involved in so many activities. One thing that often prevents parents from engaging with their child’s music tuition, however, is not having a background in music, resulting in them feeling out of their depth. This does not have to be so.

Some ways to support your child on their musical journey include:

  • keeping in touch with their teacher about how things are going and informing them, where applicable, if anything might be interfering with practice at home
  • having a conversation over dinner or breakfast, in the car, on public transport, or before your child goes to sleep about what they are doing in music and how they feel about it
  • letting your child know you’d love to hear them play something they are working on during the week
  • asking your child to ‘teach’ you something on their instrument
    taking up an instrument yourself and sharing the journey (if it is something you had wanted to do).

As music lessons can often be an individual pursuit, it is important that your child realises they are not alone and that this hobby is valuable. Speaking about it in the way you might speak about their day at school, about sport they might be involved in, or about their homework keeps the music in their lives relevant. This demonstrates that you have expectations regarding their music lessons from the very start as well as the work they put into it, which is of course preferable than, at some point in the future, pleading with them to practise.

There are some things though that you should absolutely avoid:

  • guilt trips – if not practicing – about spending money on their lessons (i.e. I could be spending this money on something else)
  • contradicting the teacher and/or telling your child to do it a different way
    explaining to the teacher in front of your child that they had a busy week and they didn’t get time to practise
  • comparing your child’s ability to that of another
  • expecting them to play pieces of music you prefer, expecting them to do competitions, exams, or to perform for friends and family
  • bribing your child to practice
  • arguing over practicing to the extent that it becomes a source of conflict.

Access to an instrument is of paramount importance when it comes to music tuition. It keeps students motivated and it helps them to progress. In the past I have had some parents inform me that they will get their child an instrument at the end of the year when they show they want to stick with the lessons and are making progress; this is a difficult situation to be in. Admittedly, instruments are expensive, but when taken care of they are also an investment and can be sold if your child does not wish to continue lessons. Even then, I understand and am fully aware that it is a financial commitment and how it might lead to pressure on families. Fortunately, there are still options: check out Music Network’s Instrument Hub to help get you started on your journey without the same financial pressure.

In the aforementioned Music Literacy Ireland survey of instrumental music teachers (2020), getting students to practise was considered to be one of the most challenging aspects of their job; parents also featured on the list. This is hardly surprising considering that students and parents are often the two main points of contact that an instrumental music teacher will have. It is even less surprising when you consider that this blog post has been about the myriad factors that influence practicing (whether positive or negative), including students’ busy lifestyles, parental support, productive lessons, clear communication, flexibility, patience, time, notwithstanding persistent misconceptions that shape how one thinks about music tuition. Consequently, what one expects from music lessons and what is actually entailed in acquiring musical skills often stand in direct contrast to each other.

One of the general pitfalls regarding music tuition is the separation of music into groups – exams, fun, self-taught, trad., classical, pop, rock, jazz – which subconsciously serves to qualify the level of effort or skill set that is deemed necessary in those contexts. Instead, it might be more productive for learning music and developing skills to be at the heart of all music tuition, setting a foundation upon which students can build, allowing them to later decide which direction they would like to pursue regarding music: leisure, amateur, professional.

And if getting students to practise and engagement with parents are considered among the challenges that some teachers encounter, we should contemplate beyond lessons to consider other factors that might be at play. Nationally, greater awareness of the work that music, and indeed the arts, entails is required (despite what seemed to be society as a whole gaining solace in music and the arts during Covid-19, as a sector it has suffered significantly, though it continues to give; indeed, it’s not uncommon for musicians in general to be expected to give up their time for free). Inevitably, if this is the situation on a national level, it is likely to be similar at a local level, in which case it is the teacher’s responsibility to work towards effecting change by educating students and, where applicable, their parents about music. It’s important to have conversations about the path to developing musical skills as well as to highlight and explain what music tuition involves; the benefits that are frequently listed in relation to receiving music tuition require more than just attending lessons. Moreover, music is primarily seen as entertainment, and while it certainly does provide entertainment, the arts in general is much more than that: it is access to many cultures the world over; fundamentally, it is understanding humanity. In some ways then, music lessons and practicing can be viewed as both the starting point and opportunity for people to learn about and appreciate what music truly has to offer.

This is not a blog post about becoming a professional musician or advocating one way of learning, it is highlighting that like anything, regardless of talent and ability, or of the route you take, effort is required. If you are to take just one thing away from this blog then it is to ask a question, be that of yourself, your child, or your student: how much do you want to reach your goal? You might have to revisit this question over different periods of time, or even revisit the goal itself (it’s also a question you might ask yourself outside of the context of music lessons), but it is worth asking as it can clarify many things, avoid frustrations, facilitate progression and the development of skills, open up discussions about music, and most importantly for everyone who sets out to learn an instrument, free you up to have fun.

Dr Majella Boland is the founder of musicliteracy.ie and is an experienced music educator with knowledge across all sectors of the music education system.