Some Thoughts on Practicing

I have a lot to say about practicing and reasonable expectations for students. Unfortunately I have found that a lot of parents have unreasonable standards which ultimately turns what should be a fun, creative, activity into a chore, destroying any natural love for the instrument or music. Quite often parents apply standards that they wouldn’t impose on themselves when learning a new activity — requirements to practice every day for X amount of time under the threat of having the activity taken away because it is a “waste of money.” If I applied that standard to myself I would never learn another hobby or skill.

It takes time to cultivate good practice habits. Professional musicians struggle with practicing. A young student, just starting out, likely won’t even make the connection between practicing and improving. They may enjoy and value the lessons but practice (i.e. sitting alone doing something over and over again) is not fun and can seem unrelated to the enjoyable guitar playing that happens in the lesson. It is my job to inspire and do everything I can to get the student to value practice.

I am providing an email written to a parent aimed at addressing the issue of practicing. It does a decent job of capturing my philosophy in this matter. Although my beliefs are constantly evolving as I learn more about child psychology.

Without further ado, here it is:

4/3/17

Student Age 8

Hello,

I am sending this email because we haven't really discussed my practice expectations and the concept of practicing when it comes to [name] guitar playing. I apologize for the length of this email. He's very talented and I want to make sure that we get this right!

Two years ago when I first met [name] in summer camp, I noticed that he had a unique passion for the guitar and music. The ultimate goal for me as a teacher is to cultivate a lifelong passion for the instrument in my students. It's rare for a student to so immediately take to the guitar the way [name] did. He frequently comes to lessons excited to share his latest song discovery (Eagles, Journey, etc.) and shows incredibly enthusiasm when it comes to learning songs that he is interested in. That's a curiosity and passion for music that I have to work very hard for many students to realize -- he just has it.

In lessons I allow him to request songs to learn and arrange versions that will be a benefit to his technique. I try to allow him to follow his own unique musical path while making sure that the technique is there. Allowing him to forge his own repertoire is important because it maintains his natural enthusiasm and gives him a sense of ownership over the lessons. Of course I can't let him learn just anything and it can be a tricky balance between what he wants to learn and what I know would really help. This was more of a struggle when he first started with me. I sense at this point [name] respects my opinion enough to trust my repertoire selections and emphasis on certain techniques. For me, he's never been easier to teach.

I want to discuss a very, very, important part of the equation when it comes to children learning music: the relationship between the student and parent. I'd like to start with a personal story from my early guitar experience, provide details on what I've seen with other students, and recommend an approach for [name]. 

I started playing guitar in fourth grade with a fairly strict methodology called the Suzuki method. It is expected that the parent, every day, sit down with the student and help them practice. So every day my dad would make me sit down at a certain time and call out pieces that I was supposed to review and work with me on new sections that my teacher would show me in the lesson. This resulted in me feeling forced into guitar playing (even though it was my choice to play the instrument) and constant tension between the two of us when it was time to sit down and practice. The first few years of playing went on this way. Predictably I was resentful and my interest in the instrument waned. In 6th grade I started taking electric guitar lessons (while at the same time playing classical) and my dad was largely removed from these lessons. Electric guitar became my outlet and my interest in electric guitar flourished. Meanwhile the classical guitar still felt like something I was being forced into. By about 8th grade I discovered through a series of public performances that people were overwhelmingly impressed with my classical guitar skills. The revelation coupled with the fact that my dad started taking a more relaxed approach helped me start picking up the classical guitar on my own without my parents telling me to practice. By late middle school I was practicing both instruments consistently and independently.

Playing wise, [name] is far ahead of where I was at his age; his passion for the instrument has been allowed to flourish which is so critical. But we must recognize that developing the discipline to sit down every day to practice, without being asked, takes years to develop. It requires a certain maturity level that comes with time. From my own personal experience and what I've seen working with many students, what doesn't work is creating an environment where he feels forced into playing. It's a sure way to destroy interest.

Unfortunately every student is different and every student has a different relationship with parents, so it's hard for me to make specific recommendations for parents. Some students don't mind being reminded to practice. Others can't stand it. For them they feel like they are losing control over an activity that is supposed to be for them. Right now I am working with a parent who is too overbearing in requests to practice. Privately the student confessed to me that he feels like he is constantly being nagged even though he is making an effort to sit down on his own to play. I can see week after week the motivation to play decreasing. And it's sad. Because the student is great in lessons, shows plenty of interest, but there is disconnect at home.

Maybe [name] doesn't mind a gentle reminder. Something like, "I really miss your guitar playing. I haven't heard any today. Maybe you can play somewhere I can hear?" See how he responds to something like that. At the risk of sounding contradictory, some students actually like sitting down and practicing with parents. If done correctly it can be a nice way to spend time together. That didn't work for me but I have students that are very receptive to parental guidance. Keep in mind, encouragement is great! But encouragement can also become overbearing. So be careful with that. My dad was constantly making me play for people and it really got to be a bit much. To the point where I started dreading the family get together because I was always asked to perform. To this day I have performance anxiety issues and I sometimes wonder if it's related to the fact that I was always being put in situations where I was trying to impress.    

A lot of parents try rewards for good practice. I am not sold on that concept. Especially in [name] case where he has the interest in spades. Rewards create a what can I get mentality which is probably destructive to the goal of lifelong enjoyment of the instrument.

I recommend trying a few different approaches with him. But absolutely, 100%, stay away from creating an environment where he feels forced OR punishments for not practicing.

As a professional I don't practice every day. When I was an aspiring student trying to get college scholarships, I didn't practice every single day. And that's ok. Especially at [name] age, I don't expect that he's going to sit down 7 days a week and have great practice sessions. As I mentioned, that kind of discipline takes years to develop regardless of how much one enjoys the activity. Music practice is hard. 

As a teacher, I have expectations for [name] week in and week out. I am constantly monitoring his progress and will keep you in the loop. There may be times before a performance, competition, assessment, that I may ask you to be a bit involved in having him practice certain pieces more than others. It's also important that we begin working on goal oriented practice rather than time oriented. I recently started writing out practice sheets with specific goals to accomplish in each practice session. If he sticks to this type of goal oriented practice he is guaranteed to improve.

Good practicing is the result of interest in the instrument, achievable goals (performances, auditions, scholarships), respect for the teacher, and internal motivation to improve.  

Let me know if you have any questions! I realize that there is a ton of information here. Hopefully I was able to somewhat organize my thoughts.

Best,

Eric

The Game Series -- Musical Scrabble

This will be the first of a series of posts where I'll describe different games that I've found to be successful in my studio. The particular game I'll be discussing here would be relevant to teachers of any instrument, not just the guitar. Its objective is to reinforce note naming by having students write note names on the staff.

 I call it Musical Scrabble. In order to play, you will need just two things: a Scrabble board and stickers.

First, take out any letters that are not part of the musical alphabet. Then, pick two random tiles and flip them over so that the letters are not showing. Place a different colored sticker on each. Once you've done that, set them on opposite ends of the board.

Make sure all of the other tiles  are flipped over so that you cannot see the letters. Have the student choose a random tile and flip it over to reveal the letter. Give them five seconds to write the name of this letter in its correct position on the staff. If they get it right, have them move the stickered tile forward based on the corresponding number on the letter. If incorrect, they do not move forward. Next, select a random Scrabble tile yourself. Play a quick round of Rock, Paper, Scissors with the student. If you win, you should go ahead and move your sticker forward by the number on the selected Scrabble tile. 

The first one to the end of the board wins!! For a more detailed and visual explanation, subscribe to my instagram @prattmusicmethod.

Activities for Preschool Guitar Class (Part 1)

In this post, I’d like to discuss specific activities that I used in my first semester teaching preschool guitar class. Before proceeding, it is important to understand the details of my classes. First, they’re held after school from 1-2 pm, which tends to be the most difficult time to teach students (who are looking to unwind after a long day). I am also not a regular teacher that they see every day; I come in on Monday and Wednesday for an hour each. This is an additional challenge, as the students are prone to test boundaries. Most of the students are three, with a few early four-year-olds sprinkled in.  

A typical class structure consists of:

Opening activity (10 min)

Second activity (5 min)

Third Activity (5 min)

Drawing (5-10 min)

Snack + Story (5-10 min)

    I found the opening activity to be very important, as it set the tone for the class. About halfway through the semester, I started using puppets as a way to engage the students. This has worked phenomenally well. The class would typically open with a puppet looking to learn guitar. I would have the students teach the puppet about different parts of the guitar (body, neck, head, etc.). For whatever reason, the students found it hysterical if the puppet pretended to be bad and bite parts of the guitar. I would respond, “NO, don’t do that!!” and as soon as I looked away, the puppet would start biting the guitar again.

    One day, I brought in a policeman puppet and used it as a prop to inspire the students to sit in a good ready position with the instrument. I told the students that Policeman Pete was here to check the room for bad guys. I would then walk around with the puppet and have it inspect each kid to make sure that they were sitting in ready position.

    Towards the end of our sessions, I introduced a fireman puppet. I made a pretend fire with colored paper and told the students to help the fireman locate the fire to put it out. I then placed the fire on different parts of the guitar and had students direct the fireman to it by naming the guitar part. Every time they named the correct part of the guitar, the fireman would put the fire out.

    I found puppets to be an extremely effective teaching tool. I had a blast voicing the different characters and making a show for the students.

    Another effective opening activity was waking up the stuffed animals. I like to use different animals—Elephant, Alligator, and Dog—to teach the students the string names. By the end of the semester, everyone knew where the Elephant string (E string) and the Alligator string (A string) were. At the beginning of class, I would tell the students that we needed to wake up the animals. To do this, I would hand everyone a guitar and we would strum and sing loudly (usually Old MacDonald). This was great because it got all of the students singing and playing, which really is the goal of the class.

    Towards the end of the semester, one of the other teachers gave me a new activity which also worked well. After singing and playing Old MacDonald, we would transition into the Train. I would tell the students that Old MacDonald has a train running through his yard (“CHU-CHUUU”). One day, Old MacDonald woke up and decided to ride on this train. We (everyone in the class) decided to board it as well. I told the students that they could get the train started by singing and playing their guitars, so we’d make up a song on the spot. Once the train was moving, we relaxed and did slow strumming. I narrated a story about the train going up into the mountains (and put an emphasis on describing the scenery of our journey). Eventually, the train went into a dark tunnel. I told the students to strum quietly and slowly because a monster might be hiding in the tunnel. Inevitably, the monster would appear and start chasing the train, so we’d have to strum as fast as possible to escape until we returned to the safety of Old MacDonald’s farm. This was a great activity to teach students about dynamics in music—loud and quiet, fast and slow.

    In terms of activities to get students naming and playing the correct strings, the best I have come up with thus far is having them feed the animals. I would tell them that the Elephant and Alligator woke up hungry and needed food; if we played the “E for Elephant” string, the elephant would eat its food. While the students were playing the E string, I would walk around the room and have the toy elephant nibble the string on each of their guitars, as if eating. Same procedure for Alligator and Dog.

    Another activity I used to reinforce good sitting position was the shield. Sometimes, we would pretend that the alligator was a very mean animal looking to bite anyone it could find. I’d tell the students that their guitars were shields, and they could protect themselves by putting them up in ready position. I pretended to wrestle the alligator on my hands and knees, and eventually, it would break loose and make a run for a student. In that instant, the student would need to be in good ready position with the shield up.    

    I observed that many students in both classes liked to draw. So after we were finished with these activities, I’d have them sit at a table and draw characters made of musical notes. I demonstrated how to draw a note with a face, and students would try to recreate it. Sometimes we would draw guitars, and some of the students would just draw… anything. I was impressed by how drawing captivated their attention. They would often sit quietly and draw for five-plus minutes—and sometimes even ten minutes, which is an eternity at this age.

    After drawing was snack time. During snack, I’d usually tell a story accompanied by the guitar. The most successful story was about a student who ate a magical grape (yes, they were eating grapes that day) and was able to fly around the room afterwards. His classmates could not believe it! But when they tried to tell the teacher, the teacher accused them of lying and sent the entire class to time-out, where they would be forced to stare at a wall for an hour without a single toy to play with. Luckily, the student still had some grapes left in his pocket, so they were able to escape time-out and the mean teacher by flying away. They flew to an old tree and found that it needed water, so they went to a stream to gather some. While they were there, the alligator (or whatever character I’d used as the “bad guy” during class) saw them and chased them back to the tree. The students had managed to collect enough water to give the tree, however, and when they did, it grew and protected them with its huge branches. Inside the tree, the students built tree forts and created a community just for kids….. You get the idea here. The class related best to stories centered around kids their age, with familiar conflicts such as time-out and mean teachers.

General Thoughts on Teaching Preschool Guitar Class


    For the past two months, I have been teaching after-school preschool guitar classes.The classes I teach are entirely made up of three-year-olds and have a maximum capacity of six students. It’s been fascinating to observe how children of this age learn, as well as the social dynamics of very young children.

    It’s a travesty that our society tends to write off what children are capable of doing. I believe that if you can connect with a child’s imagination and excite them about the subject, it doesn’t really matter how old they are; they can still learn. Case in point: I am currently working with a two-year-old guitar student who is already learning the names of the strings (he doesn’t even know letters yet) and how to identify them by sound. Young children are quite capable if taught properly.

    Teaching preschool has been an endeavor for me, as I am accustomed to private 1-on-1 instruction. In general, though, I understand that teaching preschool is a major challenge for any dedicated teacher. Early childhood education needs to be a definite point of emphasis in our society. It’s entirely possible that these early years are so formative that a quality preschool education is more important than any schooling later in a child’s development.

    <a href=“http://www.santamonicaguitarlessons.com/pratt-music-method/2018/11/14/teaching-very-young-students”>As I’ve written about</a>, I am developing a teaching philosophy of engagement through play for the very young. By spending time playing with them (games with toy police cars, dolls, animals, etc.) in a familiar environment, I am putting myself in the role of the fun mentor. And in that role, I earn the respect of the student.

    I want to emphasize here that I EARN the respect of the student. I am not an authoritarian figure in the classroom. Students perceive me as a friend looking to share knowledge, and they eventually internalize the fact that I am trying to help them. In a preschool (or in any class), the teacher’s role should be, to quote Jon Dewey, the “facilitator of activities.”

    It’s important to note that as the facilitator of activities, I’m not simply playing with the student. Rather, it’s an improvised type of play that’s always focused on tying our games back to the guitar lesson. And I almost always incorporate music and guitar into the activities.

    But I digress. I want to maintain focus on specific techniques that I have developed for teaching preschool guitar classes, or any classes for that matter. I believe the same general principles apply.   

    The key to teaching preschool seems to be coming up with activities that successfully engage as many students as possible. I have a limited class size of six, and quite often I’ll notice almost every student loving an activity—except for one, who is just not engaged. Sometimes they are all engaged, which is always great. But it’s difficult to reach everyone all the time, and it’s probably unrealistic to think that’s possible. After all, as individuals, we all have different interests. It’s the same with young students.

    There are a few games I’ve developed to keep the students engaged throughout class. Lately, I’ve been using a puppet named “Hungry Henry the King” to teach the students about how to properly hold a guitar (because after two months of working with this class, guitar care is still a MAJOR issue). At the beginning of class, Hungry Henry talks to the students. It’s established that he likes to eat anything: tables, chairs, my finger,… you name it. The students find this hilarious. I’ll then use Hungry Henry to demonstrate how to hold a guitar and treat it nicely. We’ll pretend that a pencil is Henry’s guitar. I instruct Henry to carefully pick it up, but of course he ends up eating it!! He tries again, only to succumb to putting it in his mouth once more. I’ll then go around the room and have the students demonstrate good sitting position for the puppet. This is a fun and entertaining way for them to learn by teaching, and they seem to have enjoyed it.

    Another trick I learned while teaching in a classroom setting is the power of positive reinforcement. If you tell one student in a loud and clear voice, “Wow look at So and So! Look how good he/she is at holding the guitar!” It immediately calls attention to good behavior, and other students will try to impress the teacher as well. This concept is probably part of the “Classroom Teaching 101” book, but it was a new one for me. Works well even in a class full of  three-year-olds.

    I have developed a teaching style that is flexible and improvisational (based on how the student is feeling at any given time), which really comes in handy in a classroom situation. You cannot be afraid to abandon an activity if it isn’t working; best to quickly transition into something else. Many times, I do find myself making up activities on the spot. This is partly because I’m still learning strategies that work for three-year-olds, but also because I think it’s critical for a teacher to be able to make something up on the spot that resonates with where the students are at in the class on that day.

    A typical class of mine looks like: five minutes Activity 1, five minutes Activity 2, ten minutes Activity 3, snack time, storytime, clean-up. In between those activities, of course, is transition time—which can really add up depending on the mood of the class. In another blog post, I’ll detail the exact activities that I use during classes—as well as discuss some activities that have failed and lessons that I’ve learned from them.

Teaching Very Young Students

Recently my studio has seen an influx of very young students ranging from ages 2-4. I have successfully started 4 and 5 year olds but never 2 or 3.

My first observation was the noticeable difference in cognitive ability between a 2 and a 4 year old. And it makes sense. By 4 the student has had almost double the life experience. In terms of teaching it translates to new techniques and approaches for working with different age groups.

My current strategy with three year olds — and it seems to be working well — is one of engagement through play. I am able to get very young students to learn and recognize which strings are being played. I am able to demonstrate good sitting position and for them to demonstrate to me that they are capable of sitting nicely with the guitar. They can also identify the parts of the guitar (head, neck, body, back, etc). With all of my three year olds I was able to accomplish this within the first one to two months of private instruction.

As mentioned before, my teaching style is engagement through play. I use different props and stuffed animals and students learn to recognize strings and parts of the guitar with the stuffed animals. This seems to work for most students — keep in mind everyone is different and I firmly believe no one method or way of teaching works. Richard Feynman, one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century and lauded educator, once said in regards to teaching his own children, “My theory is the best way to teach is to have no philosophy. Is to be chaotic and confusing in the sense that you use every possible way of doing it.”

While I am not chaotic and confusing to the students, my approach is to tap into the individual in each student, the likes and dislikes, and capture the imagination through play. And through that play we learn the guitar. So, for example, when learning the E string I currently use a stuffed animal elephant. The elephant represents the E. I tell the student while holding the elephant, “Elephant woke up hungry today. This is awful. Elephant needs food. WAIT! I know how we can help the elephant. Quick, play this string.” I demonstrate how to play the E string. Every time they play the E string the elephant eats food. I will then take the stuffed animal and hold it up to the students guitar at the E string to demonstrate that it is eating. The students make the connection! And at the beginning of each lesson I have my students feed the Elephant by playing the E string. Three year olds are quite capable if they are being taught properly. Anyone following my instagram can see clips of me working with an elephant with a three year old. I have stuffed animals now for each string.

One activity for getting students to sit nicely with the guitar and to teach general sitting position is the Alligator game. The alligator that I use for teaching…. you guessed it the A string, I pretend alligator woke up and is very unhappy today. And hungry. This alligator is dangerous and might attack at any time. I then act out being bitten by the stuffed animal. I tell the student that the guitar is like a shield. It will protect you when held properly. I demonstrate the Alligator trying to bite me, but now with the shield up (guitar in correct position) I am protected. After this I pretend to lose control of the alligator. I move the stuffed animal quickly towards the student while saying, “quick get the shield up. get in ready position!!!” The alligator bounces harmlessly of the guitar. Students generally LOVE this game. I did this with a six year old recently and it still worked well. One note on this, for a very young 2 or 3 year old be careful because it can be easy to make this game too scary.

I recently incorporated having students wake the animals up in the beginning of lesson. This is a great way to learn about forte, LOUD playing and singing. Lately we have been playing and singing Old MacDonald. I have the students strum with me (doesn’t matter what they are strumming just getting them to strum on open strings is fine) and tell them that we need to be loud to wake the animals up. Once the animals are awake I transition into the elephant game and alligator game. We’ll typically strum and sing a few songs throughout the lesson.

Occasionally students will bring in a favorite toy. This is a great opportunity to use the toy as a prop in the game. I once had a student bring in police cars and firetrucks. Instead of using the elephant and alligator we played “capture the bad guy” and I was able to get the student playing in the context of a game/play but with his own toys. This is a more advanced teaching technique a it takes improvisation skills (have to create an engaging story on the spot) and can be difficult to figure out how to bring it back to the guitar. You also have to be comfortable coming up with ideas and games in front of parents sitting in on the lesson.

These are a few techniques I have developed for working with very young students. I have been teaching at a preschool as well and will eventually touch on the difference between 1 on 1 and classroom teaching when it comes to this age.