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