Saturday, October 30, 2010

Young students: How much to practice?

Someone on the flutenet discussion group posed this question:

So this is for the teachers of young students, fifth grade and younger. How much time do you ask your beginners to practice, and what do you do when parents want to curtail lessons because students "aren't practicing seriously enough" despite excellent progress?
Here is a slightly-edited version of my reply:

This is a great question. I occasionally had problems with parents blaming their kids for not being "serious enough" until I changed my approach. The first thing is to avoid having students who not practicing at home in the first place. This can be tricky, because a small child isn't yet READY to practice independently. Some parents have a hard time understanding this concept. They think, "I've just spent $500 on a flute and $50 a week on lessons and $25 on books, and my child can't be bothered or grateful enough to practice two hours a day?" The exciting newness of the instrument wears off, and the practice battle begins at home. The teacher gets blamed, the child gets blamed, and the worst part is that years later, those now-grown children tell me, "I used to play the [instrument], but I was too lazy to practice so I finally had to quit."

My dad was a 5th grade teacher for over 30 years, and every year, a parent of a new band kid would say, "I'll buy the instrument, but I'm NOT going to tell him to practice. He's going to have to be RESPONSIBLE." Dad would calmly say, "Don't you have to remind him to do his homework? Brush his teeth? Go to bed on time? Of course you do! And doesn't he forget to bring home papers for you to sign? Well, playing an instrument is even harder to remember than all of those things, because it's a totally new skill set. YOU, as the PARENT, are going to have to help at home if you want your child to be successful."

That was good advice, and here's how I implement it in my private studio:

1. Lots of VARIETY in practice assignments. We flute teachers have, for years, given a kid ONE lone method book and sent them home to practice. (Along those lines, can you imagine anything more boring for a beginner than trying to play a bunch of whole notes--which they can't hold out yet--in the first Rubank lesson? I wouldn't take practice seriously, either, if that's all I had to look forward to each day.) Piano teachers, on the other hand, tend to assign materials out of 3-4 books, even for beginners, and those books have FUN pictures in them that little kids like. I use two books: a standard method book AND a "solo" book. In my case, those two books are A Tune A Day (the old one, which is GREAT for teaching rhythms and reading music) and Abracadabra Flute (fun tunes and cute pictures). The kids LOVE Abracadabra and will put up with Tune a Day so that we can get to "dessert." If [the original poster's] students ARE indeed practicing, perhaps working out of more books will convince the parents that the kid is doing enough "homework."

2. VERY SPECIFIC practice assignments. I don't use a lesson notebook with young kids--it's one more thing for them to forget to look at. Instead, I use colorful post-it arrows on each page. (Yes, I go through a lot of arrows.) Then I circle any assignment the student is supposed to practice. I don't teach tiny kids about the subtleties of practice yet...when they are first starting to play, I tell them to play each exercise through three times daily. (A few months later, we'll work on more sophisticated practice techniques.)

3. LOTS of practice assignments. Why assign one page when you can assign four? You'll soon learn just how many pages or exercises your students can handle each week. But the more we assign, the more they are likely to practice (or at least to play through three times daily).

4. PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT. This is the most important item on my list. I require parents to attend lessons until students are in 5th or 6th grade. Parents are responsible for taking notes during the lesson. I'll often say, "Mom/Dad, please jot a note so that you can remind Suzy to sit up tall and hold her flute up this week" or "Please make sure Johnny plays his F scale three times daily." Then, when the kids are practicing at home, I expect a parent to sit down with them at least half of each practice session. I coach parents on how to do this: they aren't to criticize, but rather to ask questions: "What else are you supposed to play today? How many times? Do you remember what else Dr. C told you to do when you played this song?" and to give compliments: "I love the way you played that with such a full sound" or "wow, you got that right! Good work!" Parental involvement MUST start at the very first lesson. If a parent doesn't have time to sit down for 20 minutes daily for a practice session (and I don't blame them if they are too busy--I'm asking a lot, especially for parents who also work outside the home), then that student probably won't be a good match for my studio.

Having the parents in the room makes them part of the experience, and I've even seen it do wonders for parent/child relationships.

5. Set practice time expectations. "Ten minutes, twice daily, six days a week" is a good rule for young beginners. Breaking up the practice into two short segments is better for short attention spans and keeps kids from getting bored. 20 minutes daily is a good rule for a beginner. When they are able to focus for that long in a lesson, I tell them I am so proud of them, because now they are GOOD ENOUGH to practice longer! We then add 5 minutes of practice to the daily routine.

With [the original poster's] students it sounds like they ARE making good progress, but perhaps the parents have unrealistic expectations. I think that telling parents that "this is appropriate progress and work for an 8-year-old" is ok to say. It's also our JOB as teachers to warn parents that insisting on hours of daily practice for a tiny kid is just asking for burnout and resentment later. At this age, flute lessons are a "music readiness" experience, not a second chance for a wanna-be stage parent to play an instrument vicariously through his/her child.

6. Rewards. Sure, music should be its own reward, but I've found that most kids like stickers, too! :) Even my college students love getting a smiley-face when they've finished a particularly difficulty Andersen etude!  A big dose of praise is good, too, when students do particularly well. I don't say "nice job" very often, because that's too vague. Rather, lots of mini-compliments such as "wow, you remembered every F-sharp! Nice improvement!" goes a long way. If parents are sitting in on lessons, they'll hear these compliments and realize that the kid really is taking music seriously.

1 comment:

Bret Pimentel said...

Great tips on managing beginning students and their parents--I'm bookmarking this one for future reference.

One of my teachers advocated lots of by-ear work with beginners (a sort of faux Suzuki method), but suggested having them buy some books anyway "so the parents think something is happening."