How Much Do We Need to Practice?
Suzuki teachers genuinely believe that every child can learn to play a musical instrument. However, no one can learn to play a musical instrument without practice. And the most significant factor in determining how quickly, and how well, a child learns to play their instrument is the consistency, quality and quantity of home practicing. It is the parent’s – not the child’s – responsibility to ensure that practice sessions are both regular and successful.
Dr. Suzuki said, “Only practice on the days you eat.” The gold standard is daily practice. Take a really hard look at your schedule, and work out when it is that you are going to be able to practice every day with your child. Many young children are fresh and most able to learn in the mornings…but if mornings are stressful already, it would be better to pick a different time, when you can be 100% focused on your child. It’s generally easiest to establish a routine if you practice at the same time every day, e.g., after dinner we practice, then we brush our teeth, have a bath, read stories and go to bed.
Consistent daily practicing is not easy to achieve, but it is the foundation for success, and it is the first objective that you, as the parent, must pursue. When daily practice is something you do, like eating dinner and brushing your teeth, then this makes the practice relationship easier. Until daily practicing is absolutely routine, you should always take your child’s instrument with you on holidays.
Just as important as consistent practicing is consistent listening. Children who listen consistently not only learn new repertoire more easily – they also retain the old pieces better. Make sure that you listen every day to the reference recording. Keep it in your CD player; on your iPod; in your car stereo. Just automatically put it on when you are driving anywhere with your child. You will know that you are listening enough when everyone in the family sings the Suzuki pieces in the shower.
As the parent, it is your responsibility to find a way to work with your child to make the home practice sessions pleasant and productive. This isn’t always easy. It will take you some time to work out how to work best with your child. Some children work best starting with tasks that they are familiar with, and feel confident executing, before moving onto the newest practicing assignments. Other children do best with the reverse pattern. Some children thrive on practicing games; others are more task-oriented. Your job is to use your creativity and parenting skills to figure out what will keep your child focused and ensure that they are able to complete the assigned tasks.
Practicing doesn’t ‘make it right’ – practicing makes it consistent. If your child consistently practices playing sloppily, then this is how they learn to play. So you want to pay attention to the quality of the practice. It is better to have your child repeat a task three times well rather than six or ten times badly. Children generally want to please their parents, so if practice is consistently sloppy you need to ask yourself ‘why?’ Are you practicing at a time of day when your child is just too tired? Is the task too hard? Is the practice session too long? There are lots (and lots) of resources available that will help you to become a more effective home teacher; don’t hesitate to use them.
With a beginning student, the consistency and quality of practicing should be the biggest focus. So your first goal should be to learn to practice, every day, for 10-15 minutes.
Once you have the daily practice routine established, you can slowly build up the time spent practicing every day. It takes a lot of energy to practice effectively, and children vary greatly – even from day to day – with respect to how long they can practice without losing their focus. You may be better trying to schedule two (or three) shorter practice sessions rather than one longer one: do the work on the new material in the mornings, and tackle review by having your child perform a bed-time concert every night for their stuffed animals. The best approach is the one that works for your child, and your family.
After consistency and quality, the quantity of practice time is the biggest driver of progress in learning to play the instrument. A child who practices 20 minutes daily is practicing twice as much as a child who practices 10 minutes a day, and is likely to be learning more quickly as a result. With children from about age 6 onwards, the expectation is that they should be practicing every day for at least as long as their weekly lesson. A typical 30-minute practice session for a child in late Book 1 or 2 might involve 3-5 minutes of scales or tonalization exercises, 10 minutes of work on their ‘working piece’, 5 minutes of work polishing their most recent piece, and 10-12 minutes of review. Don’t skip review – this is absolutely crucial for solidifying all of the skills that your child is learning in each new piece.
By the time a student is in Book 3-4, they probably should practice between 45-60 minutes a day, and students beyond Book 4 generally need to practice at least one hour a day. Advanced students (beyond the Suzuki repertoire) often practice for 2 or 3 hours a day.
Students who practice consistently and effectively do get a reward: they make more progress. Students who make more progress feel successful and self-confident. Students who feel successful and self-confident take pleasure in making music.
The goal of establishing a daily practice routine is not to turn your child into a virtuoso, or even a professional musician. The goal of establishing a daily practice routine is to create the conditions under which your child will develop a genuine love for music, and the capacity and desire to play music for the rest of their life. Dr. Suzuki said that “Where love is deep, much may be accomplished’….including daily practice.
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