Progressing Through Practice
Updated: Apr 16, 2022
Ask any instrumental music teacher what the single most important indicator for student progress is and they will almost certainly (and emphatically) say 'practice!'.
But what constitutes practice? Is 10 minutes once a week enough? Should I expect my child to just willingly go to the piano and sit down to do their weekly practice on their own, effectively?
I want to preface what I'm about to write by pointing out that the only person who truly knows what works best for your family is you. When I give advice about practice, I try to offer different options and ways of engaging in meaningful practice that are still flexible and work for different family situations.
When I was a child, I was lucky enough to have a very caring, supportive and strict (read: Hungarian) father who would sit with me each and every day after school to make sure that I practised properly and didn't skip over anything. My father is not at all musically trained, but he would carefully read all the notes that my teacher would write in my notebook and make sure that we both understood what was expected of me for my scales and each of my pieces. He would also often point to my music and ask me questions about what was in there, what particular symbols or words meant, and if I couldn't answer his questions to his standard, I would have to write them in a notebook and present them to my teacher next lesson for her to explain to me.
Many of my students will have heard me talk about this; I went through a stage when I was about 9 that lasted for a couple of years where I absolutely resented and hated practice and playing piano, but it was such an ingrained part of my weekly schedule, a non-negotiable expectation, that I didn't fight too hard against it (my father might disagree with this). I came out of that phase loving music and willing myself to work harder than ever to achieve my practice goals.
I know that now, we are all much busier than generations before. My father was free in the afternoons to help me with piano and homework because he worked nightshift, not during the day. I understand that things are not the same these days for many families. However, I do believe that there are some fundamental ideas from my father's way of doing things that I can pass on to my students and their families in order to help set up and maintain a good practice routine.
At least once a week, sit down with your child and ask them about their practice. Preferably, before the first practice session after their weekly lesson. Ask them questions, 'which scales do you need to play?', 'Do you have any warm ups?', 'What is the new piece you are playing this week?', 'Have you written any new songs?' Find out what they are doing, getting your child to verbalise their practice expectations will help them to also remember what they are meant to be doing. For the intermediate level students, asking more targeted questions such as 'What are you working on in this piece?' and asking about musical terminology or symbols present in the scores also is a great way to engage in this conversation with your child and get them to verbalise their learning.
Create a practice schedule together and stick to it. It is a great idea to collaboratively work out the practice schedule that will best suit you and your child. I strongly encourage you to discuss with your child different times and days that may suit so that they feel like they have some autonomy. It is vitally important to stick to the schedule, we all know that consistency is the key to building great habits.
Practice requires discipline and children need constant encouragement and modelling to build discipline. I don't think that anyone is really born with great natural discipline. It takes consistency, hard work and encouragement. By sitting with me every day when I practised, my father was modelling discipline. I know that this is a big ask for most families, but you can still encourage your child to have discipline by helping them stick to their practice schedule, reminding them, setting alarms/reminders on devices, for example, without taking time out of your busy schedule to sit with them and focus on their practice during every session.
How long should your child be practising for?
Beginners (first and second piano books): Beginner pieces are quite short, so 15 minutes 4-5 times a week is plenty. Practice should include: a warm up, 1 or 2 new pieces (depending on what was learnt in the lesson), 1 or 2 old pieces, 1 or 2 of their own compositions, a few minutes of fun play (playing a song in a funny voice on a keyboard, exploring sounds on the instrument, improvising, writing songs etc, just playing/mucking around).
Upper beginner - early intermediate (third piano book, pop songs etc): Practice at this level should be at least 20 mins 4 - 5 times a week and should include: scales and technical exercises, pieces with specific focus, some fun exploration/improvisation/song writing etc.
Exams, preliminary/grade one: Practice at this level should be at least 20 mins 4 - 5 times a week and should include: scales and technical exercises, exam pieces with specific focus, some fun exploration/improvisation/song writing/pieces for fun etc.
Exams, grade two/grade 3: Practice at this level should be at least 30 minutes 4 - 5 times a week and should include scales and technical exercises, exam pieces with specific focus, some fun exploration/improvisation/song writing/playing old favourite pieces/pop songs etc.
Exams, grade 4/grade 5: Practice at this level should be at least 40 minutes 4 - 5 times a week and should include scales and technical exercises, exam pieces with specific focus, some fun exploration/improvisation/song writing/playing old favourite pieces/pop songs etc.
Exams, grade 6 and above: Practice at this level should be at least 60 minutes 4 - 5 times a week and should include scales and technical exercises, exam pieces with specific focus, some fun exploration/improvisation/song writing/playing old favourite pieces/pop songs etc.