“Show me a child who would like to practice instead of going to play with his friends, especially at the age of six!” *
How to get a student to practice. I wish I had an easy answer for that. Dr. Shinichi Suzuki said that practice should be fun and I agree with him in principle. The problem is that we live in a modern world with working mothers and children who have many activities. There just isn’t the time to catch that golden moment when everyone is in the mood. I have never had a family where practice was always this wonderful moment for everyone to enjoy together. Not even my own family. We must also remember that Suzuki developed his method in Japan for Japanese mothers and children. I have had Japanese students and they are marvelous. Such discipline! And that’s the point. Apparently Japanese children are so disciplined that Suzuki was trying to get their mothers to lighten up a bit. Most of us live in the west and deal with mothers and children who are culturally very different.
My first point is: forget about practice being fun all the time. Sometimes it is and often it is not. We must TELL THE TRUTH. If students think they should always enjoy practicing and don’t, or the parents think that they should always make it fun and they can’t, then they will all feel guilty and inept. This does not lead to anything productive. If they know there are good moments and difficult ones, too, then students and parents will feel better about it all.
Let’s examine why students don’t practice.
A lot depends on why they come to lessons in the first place:
- To learn the instrument.
- To have contact with an adult who is totally focused on them.
- To learn something about the instrument without taking it “seriously.”
- Because their parents insist.
- Because it seems like a good idea.
- Any combination of the above.
Whatever the motivation, we cannot assume that all our students arrive with a burning desire to play the instrument and the dedication and discipline to practice always and well. Sooner or later there is going to be a problem of some kind, each different from the other. We cannot say, “My student doesn’t practice” and that’s that. There is always a reason for this problem that we have to try to figure out and then deal with. It’s part of the job description.
So here are various reasons why they don’t practice and what to try:
MAKE SURE YOUR STUDENTS KNOW THAT PRACTICING AND PLAYING ARE TWO DIFFERENT THINGS.
Practicing is not (always) fun. Playing is. Sometimes students tell me they do not like to play. When I ask them if they don’t like to play or don’t like to practice, the answer is almost always the latter. I ask them if their mothers want their houses to be clean. Of course, they say. But does your mother jump for joy every time she gets to run the vacuum cleaner? No, they answer. Does she cry or have a temper tantrum? No. So there you have it: you like a clean house? You have to clean it. You like to play music? Ya gotta practice. My students are often relieved upon hearing this. They were beginning to think something was wrong with them. It is important to make this distinction.
PARENTS HAVE TO BE CONVINCED THAT MUSIC EDUCATION SHOULD BE JUST LIKE SCHOOL WORK – OBLIGATORY.
It can be very difficult to convince parents to get their children to practice. For some reason in our society parents sometimes think that music should be a passion that a child should choose and that if a child does not want to practice, then he shouldn’t play the instrument. My question to such parents: what do you say if they tell you they don’t want to go to school (or study if home-schooled)? What do you say if they tell you they don’t want to speak English (or whatever their mother tongue is)? I live in an overwhelmingly Catholic country where no one thinks twice about sending their children to catechism for hours a week for 10 years. We make choices for our children unquestioningly – why should music be different from any other education we give them? We can also remind parents that they are spending a lot of time and money on this investment. We can be understanding of their problems with their children, of course, and we do not have to insist that students practice every day or for long periods of time, but that consistency should be the goal.
PARENTS AND CHILDREN HAVE LITTLE OR NO TIME
It’s a good idea to practice at a set hour every day, preferably right after school before the children start in on their homework or other activities. Many parents and children already know this and when they tell you that time is the problem, they are really appealing to you to help them feel better about their small amount of practicing. My answer is that a little is better than nothing, so they should do what they can. When children are older and can practice on their own, they sometimes take off and make incredible progress in a short time, something they never could have done had they not had the instrument in their hands all those years. I have seen this happen over and over again. Yes, this is not the way to train a concert violinist, but is that our only goal?
PARENTS ARE TRYING TO GIVE TOO MUCH RESPONSIBILITY TO THEIR CHILDREN
Nowadays, parents are so busy they feel they don’t have the time and energy to help their children or they feel their children should be more mature, so they try to shift responsibility to them. This is a terrible mistake. Children who do not have the discipline or are not ready will fail and feel like failures. I tell parents to talk a lot less to their children (I mean the nagging type of talking) so that when they do say something, it counts. Don’t harangue children about playing their tape or CD. Put it on for them – it takes a lot less energy and time in the long run. Get their instruments out for them, find the music, etc. Don’t go on about it. Practicing will surely never be fun if you have to make a federal case out of everything. They will do all this for themselves when they are bigger so not to worry.
MAKE SURE YOUR STUDENTS KNOW WHY THEY PLAY THE INSTRUMENT
I have seen this so many times: children with proficiency on the instrument who do not have the slightest idea why they play. The remedy for this? Group class.
Group classes are fun and educational but I use them also and mostly to play repertory pieces (even very simple ones) outside of any method. When we do Christmas carols, for example. I let the beginners mess up the bowings and fingerings just as long as they get the notes (and I don’t make a fuss if they mistake C natural for C sharp). The more songs they learn, the more they participate, the happier and more motivated they are, and the more they learn. (I am really fussy about our “regular” pieces and studies, however.) I use these pieces as bait. Once I had a little girl who would not play on the D string. We were at an impasse for months until she told me that she wanted to play “Silent Night.” When I told her that I was so sorry that that would not be possible as there were notes on the D string, she sighed and gave in. We never had another problem after that. (She is now a conservatory graduate.) I have succeeded in getting more kids to practice this way than any other. I also use this approach to get them to read music so they can play pieces that I will not let them learn from memory (quartets, for example, which we play with many violins per part).
The most convincing argument to get them to practice for group lessons is that they are part of a team and if they don’t do their part, they let everyone down. Of course, I pick repertory pieces that reinforce technique and they have a lot of fun. I remember one 14 year old boy who wasn’t much of a practicer. I had him play quartets with 3 beautiful girls (giving him the easiest part) and he suddenly, surprisingly and permanently became very interested in practicing. A student doesn’t want to vibrato or doesn’t practice his position changes effectively?” Sorry, you won’t be able to play the Pachelbel canon.”** Whatever works is fine. We have to be creative in finding something that students do want to play that gives them incentive to practice whatever technical point we are pushing at that moment. I also use Vivaldi concertos for 4 violins. I tell the “soloists” that I know I can count on them to practice their parts well: “I know this is difficult for you but we are counting on you to practice this well. We all know you can do it.” Also the smaller students hear what the more advanced students play and it comes naturally for them to want to play those pieces, too. And to cement their practicing – public performances and recitals. I do two group recitals a year and, whenever invited, a public performance every now and then. I always say there is nothing like a public performance to make your students get their chops up!
Next, Students who practice (or don’t) on their own.
* Viktoria Mullova, from the same interview
** For those of you musicians who think that the Pachelbel canon is not “good” music, remember that the parents like it, the students love it and you probably did, too, in your youth.