Part 1 of 4: What do we mean by practice?
BY MEGHAN VANCE • MAY 15, 2023
As teachers, we are often asked by parents how much their student should practice. Usually this question comes up when students first begin taking music lessons. Typically, we recommend that students practice a minimum of thirty minutes per day, with five days of practice per week. But while this is a good guideline and starting point, the question should be asked regularly, and the answer really is “It depends.”
Even before explaining what it depends on, though, it’s best to be clear about what is meant by “practice.” Many students, as well as parents who didn’t receive music lessons themselves, assume that it is simply repetition. If a student just does enough repetition, they’ll learn what they’re doing and it’ll somehow be right. But practice isn’t repetition; it is problem-solving.
As students practice, they are working to play the right notes, rhythms, articulation, and phrasing. They may be working to increase the tempo or to memorize the music. While repetition is often involved, it is a means to an end, not the end itself. Students who are merely repeating often practice below their actual skill level (focusing on problems they have already mastered) and sloppily (ignoring problems in order to finish quickly).
At best, this makes the session nearly useless, and students may finish material without being ready for the next level of repertoire. At worst, students may, by repeating bad habits, actually incur injuries or regress. Either way, the student is likely to find this process more frustrating than rewarding. Progress is necessary for students to feel as though their work is effective.
Practice must be both consistent and careful to be effective. Finding a regular time to work can help students build good consistency. Finding a time that students are engaged and are able to focus without fatigue can help students to be more careful. When a student finds a regular time in their schedule that they feel allows their mind to be fresh and is not filled with distractions and interruptions, effective work usually follows.
While by “practice” we’re often referring to playing the instrument, it’s important to remember that it also includes things like active listening and score study, and studying information such as music theory or history. Students work to hear the music in their head when they look at a printed score, and develop their ears in order to hear nuances of pitch and articulation. As they understand how music is composed, both practically and in a historical context, they learn what problems need to be solved in a piece and how to do so. These skills are a vital part of the problem-solving process students need to succeed.
Finally, an important note for the new parent: if it isn’t clear already, it’s important for you to know that practice is work. When your student practices, they are working to solve problems. And any person – child or adult – given the choice between work and play tends not to choose work. Just like a job for many adults, however, you may find that rewards (paychecks), punishments (starving), or some combination of the two can help motivate your student to practice.
If you’re struggling to convince your student to practice, talk to both your student’s teacher and to other students’ parents to get ideas. However, keep in mind that every student is unique: what works for another student may not work for yours. It may take a while to determine the best strategies and procedures to help your student achieve success on a daily basis.
In part two, we’ll explain why “It depends” is the best answer for “How much should my student practice?”