Does Your Child’s Practice Help Them Progress?
Not all practice is equal. Simply sitting at the instrument for an allotted time each day doesn’t guarantee that your child will progress.
What does progress mean anyway? For me –
- Progress can mean a new piece becomes easy.
- Progress can mean a known piece becoming more beautiful, more like the recording.
- Progress means increased confidence of the child at the instrument and increased desire to play and learn more.
- Progress can mean increasing repertoire and increasing technical skills.
The research around achieving mastery over new skills emphasizes a concept known as “deliberate practice”. Anders Ericsson, professor of Psychology at Florida State University, in his research, has found that “how” one practices determines the level of expertise achieved, more than just the number of times a skill is performed.
“An expert breaks down the skills that are required to be expert and focuses on improving those skill chunks during practice or day-to-day activities, often paired with immediate coaching feedback. Another important feature of deliberate practice lies in continually practising a skill at more challenging levels with the intention of mastering it.”
Deliberate practice was then further studied by Duviver et al in its role in assisting medical students acquire clinical skills. It requires strengths in four personal skills – planning, concentration, repetition/revision and ability to self reflect on learning.
So what does that mean for us as Parent-Teacher(-Coach) and our children’s practice plans?
Tip #1: Be very clear on the weekly goal set by the teacher for each piece or technical item
My personal lesson here is really improving my note-taking, and asking the teacher to clarify what exactly needs to be improved for each item. I also repeat the goal during the lesson for the child so that they also have heard the goal from the teacher and from me.
Tip #2: Break down that goal into daily activities or sub-goals for your child to work on.
This is a large part of the work/effort for the parent-teacher-coach – breaking the weekly goal down into daily, manageable and achievable goals. So for example if a new piece is to be started, work out how it is to be tackled and what needs to be thought about as you begin (particular techniques that may be new, fingering, musicality, etc).
Before they begin playing anything, talk to your child about what we need to think about with this piece or technical work (whether it be musicality, tricky parts, fingering etc).
I try and set phrases to be learnt in a practice rather than just number of bars, though number of bars works as well. Also specify syntax of learning – for piano, right hand, left hand or together. For violin/viola – air fingering, pizzicato, bowing. Here we are modelling what deliberate practice at this instrument for this piece looks like. So that later, they will automatically as way of habit do that when they tackle something new.
Tip #3: Assist your child concentrate on that goal as needed, during the practice
Be careful not to load too much onto the child in any one session in any one piece. I make this mistake often with Thomas on the viola as he has SO much to improve on. His teacher is much better than me at just focusing on one issue at a time. So for example, if I ask him to watch his palm position in the left hand, and he improves, I then immediately ask him to relax his right shoulder for his bow arm. Too much for one practice session – he gets so discouraged and doesn’t enjoy it. I am impatient and need to take a chill pill.
Tip #4: Provide immediate feedback or ask the child to give himself the feedback on what went well, what could be done better, what else could be done around that goal
Feedback is the big differentiator for deliberate practice. That is why having a parent-teacher-coach a la Dr Suzuki’s methodology is so critical and valuable. For sure my children could not improve on their instruments without some sort of supervision (or yelling from the kitchen after each repetition) in the form of feedback (“That was fabulous, you got the run much more clearly. Play it again so you can feel the difference” or “Great concentration to the end of that piece. How did you go with legato in the left hand? Let’s practice that one bar again and see if you can make it even more legato”)
Tip #5: Make changes to plan as necessary based on the feedback and continue repetitions
Sometimes the plan is too ambitious or not ambitious enough. So adjust as you can. I always am quick to cut down the goal if it is discouraging for the child. I am loathe to add more on unless we are having a super, non-tired, well-adjusted kind-of day (not often). But the next day I will certainly be more ambitious. I try and be very communicative and clear when I am making changes to the plan. So for example if a review piece needs extra work, I show the child what I am taking off the initial plan so that we can do more work on this piece.
Tip #6: Discuss what needs to be practiced tomorrow with your child at the end of your practice.
This is so powerful in so many ways. It sets an anticipation and expectation for tomorrow. It rounds off and ends the current practice. And always can end in a cuddle and fist pump.
The bigger picture we are teaching our children through deliberate practice at their instrument, is how to get better at something. This environment of deliberate practice ensures their “grittiness” for their future endeavours – sticking through the hard bits, and finding their passion through the perseverence.
Here is a picture of the real thing for William (Book 1 Suzuki) on the piano. In the really hard to read green writing are my practice notes. My very shortened notes are each piece, include “Cuckoo – smooth” (referring to left hand legato), “London Bridge – lift off” (referring to lift hand off between phrases), “FCS – gently, beautifully, tall hands” (referring to French Children’s Song musicality and technical tall hands). William also got his first sight reading book and earned the right to start learning Lightly Row – left hand.
Below the green are two nights practice notes in blue pen. The tick is the number of times we did the work on each piece. For revision pieces we may do it once. For the new piece (Lightly Row left hand) we do more repetitions.
Here is the daily practice journal for Eddie (also Book 1 Suzuki piano). F stands for Froggy which is TwinkleA. TO or TG stands for hands together. HB stands for Honey bee. RH stands for Right hand, LH stands for Left hand, C stands for Cuckoo, LR stands for Lightly Row. As we are just learning Cuckoo and Lightly Row, the tick boxes refers to the times we repeat the new phrases we are learning – we are not doing the full piece yet. You will see I start with twinkles every night. I also do this with William as well now. It is what they play while I am sorting out the plan for the whole session and rereading my lesson notes.
Here is an example of lesson notes for Thomas. It just gives the one word for what needs to be worked on. It is very short I know – but I do understand it!
I have actually typed up a much more formal and useful daily practice plan for you! It provides space for all pieces and technical notes and goals, as well as check boxes to show repetitions done. I am going to start using it especially for Thomas who certainly has more he needs to cover each day than the littlies. Click the button below and I will email the pdf version to you so you can print and use at home! Tell me what you think and how I should adjust it to make it more useful!