Practical Practice Tips: Make it fun

One of the biggest reasons students don’t (or won’t) practice is because it’s not fun. When we’re dealing with pre-schoolers and grade-schoolers (maybe even middle-schoolers to some extent), the primary reason it’s not fun is because it takes time away from something that is fun, like playing computer games, sports or other extracurricular activities. Part of the teacher’s job is to teach the parent how to keep it fun between lessons so the student will want to practice. At some point, either the student will take over the responsibility of making it fun for themselves, or be motivated by something other than fun, or they’ll move on to other things. There’s no shame in quitting lessons if it causes a student to regress emotionally or psychologically.

For the little ones, a really successful way to make it fun is to turn practice into a game. There are many ways to do this, but some of the best ways challenge the kid to do something that the parent does easily. You could call it the “Contradiction Game” or the “Betcha Can’t Game”. It works really well with my four-year-old son  who, if told he can’t do something because he’s too small or whatever, immediately does it.  “You can’t pick up your toys faster than I can!” is much more successful for us than “Pick up your toys. Now. Please.”

Contests also work well, especially for grade-schoolers. When my studio was involved in a 100-day practice challenge in the spring of 2008, my student Cameron asked me two questions every single lesson: what day it was on the practice challenge, and if the other students were still in the running for the grand prize. It provided a fun motivator for him to practice, and he ended up winning the grand prize. Unfortunately, I discovered after the challenge was completed that the motivation sometimes disappears. Contests can be rigged up for whatever goal you’re trying to accomplish. Some of the ones I’ve run, as a larger studio thing, have included “100 Days in a Row Practice”, playing a recital piece 100 times before the recital, making a certain number of correct bow holds, and others.

Older students usually have a different definition of fun. I’m not always sure what it is, but thinking back to when I was in high school, the fun came from things like orchestra trips and contests and auditions. As long as there is some kind of motivation or goal that they’re working toward, that is usually enough to give them whatever it is that they’re looking for from music. The best part is that sometimes they’ll even trust you enough to share their motivation with you.

Another reason that fun ceases to exist during practicing is that the practice goal is too large. Until certain playing techniques become automatic, lots of reminders need to be offered: check your bow thumb, check your feet, is your tickle spot open?, and so on. The tendency for a lot of students is to start playing through the entire piece, even if (and, for some reason, especially when) the teacher says “Wait! Only practice the hard spots this week!” I often ask my students, “How did practice go this week?” The usual responses are “Fine” or “OK”.  Sometimes, I’ll call their bluff and tell them to just practice for ten minutes or so during the lesson, exactly like they would at home. It’s often eye-opening, but usually confirms my suspicions about what’s really happening, which is usually not OK or not fine. I’m amazed, even after teaching for fifteen-plus years, at how often my instructions and practice tips are ignored, even after spending a whole lesson working on them.

Personally, I think practice is much more fun when I can actually hear my progress, when pieces start to become easy. Easy equals fun. Conversely, fun can create an environment that makes it easy. The balance between easy and fun is something that the student must find, and the teacher is only too happy to help. Just ask!

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