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We’re Practice Pal. Practice is what we do. Sure, there are plenty of posts out there to help your child with their music practice, but we’ve clocked up literally thousands of hours of supervised music practice. So we reckon we’re in a unique position to bestow our top tips for making those practice hours count!
1. Be in the same room
Children practice for longer and feel less daunted about practice when they have company. Being in the same room gives children the confidence to keep playing, even during those tricky passages! This isn’t necessarily about giving them advice or pointers, rather just being there tends to give children the confidence to play and aids their perseverance. You could use it as an opportunity to do some admin, organise the online grocery shop, have a cup of tea or even read a book. Just by having you near, your child will feel like they’re working alongside you but without pressure of your undivided attention. Then, when they ask you things like ‘what do you think of this bit?’ then you’re right there to support them and they don’t lose their focus.
2. Take it Slow
This is probably the tip that makes the biggest difference with how fast you can progress. In our experience, children find it genuinely hard to believe that practising slowly is the shortcut to being able to play something well. It’s true! Even though so many pupils are convinced that by playing things really fast they’re nailing it. But when you practise slowly, your brain has more time to process, analyse and understand what you’re doing. The muscles have time to learn to control the required movements with precision and without tension. So that means they’re able to concentrate on playing the right notes in the right order without making mistakes along the way. From what we’ve seen, when a student plays something correctly the first couple of times they try it, from then on they’ll always play it correctly. If they’ve initially played too fast and made mistakes in the first few attempts, the incorrect version will have already started to embed. It can then take weeks to correct mistakes and get back to the position they would have been in if they had played slowly enough in the first place. The mantra ‘if you make a mistake then you’re playing too fast’ is a really useful one to bear in mind – our practice mentors still have to say this to themselves when they’re learning something tricky!
3. Big Up the Metronome
This might not seem particularly innovative, but it really is an amazing tool. Given that the metronome was invented in the 9th century and has since remained a staple of a musician’s toolbox (check out digital ones or apps), this should help you understand just how useful they really are! A top tip for using a metronome would be to use subdivisions of the beats so that pupils can practice nice and slowly. One that counts the beats out loud can be really useful too. Use semiquaver subdivisions of a crotchet beat to begin with and then as you start to speed up the tempo move to quaver subdivisions before removing them altogether. This teaching tool is invaluable, so don’t let anyone tell you it’s cheating! Without it you could really struggle with the even spacing of notes, or iron out those habits of speeding up as you get louder and slowing down as you get quieter.
4. Divide the Piece into Small Chunks
We know pupils want to play the whole piece through. The temptation is real. But splitting the music up into smaller chunks can be hugely beneficial. By repeating a small section, you can build up confidence, accuracy and strength. If you’re playing through the whole piece, page or line then you don’t end up feeling as familiar with each part of it. Take a bar and repeat it until you feel you could do it in your sleep (slowly, with a metronome). Listen to the evenness of the rhythm, the quality of the sound and the accuracy of the intonation. They’ll be so happy the next time they come to practice and all that repetition pays off!
5. Write on the Music
There really aren’t rules against writing on sheet music. Sheet music is not an artefact to preserve, it’s a worksheet! It’s about learning to play the music, rather than the performance of it. We would really have to disagree with exam boards who frown on too much annotation, because the benefits are enormous. Encourage your child to mark out the small chunks that they want to work at repeating, make a note of the metronome mark they’re working with at the top of the page (they can see their progress from last week!), write in counting, circle articulation and write on any other details they might want to remember while they’re practising. You can even use different coloured highlighters to help with reading music – for children who struggle to recognise the difference between notes on the stave, different colours for notes on different lines is a total game-changer. Keep it tidy thought, if a student’s music looks like an abstract artwork with a mass of markings and annotations, it is likely that their playing will be anything but a mess!
The difference between following these guidelines or not is vast. By practising in this way, the speed of progress will skyrocket and you’ll be so grateful you took note! Remember, it’s all about playing ‘how slow can you go?’ with small sections, company, scribbling and more tick tock (less TikTok!). Then repeat. You got this.