The ‘Mozart Effect’ has been much discussed in the media and research has shown that taking an active part in music making can help brain development. On top of this the social and organisational of playing an instrument are well documented. These advantages often do not come without effort however and any parent with a musical child will be able to tell you that outside lessons the biggest headache can be encouraging children to practise at home. And it is this private practice which is vital in ensuring good progress and maintaining enthusiasm.
The best teacher in the world will be able to do little if work outside the lesson does not reinforce what is being taught. A lack of practice can be de-motivating for pupils, dispiriting for teachers and leave parents wondering if their money might not be better spent elsewhere. Ultimately, of course, it results in children giving up their instrumental or singing lessons and therefore m issing out completely on the many benefits they could have enjoyed.
So what can parents and teachers do to ensure that enthusiasm is maintained and progress is made? Clearly the teacher pupil relationship is important and finding a good teacher should always be the first step on the road to learning to play or sing effectively.
Teachers and practice
The best teacher in the world cannot make you a better musician. They can show you the way forward, give helpful tips on how to achieve your goals and even open your ears to styles of music you have never heard before. As with so many things, however, real improvement will only come through practice in your own time. In lessons your teacher can assess how you are getting along, help you iron out any problems you have been experiencing and give you advice on what and how to practise next! Your teacher should also be able to give you guidance on what, how often and how long to practise.
Eleven Great Practice Habits
- Keep your practice regular. Try to practise a little every day rather than doing a marathon session just before your lesson! Don’t worry if you can’t practise at the same time every day but do try to schedule some time for practice into your daily timetable.
- Warm up. Even if you do not have much time for practice on a particular day make sure that you do a proper warm up. This can really help to settle your technique and provide a solid foundation on which to build.
- Set yourself goals: It is easier properly to structure your practice if you have a clear idea of what you want to achieve in any particular session.
- Don’t practise your mistakes! Repetition is important but only if it is right! Before you practise anything, try to make sure that you know what you are supposed to be doing. If you are not sure how something is supposed to sound or you don’t understand a passage, ask your teacher or practise something else until you can.
- Scales. Try to include some scales in all your practice. They are important for improving technique and your knowledge of keys. Despite their fearsome reputation they can be fun!
- Practice in chunks. Try breaking up complicated pieces into smaller more manageable bits. Remember also to practise stringing the different sections together.
- Practise with a pianist whenever you can: Practising with an accompaniment is much better preparation for exams and performances. It also makes more sense of the music you play. If you can’t get together with a real life accompanist try www.opuscopus.com where you will find mp3 accompaniments for hundreds of pieces for all instruments.
- Keep it interesting! Don’t spend all your time trying to practise just one thing. Vary your practise, perhaps with an easier piece or study.
- Slow practice gets faster results: practise difficult sections slowly and thoroughly before you try to speed them up.
- Keep fresh: never practise when you are tired. You are unlikely to achieve anything more than making yourself frustrated.
Remember: regular and focussed practice is the single most important thing you can do to ensure you achieve your full musical potential.Keep your practice regular
It is not a good idea to do all your practice in one big chunk. Over a long session you can tire quickly, physically and mentally, making your practice gradually less efficient and effective. Regular practice spread through the week will help reinforce the things you are trying to learn as well as helping to build up the muscles you need to gain mastery over your instrument.
Just as an athlete needs to stretch and warm up before competing, so any instrumentalist or singer should ease gently into their practice sessions. Don’t be tempted to dive straight in to the most difficult passages. You almost certainly will not make any useful progress will waste time and leave yourself feeling frustrated. Many people feel that they need to ‘get right on’ with the difficult bits and that warming up can be a waste of time, but warming up properly can actually help to consolidate your technique, settle your breathing, loosen your fingers and make sure that your practice is efficient and constructive.
Set Yourself Goals
You will structure your practice to be more efficient if you have some idea of what you want to achieve before you start! It is probable that your teacher will have set you targets for the week so it might be a good idea to choose one or two to work on in each session. Perhaps this could be working to get a particular passage under your fingers or to improve the dynamic (louds and softs) contrast in a piece. What is important is that you stay focussed on the goals you have set and don’t allow yourself to be distracted.
Don’t practise your mistakes
Nothing is worse than doing some really good, efficient practice only to discover that you been getting it all wrong! Even worse, once you have really got something ‘under your fingers’ it can be difficult to unlearn the work you have done. To avoid this try to listen carefully to what your teacher tells you in your lesson and ask him or her to write instructions down for you to help you remember. If you are still unsure when you get home, try asking a friend or parent to help you, listen to a recording of the piece if you have one or failing all else practise something you are more sure of until you can get advice.
Let’s be honest scales are not usually anybody’s favourite part of music practice but they are important for several reasons. Some teachers will tell you that scales are good for your technique and others will say that they help improve your range, stamina and tuning. They are quite right, of course, but perhaps the most important reason we practise scales is that they help us play in different keys. And without key changes music would be as boring as staring at a canvas covered entirely in one colour! For help on making scale learning easier and actually fun try a book like ‘Face Your Fear – Scales’.
Practice in chunks
Sometimes the pieces we have to learn can look a little daunting at first. It is important not to bite off more than you can chew but to break your practice down into smaller, more manageable challenges. You might decide to concentrate on a particular passage, a single line or even just a few bars. As long as you remain focussed on your targets the practice session will be constructive and rewarding. Even the most seasoned professional musicians occasionally have to resort to practising single bars.
Practise with a pianist whenever you can.
Too often pupils enter the exam room or walk onto the concert platform having played with an accompanist only briefly beforehand! This really is unsatisfactory preparation for any kind of performance. If you cannot find a friendly accompanist to rehearse with regularly, try opuscopus.com accompaniments. They have hundreds of pieces for all instrumentalists and singers. You can download the pieces you need and play them on your mp3 player while you play along – or burn them to CD. They even include tracks recorded at slower tempos for you to use while you are building your confidence.
Keep it interesting!
Try to keep your practice varied. Don’t spend all your time trying to practise just one thing. Perhaps you could spend some time working at a difficult passage and then play through a piece you know well and enjoy. Or try mixing scale practice with some improvisation in the keys you are learning.
Slow practice gets faster results
Never be tempted to run before you can walk. It is easy to end up ‘fudging’ quick passages if they are not practised slowly at first. It is often then really hard to keep control of your playing. Slow practice allows you to gain real control at all tempos. You might want to rush into playing your pieces up to speed but you will produce a polished performance much more quickly if you start slow!
It is difficult to concentrate on anything when you are tired and if you are going to make your practice efficient you will need a fresh mind. 15 minutes of really good focussed practice is worth more than hours of working if your mind is wandering so it is better to do a short and focussed practice session than a long and aimless one. Tired practice is unlikely to achieve anything more than frustration.
So good luck and remember: although learning an instrument or singing can sometimes be frustrating, ultimately it is one of the most rewarding activities you can engage in so keep practising and enjoy!
Antony Copus has performed with most of the United Kingdom’s great orchestras: the London Symphony Orchestra, the Philharmonia, the Halle and the BBC Symphony amongst many others. He was Director of Music at Bradfield College, near London, for some years before starting [http://www.opuscopus.com] a company dedicated to providing fun and innovative resources for young and experienced musicians alike. Visit opuscopus.com for hundreds of high quality mp3 accompaniments, exciting new books to help learning scales and improve rhythm, free resouces and much more.
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