If your student is having a hard time learning a new song, make sure you are listening to your CD enough. If a student hasn’t really internalized a piece of music through repeated listening, it will be very hard for them to play it. If you’re stalled on a piece and getting frustrated, set it aside for a few days and focus on listening. Make it into a challenge or game. “How many times do you think we can listen to May Song on the way to school?” or “How many “Long, Long Agos” is it to the mall?”. Make up your own lyrics and sing them when you listen.
Have a specific goal for each thing you practice
Avoid vague instructions like “play it better”. Try to be specific in both your stated goals and your corrections. For example, “let’s play the A scale and make sure the high G# is in tune” or “good job! Let’s play it again and this time make sure we go the same tempo as the CD”. Even if there are many things that need improvement, it’s best to pick one goal at a time. This lets the student know exactly what you are trying to improve, and creates a goal that is easily achievable.
Use rewards (in the right way)
Rewards can be very motivational when practicing. I think rewards should be based on long-term achievements, like “after 10 good practice days in a row, we can get ice cream”. Short term goals are sometimes made of out of desperation, like “if you just plays this scale right, I’ll buy you that toy!”. These are less effective in the long run, and don’t really teach good practice habits or work ethic like long-term goals do.
Kids love repetition, so use it
Kids actually really like repetition, so don’t be afraid to ask them to do things many times. It’s helpful to make it into a game. You could roll a dice and have them play a scale the number that the dice lands on. You can play the “consistency game”, where a student has to play something a set number of times with no mistakes. For example: “play your D scale 3 times in a row with no mistakes.” If they get 2 and mess up the 3rd, they have to start counting back at 1. Pick a low number (5 or less) so it’s not too hard to achieve. Kids usually respond well to the challenge of repetition.
Pick a time that works for you
Select a practice time where you and your student can give the best focus and attention possible. Practice can be one of the first things to go when we are overloaded or stressed, so remember that you’ve made it a priority. If you have a busy schedule, be consistent with your practice time until that it becomes part of the routine. If you are having a hard time with practicing consistently, try scheduling all your practices for the whole week so that you know exactly when and how long you will practice each day and can plan accordingly.
Value quality over quantity
When in doubt, it’s better to practice a shorter time with more focus than to have a longer session where less is accomplished. If you are having a day when you are short on time or patience, pick one or two things to work on. 15 minutes focused on fixing a few very specific things is time well spent!
Don’t be afraid to expect a lot
When teaching young students, I never stopped being amazed by how much they can do! From my experience, students will generally rise to your expectations, so long as they are appropriate and achievable. Many people think that young kids should just play around and have fun on instruments and should only take it more seriously when they’re older. This approach can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. One reason Suzuki has such success is because we believe that even very young children can learn to play music beautifully and with proper technique. Every student is different, and in lessons we will establish expectations tailored to your child’s level.
Respect the point of diminishing returns
One of the best skills you can have with a student (as a teacher or a parent) is to know when to let something go. It’s good to push kids and expect a lot, but at the same time when a specific exercise is no longer helping, it’s perfectly fine to switch to something else, even if you haven’t completely achieved your goal for that activity. Be aware of a student’s body language and other cues to gauge their level of frustration. I think pushing through frustration is a valuable skill and we certainly don’t want to encourage stopping just because something is tough, but at the same time knowing when you’ve reach that elusive point past which no progress will be made on a given task will help keep practicing positive.
Treat practicing like Vegas
Just like Vegas, what happens in practice stays in practice! If you have a negative practice session, work hard to leave that emotion in the practice session. We don’t want students associating practice with negative feelings, so if a practice session doesn’t go well and there are tears or raised voices, makes sure to end the session with a bow and a hug. Don’t let those emotions carry over into other family activities that day.
Don’t worry, be happy!
I enjoy teaching because I love music so much, whether I’m playing a Dvorak symphony or twinkle with a 5 year old. Music is a wonderful thing to have in your life. That doesn’t mean EVERY minute of being a musician is pure fun (as we all know, it’s not), but never lose sight of what a wonderful thing your are doing for your child. Keep your eye on the big picture and approach your musical activities with joy and enthusiasm. Kids will pick up on this. The key is to be serious without taking yourself too seriously!