Just about everyone I’ve talked to has a challenge with getting their kids to practice.
I too had this issue.
When my son Alejandro was young, not only was I the parent, but also the teacher. It was very challenging and we would often end our lessons in tears – his and mine!
It was extremely frustrating!
It’s like that quote from the film Cool Hand Luke.
“What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
It’s true. Communication is probably the biggest challenge humans face in all walks of life.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
– George Bernard Shaw
At age 9, Alejandro went to camp and became “piano guy” as he banged out requests on the old upright in the mess hall. Now at 16, he seeks out time to practice on his own. It’s become an outlet, a passion and a constant companion. Music has become part of his identity.
So how did we get here?
Flashback to ten years ago. My brilliant and beautiful wife knows a lot about developmental psychology. Besides giving me a time out! – she gave me a book to read. You may already know about it.
Reading this book was a major breakthrough for me.
In the book, the authors discuss four key strategies:
Listen with full attention
Acknowledge their feelings with a word
Give their feelings a name
Give them their wishes in fantasy
Listen with full attention
This is a rarity nowadays. I’ve seen so many parents staring at their smart devices while their children are begging for some attention. When Alejandro was a toddler, he would grab our faces and literally turn our heads and say, “Look at me!” Pretty funny and effective.
Getting attention is like getting oxygen. Your child wants your attention, approval and notice of what they are doing. Practice time can be an incredible bonding time. Get interested in what they are doing, and they will do more of it. It’s why I recommend always placing the piano in the center of the living space. It shows you care about this and it’s important to you.
Did you ever notice how sports-crazed kids usually have sport-crazed parents? It’s the same with music, movies, arts, crafts, dance, whatever. Your children want to share in your passions. In other words, where your attention is.
Acknowledge their feelings with a word
It doesn’t even have to be a full word. It can be just, “Oh” or “Hmm” or just a caring look and nod of acknowledgement. One thing that is also very powerful is to just reiterate what they said. This works wonders when your child is upset. They don’t necessarily want or need you to fix things, they just want to be heard. As a man, I know I have the tendency to want to fix the problem, as the book Men are from Mars, Women from Venus illustrated for me. My wife sometimes just needs me to hear her, not fix the problem! The same is true for your kids.
Give their feelings a name
This is especially useful for younger kids who don’t have the vocabulary to express what they are feeling. Heck, many adults don’t either! There is a movement towards social-emotional learning (SEL) with full curricula to emphasize this.
When your child is upset, they don’t always have the words to tell you what they are feeling. Giving them a vocabulary is relieving in that they are acknowledged.
This chart used to be on my refrigerator. It is a useful way of articulating how you’re feeling.
You can try having your child point to the picture that most describes what they are feeling right now.
Bonus points if you make that face too!
Give Them Their Wishes in Fantasy
This is fun and a way to build empathy and connection. Obviously your child knows it’s a fantasy. But they feel heard and acknowledged. You’ll see what I mean below.
Here’s two examples of how to talk about practicing, one obviously better than the other.
Child: I don’t want to practice
Parent (looking at phone) : You have to practice! How are you going to get better?
Child: But I don’t want to!
Parent: It’s not a choice just go do it!
Parent: You know you need to practice – why don’t you just go practice?
Child: I don’t feel like it.
Parent: Well I don’t feel like doing many things either, but I have to. Do you think I want to go on the stinky subway everyday? Now go and practice, NOW!
Child leaves crying and bangs on the piano.
Parent: What did I do?
Child: I don’t want to practice
Parent looks directly at child: Hm. You don’t want to practice.
Child: Well…I know I should, but I don’t feel like it right now.
Parent: You’re not ready to practice right now.
Child: No. I want to go to the beach!
Parent: Well, that would be fun. But I know the beach is over an hour away. I wish I had a magic wand to make us just fly to the beach right now!
Child: Ha ha….
I’m a little hungry, can I have a snack?
Parent: Ok I’ll make a snack.
Child: And then I want to show you the new song I learned!
There’s so much more in the book. I encourage you to try these strategies out. Also share this with your friends and families.
Pick a time of day when you can always practice, even for just a few minutes.
Choose a small amount of time that you can always do, for example, 5 minutes.
Set it on the calendar or sticky note or smartphone alarm.
Practice for just the allotted time.
If you feel you can do more or want to do more, go ahead, but don’t skip a day,
Make an X on your chart or calendar for everyday you practice.
Celebrate each small win with a small reward
As I said in a previous post, creating a practice routine that is at the same time everyday, in the same location, begins to cultivate a habit. Willpower is required at first, but then it becomes a trigger that sets the routine in motion.
Habits are what we are made of. Successful habits separate winners from losers. There’s no willpower involved, you just do it.
With all of my students, I stress the importance of memorizing their pieces, especially for performance at a recital. Here’s some of the reasons why.
Repetition is the Mother of Skill
How many times did Tiger Woods hit a golf ball before ever entering a competition? Apparently he was already golfing at age 2 when he made an appearance on the Merv Griffin show with his Dad. He turned professional at age 21 after winning many competitions along the way. That’s 19 years and probably 30,000 to 40,000 hours of practice! In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he discusses the theory that it takes an applied 10,000 hours of practice to mastery in any field. No wonder Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer that ever lived! He’s simply played 3 or 4 times much as anyone else before he even turned pro!
Now, I’m not demanding 8 hour practice days for my students, but five minutes the day before the lesson is just not going to cut it. It’s unfair to the student who is going to sound awful and not enjoy the wonderful process and sense of accomplishment of learning a song to a masterful level.
As we use our muscles to achieve the production of sound, we need to train them to move in specific ways. Fluidity can only be achieved by repetition. By consciously practicing the repeated motions at the same time being mindful of proper alignment of back, wrists, hands, we can create smooth, fluid motions that create beautiful sounds without repetitive stress injuries.
Practicing small bits at a slow speed can produce incredible, exponential results. When pianist Glenn Gould burst onto the scene as a young man, his flawless technique stunned the world, as did his ingenious interpretations of Bach.
The bits of music phrases teach re-usable pieces of the fabric of music. Just like a recipe book or a code pattern that can be re-used in many projects, future songs will surely employ similar melodic, harmonic and rhythmic ideas. Music performance, composing and listening becomes easier as we progress. This is in fact the basic concept of object orient programming for computers. By designing a library of re-usable components, programmers can quickly put together new projects by cobbling together pre-build elements. Learning a later song is easier because the old one had similar patterns. And then, creating variations is now an option.
The famous actor Spencer Tracy was once quoted,
“Know your lines…and don’t bump into the furniture.”
You could say the same of music. Know the notes.
How can you make the music your own without knowing it at a deep subconscious level.
When I was briefly an actor, I took a wonderful class in
the Meisner technique. The basic exercise was called the Repetition technique. It consisted of 2 or more actors on a bare stage with minimum set props. It was improvisatory in that each would only repeat what the other said until there was a natural impulse to say something else. What was amazing was that the inane conversation became full or emotion and life immediately as the words were not hindering the emotion. It’s the same thing in music. But, we need to know our parts. Of course, in jazz, improvisation is the raison d’etre, but there is still an agreed-upon structure.
We need to get to the very heart of emotion in the music, and the only way is to memorize, internalize, and interpret as our own. To know the music fully.
Tell A Story
To make your music tell a story, you need to have a physical comfort level with it. You can’t NOT know your parts. Otherwise it’s like the actor who doesn’t know his lines…you don’t believe them.
Instrumental Music is extremely abstract. Pop and folk songs with lyrics provide a narrative focus. But pure instrumental music can benefit in having some kind of narrative in that it can bring a piece to life. Make up a storyline for your piece! Sometimes this is relatively easy as the music is dramatic and narrative by nature. Disney realized how Dukas’ Sorceror’s Apprentice was perfect in that it told the story. Take a look.
I’ve been astounded by the difference in performance by some of my youngest students when they add a storyline to their piece. What’s even more amazing is that 6 year stories are all pretty much the same! But the music sparkles!
Having a mind full of pieces to perform at a moment’s notice is a wonderful thing. It’s what makes one feel like a truly accomplished musician. And, you never know when your Aunt Harriet is going to pop over with her friends and ask you to play “something sweet.”
So far, it seems that there are some generally agreed-upon concepts.
Encoding – getting the information into your memory. Of course, the information needs to be right from the start. Garbage in does equal garbage out.
Storage – There’s short term and long term. It seems we are similar to computers in that we have temporary space for short term and commonly used information. If we don’t use it, we lose it, unless we consciously store it in an organized way.
Retrieval– Getting the right information out when you want it is possibly the trickiest. Many scientist believe that the human mind never forgets anything, it’s just difficult to retrieve on command. But, repeated retrieval places the keys to a specific memory in a prominent location. So if you want to remember where you put your keys, try saying it aloud when you put them down. And, practicing your piece on your instrument at repeated intervals is like oiling the doors to that memory closet.
How To Memorize Music
In a famous study done by George Miller at Princeton University they discovered that humans can memorize up to 7 discreet bits of information, plus or minus 2. But chunking this into groups greatly increases the amount that could be stored and retrieved easily. We can apply this to music memorization.
Chunking It Down
To start memorizing, I suggest with a small chunk or part, perhaps even as little as 3 to 4 notes. The younger the student, the less notes. As they learn, we can go to the next chunk, and after mastering and memorizing that, we group those two chunks together. By continuing to add to the memory in small groups, and then synthesizing those into a larger whole, the entire piece can be memorized quickly so that a piece with several pages can be played from memory easily.
Some common breakpoints would be first measure, then second measure, then group them together. Then do the next 2 measures that way before you group together the entire first stave. Then A section can be memorized as contrasted to B section, etc.
An extremely effective way of learning a new piece is by listening to an existing recording. This is, of course, the bedrock of the Suzuki program of music instruction.
At higher levels, this may influence the styling of the performance, but that’s why we listen to great performances! Better to mimic the masters. You can also record yourself playing the piece slowly to listen to it over and over again.
Writing as a Memory Aid
Actors learning lines often write and re-write their lines without punctuation, like a long run on sentence. Why no punctation? By learning the words as raw material, they can add their own punctation depending on the emotion required for the scene. We can do the same for music, though the punctuation is usually dictated by the composer in terms of tempo, dynamics and accents, etc. By copying the music to staff paper, another method of input has been created both visual, kinesthetic and even aural through mental memory of the sounds. As a composer, I’ve gained invaluable details and nuances by just copying pieces of music. The physical act of copying does something that internalizes into the mind and body. It’s why the great painters all learned by copying the masters at the Louvre.
Another technique to memorize is by relying on the auditory, and kinesthetic only. By blindfolding, or closing one’s eyes, or even turning out the lights, the musician can practice
without relying on the visual and play by touch and ear. This will also make the student realize quickly if they are not committing to a fingering pattern as they will be unable to play it blind. And, some of the best musicians in the world were literally blind.
I’ve heard of stories where prisoners of war without access to their instruments practice completely in their mind, visualizing the experience completely, hearing it in their mind’s ear and seeing themselves in the mind’s eye performing their piece perfectly. These people return from their isolation playing better than before! I’ve told a few of my students about this and you can see in this video, my student Mitra is actually visualizing herself right before she performs onstage. Wonderful!
My son Alejandro has been working on a difficult piece by Bach and he recently told me that every night before he goes to sleep, he visualizes himself performing this piece. Wow! I don’t even recall telling him to do this!
An Odyssey, A Memory Palace
There’s a lot of wonder at how some of our ancestors could remember stories to pass on to the next generation. One was was through the use of rhythm and sound in the form of poetry, a kind of word music. By linking the sounds with the imagery in the stories, whole long passages could be told and memorized. By singing the melodies of the piece you are trying to memorize, you are using these very techniques and internalizing the music. Glenn Gould would sing all his parts incessantly to the point where he never stopped singing even when performing in public or recording his piano pieces.
There’s also the technique called the Memory Palace, where using the memory of a physical place you know intimately such as your own home, you could “store” information in specific locations. So, to remember things in a specific order, you could then mentally walk through your palace and retrieve the information. I found this book where it taught me all the names of every play by Shakespeare in the proper order, and lo and behold, it works! Now I should really do this for something more useful like song lyrics as I’m terrible at remembering them.
The Benefits of Memorization
Now the greatest thing is that these memorization and learning skills are applicable and transferrable to the rest of your life, forever! You can use them to learn anything like languages, careers, work stuff, school, research, anything! You are basically learning to operate your mind. How to store information, keep it fresh, retrieve it when you need it and then use it to combine, build, mix, remix and synthesize all you want. And to think you got all this from memorizing your little recital piece!