Motivational Strategies

Practice makes progress! As a teacher I guarantee practice is something that children will put up a fight to avoid, even when the student says they love the instrument. The best way to create a positive practicing environment is to use rewards and avoid punishment. If practicing strategies are instilled at a very young age (5-7) the child may be hands free after a few years, so a little bit of extra effort from parents at this tender age will go a long way.

  1. Progress Mapping. Since learning an instrument is a slow process, setting up your practice to highlight its cumulative nature is a great way to make it successful. I recommend using a practice jar to collect small items (corn kernels, dried beans, pennies) or practice candle (perfect for the budding pyro in every child), you may even allow them to light it under your supervision. (I would recommend getting a small candle so it melts down in a reasonable amount of time.) With the practice jar your child can earn a kernel for every so many minutes of practice or per task (preferable). Establish a reward before you start to fill the jar–maybe you could even write it on the jar. I recommend experiential rewards over physical ones because there isn't a price tag on it. Kids will start to learn to use it as a bargaining chip and the prizes will need to escalate to keep interest. Instead of a prize, consider a day at the beach, getting ice cream, or a sleepover.
  2. Turn it into a game. Here the ideas are endless and you can still use progress mapping strategies. One idea is to draw a picture. Every time your child completes a task another part of the picture is revealed. Once they understand how the game works you can even ask them to draw the picture. Another fun twist could be if they can guess what the picture is you can move on to another task. I know that some parents actually design board games for their students that they can play during the practice session. 
  3. What time of day? Highly effective parents put practicing on a weekly schedule, that way your kids will know when it's time to practice and they'll be prepared. Kids who can tell time love to show off their scheduling skills. Time of day may also play a factor. Many of my students have the most success practicing before school starts or before dinner.
  4. Establish Regular Repetitions. I ask my students to practice everything 5 times. This way they know how many times they have to repeat something and know when it will end. Knowing when it will be over takes a lot of stress away from the tedium of doing repetitions. You can also use dice or cards to determine the number of repetitions, which makes it more fun!

Practicing With a Metronome

Ah, the dreaded metronome. Here are some tips for improving rhythm and tempo.

  1. Set the metronome to the time signature to accent the down beat. Sometimes during practice you're not sure if the right rhythm is happening. Setting a down beat really helps to put a tough measure in perspective–if you start hearing the downbeat at the wrong part of the following measures, go back and see what you may have done wrong.
  2. Subdivide hard passages, slowly. If there are tough rhythms (dotted, ties, ), it is essential to subdivide when counting to ensure you're playing correctly. Think 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & for eighth notes and 1 e & a etc. for 16th notes. Sometimes it helps for triplets (tri•pe•let) or quintuplets (da•vid•le•tter•man) to use a word (or something funny). You can also find great metronomes that have subdividing capabilities in them. I use ProMetronome on my iPhone.
  3. Play in Rhythms. If you have a passage of sixteenth notes you can play them as dotted rhythms to help practice each note at a faster speed. This is one of the best strategies for active learning. 
  4. Start at a slow tempo and gradually speed up. Seems elementary, but I assure you the average student would rather blast through a piece than take the luxury of working out difficult passages. Play through the whole piece at a steady tempo, listening for errors. Then gradually speed up by 4-8 clicks until you get to the desired tempo–beware that for faster pieces this may take weeks.
  5. Clap it out! Sometimes the instrument gets in the way. Put on the metronome, set the downbeat and appropriate subdivisions, and then clap the rhythm out before returning to your instrument.

Practicing Hard Passages

  1. Locate the measure that is hard.
  2. Play that measure in a loop, possibly with a metronome. Play this measure 21x in a row "perfectly", if you make a mistake you must start over. Consider general posture, bow hand, bow arm, left hand before playing–technique is paramount in practice.
  3. Once the measure in question has been ironed out, go back two measures and play those two measures 5x in a row perfectly.
  4. Go back 4 measures–play 5x in a row perfectly.
  5. Go back to the beginning of the phrase and play through this phrase into the next phrase as many times as necessary.
  6. Find the next measure to work on!

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