An Introduction to Practising
This guide is aimed at pupils and their parents/carers alike. I occasionally get asked how much practice a child should be doing. My answer is always that a pupil needs to be playing every day. The goal is to inspire the student to eventually self-motivate themselves. A child who does this is one who plays every day, feels comfortable and able at the instrument, and perhaps most importantly, gets positive feedback from parents and carers.
Playing the piano is enormously complex both as a physical and mental activity, and as such requires plenty of time to learn. Nobody expects to be able to pick up a hammer and chisel and carve the Discobolus on the first try. Likewise, progress in musical technique takes constant practice over time, and just as a kettle that is continually removed from the heat will take longer to boil, gaps in a practice routine will result in a pupil whose technique never 'boils'.
I say routine because, in the end, a routine is required for the busy children and adult learners these days. It is easy to find time to brush teeth and eat meals (or perhaps the other way around!), because these things are done every day and often at the same times every day. Playing the piano can be the same, and soon it will no longer be a 'chore' for either parent or pupil. Often my students explain to me that they didn't practice at all this week for the following reasons (true story).
“I didn't practise this week because,”
“I had a sleepover/playdate”
“My mum told me not to”
“My grandparents were visiting”
“My parents haven't unpacked my piano”
“I had to go to the dentist”
“I wasn't allowed to because my sister was practising”
“I don't have a piano”
These excuses wouldn't need to be made if a routine was in place, and the lesson would then have been productive. As it is, the lesson was probably spent re-learning exactly what was done the week previous, while the fingers are even more out of shape. The most effective routine I have ever seen in any pupil is one that is before school. The children and adults who wake up a bit earlier and do their practising in the morning are the ones who show the most steady progress, and the ones who consequently enjoy it more.
The final point is on positive feedback. Children spend their childhood looking to role-models for how to behave and guidance on which are the most worthwhile pursuits. The way babies, toddlers, and young children do this is by doing something and then observing the role-model's reaction. If it's a good reaction, then the child is more likely to do it again. This extrapolates very simply and directly into: children emulate their role-model. If you as a parent never listen to Beethoven, do not be surprised when your child shows zero interest in Beethoven, no matter how much you want them to.
My daughter is 3 years old as I write this and is in the ideal situation of having in the house two musician parents and two pianos. As I practise on one, she more often than not will sit at the other one and play at the same time (the distraction took some getting used to for me, but I certainly didn't want to discourage her!) I often look over at her and see that she is watching me carefully and copying my arm movements. It's hard to express in words my delight at seeing this.
I have encouraged Elsa to enjoy the music that I think is good and worth her time. Before her first birthday, we started listening to Beethoven's Coriolanus while I would bounce and move her in time to the music. Her taste has bloomed since then to encompass LvB's symphonies, especially the 7th, which accounts for 95% of her requests. She also enjoys the “scared” pieces of Scriabin that I play, my Ya Sibiryachka and O Canada variations, and of course nursery rhymes. But most importantly, she has never once asked me to put on Rick Astley, which is fine by me.