Suzuki Sunday: Thoughts on Practicing

Everyone knows that to get better at something, you need to practice.  In my studio, the attending parent takes notes on a practice chart I designed (well, stole from my mom and adapted, who stole it from my piano teacher almost 20 years ago.)  Although it may seem like a formality to check off squares during the week and let me glance at it first thing during the lesson, it is really much more than that.  In a few seconds of looking it over, I can gain valuable information about not only how much practicing has taken place, but also when it's taken place and how thorough it was.  For instance, several "empty" days immediately following the previous lesson means that the new assignment is probably mostly forgotten.  Spotty check marks or unclear assignments usually means the child has been practicing alone, which delivers mixed and unreliable results.

If a student hasn't brought her chart from the previous week, or has it but hasn't checked it off, we generally will not move on to new material.  Without a certain record of her practicing, I can't be sure she remembers what we did at the last lesson, or even that she can summon old review pieces that she may have played for months.  To move ahead without being sure of what lies behind would be risky to her development.  But to avoid treating a non-chart week as something of a disappointment, I hold "practice lessons," which I hope will give my parents some tools for better practicing with their children at home.   We start by making up a chart together, so the child can have some input; then we go through it, stopping to repeat some things if there are problems.  I also have a great set of cards with fun practicing tips (soon available here) that lightens the mood and presents him with new and interesting challenges.  I hope to help him see that the goal is not just to move forward; the goal is to enjoy the journey, too.

Below are some things you can do to ensure your practicing is the best it can be:

Practice regularly. It sounds like a no-brainer, but families who have a designated practice time find it to be invaluable in preventing arguments and promoting faster achievement.  If you can't be a hundred percent regular, at least make sure you are both calm and that the room is quiet and free of distractions.

Practice together. The "Suzuki triangle" of teacher, parent and child is important to remember: it cannot exist without the enthusiastic participation of all three members.  As a parent, regardless of your musical knowledge or lack thereof, your mere presence and attention will motivate your child to finish quickly without losing momentum or becoming discouraged.  It is very, very important that you give this your full attention, the same way you do at lessons; this reiterates the importance of daily practice much more than repeated reminders.

Practice specific assignments and sections. In lessons, write down which hand should play each piece, and how many times; also keep track of smaller assignments, such as scramble sections, which may need extra repetitions.  The chart is designed to make this easy; please ask if you have questions about how to use it!  There is a huge difference between a general exhortation to "practice" and a specific list of small, manageable tasks to be completed and checked off.  Setting and meeting goals in this manner helps to train efficient and productive students, and it ensures you make the best use of your time together.

Practice smarter, not longer. "Twinklers" should be practicing five minutes at a time, several times a day; as they move into more repertoire, the sessions can be condensed into one ten- to twenty-minute session.  Once they reach the second Suzuki book, practice time may increase to half an hour, but unless there is a real problem (or real ambition!) it should never be more than that.  We all have busy lives and multiple schedules to juggle; the idea is that, with just a few hours a week, a child's life can be enriched by the joy of music.  That's all -- but as Dr. Suzuki would say, that's everything.