Training young musicians (Part 3)

If you have a talented child and a good teacher, you might be tempted to think that you can take a hands-off approach to your child’s practice.  That would be a mistake.

While talent is important and the teacher is important, the way your child practices is the factor that will most influence their development. Today, I want to talk about practice.

I often think of a guy I knew in college.  He was a brilliant pianist–light years ahead of the rest of us.  I don’t ever remember seeing him in the practice rooms but he would show up in a performance class or contest and perform flawlessly after learning a difficult piece in a 12-hour cram session the day before.

There was a lot to learn from him.  First of all, he told me his practice secrets which allowed him to learn classical music quickly.  I will go into that in a moment.  But the bigger lesson I learned from him was that brilliant talent and even impeccable practice techniques will not get you very far unless you possess something that he sadly didn’t. 

The missing ingredient was drive.  Though he had the potential to be a great concert pianist, he did not accomplish a tenth as much in college as he should have.  I am not sure he has done much since college either though he has had great opportunities to work with world-class musicians.

The reason I told you that story is important.  I am about to give you some thoughts about practice, but if you go too far with them, you can destroy your child’s drive.  Balance is critical.  It will do no good to teach your child how to practice if he/she grows up hating the piano so much that they never touch it as an adult.  And trust me when I say that happens all of the time.

The secret to good practice is simple–doing things in bite-sized chunks.  The smaller the chunks, the better.  Your child is going to want to practice by just playing through the piece from beginning to end a few times a day.  Eventually, they will learn it, but not as fast as they would if they practiced a line or better yet, a measure at a time.

Professionals know that often, even a measure is too big of a chunk.  It could be just one interval within the measure that needs to be repetitively practiced.  Analyzing a song to develop a practice strategy may be too complicated for young children, but you should work toward helping them to be able to do that.

When listening to your child practice, note if he/she simply plays through the song and encourage them to take a different approach.  Point out the repetition that exists in almost all music.  Often, a song can be distilled down to a handful of different passages that are repeated.  Mark those passages and encourage the child to master one passage a day.   They should play that passage of fragments of that passage repetitively until they play it perfectly multiple times a row.

There are all kinds of benefits to this kind of practice. It is effective, efficient, and teaches discipline.  But as I alluded earlier, there is a real danger here.  For almost every student, there is nothing remotely enjoyable about this approach, and if you force your child to play this way exclusively, you could kill their drive.  So I would encourage you to balance that kind of practice with something more fun.  Definitely let your child play through the whole song at least some of the time. And let them pick out their own music that they play just for fun too.

If you can get your child practicing effectively even for half their lesson, you will be amazed at the progress.  But don’t expect for that to happen without a lot of encouragement. And please try not to kill your child’s drive and love for the piano in the process.