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A Place for Practice

Welcome to February! This month, we put the spotlight on creating a conducive and positive environment for practice. In the first post of the series, we will be looking at how careful curation of the space at home can help to shape the behaviour that we desire from our child - that is, to practise regularly, willingly and positively.


Many moons ago, a fellow parent about to embark on instrument lessons for her child asked if I could share some pictures of how I set my home up for music practice. It has taken us much trial-and-error and multiple iterations to find a system that works for us. Now, I'm finally ready to share some photos with her - and with all of you!


Drawing on lessons on behavioural insights ('BI' for short), which I first encountered in my day job, designing an environment to shape the behavior and outcome that you want has proven to be effective. The environment need not be purely physical or spatial - it can apply to any initiative, for example, how we design online environments like websites and digital apps, or written environments in the form of letters and signage. The UK Behavioural Insights Team, a specialist in BI, has a framework that helps you tap on the knowledge of human behaviour in designing successful initiatives. It's called EAST: Easy, Attractive, Social, Timely.


We all have days when it is just so difficult to get our child to move to the instrument. We remind, cajole, nag, threaten, bribe and raise our voices - and it's just too exhausting to have to do every day. Sometimes, our chosen action only succeeds in making things worse, bringing on tears, frustration, anger and disappointment on both the part of the child and the parent. Wanna see how we can make life easier? Here are some ideas on how you can use the EAST framework in creating an environment for positive practice at home.


Make it EASY


The idea here isn't to make practice easy. The point is to reduce the friction that your child has to overcome in order to get down to practice. Think about what could be causing unnecessary effort or hassle and see how you can reduce it to smaller, easier, simpler actions.


For us, the mood-killer was having to remove the cello from and return it to its case for every practice. Ditto for the bow, end-pin stopper, rosin, tuner and wipe-down cloth. We discovered that simply leaving the cello and its accessories out did wonders in reducing the time and effort it took to get the child to the instrument or vice versa - the instrument to the child. Of course, you can't just leave everything all out on the floor. A cello stand helps to keep the instrument upright and safe. A stick-on wall hook is handy for hanging up the bow and end-pin stopper. A tray keeps the rosin, tuner and learning props like balls, squishy practice buddies and stationery neat and within easy reach. Sitting atop the tray is a bright blue speaker and spare mobile phone installed with Spotify and music recordings to make daily listening salient and easy. Another simple tip is to get a nice, big, sturdy music stand to hold books, lesson notes and practice plans. Trying to balance it all on a smaller, light and flimsy stand and having items fall off was just annoying for everyone. I don't know why we didn't think of getting a bigger stand sooner!


I found this Grab & Go set-up so handy that I replicated it for my viola - and found myself practising more readily and willingly than when I had to remove and store the instrument in its case for every practice. The only downside is that we have left home for lessons without realising that our bows were still hanging on the wall! So watch out for that.


A printed plan that sets out the practice tasks to be done for the day is immensely helpful. It takes away the hassle of figuring out what to practise on any given day. More details and templates on practice plans coming up in another post!


Make it ATTRACTIVE


Attractive here doesn't mean making the instrument look fun or stylish. It simply means making the situation capable of drawing attention and the call-to-action enticing. It goes beyond designing the practice session to look or feel attractive - it has to be relevant to the player, who in this case, is a child. If the piano is going to look severe and imposing, or if the space that it is in is dark and unwelcoming, then it's probably not calling out to your child to come hither - nevermind that adults may think the piano grand and the dim, quiet room conducive for practice. Having a kid-friendly footstool ready and available also helps small bodies get into a more comfortable position to play a large instrument.


To boost the chance of music practice coming across as attractive, it would help if there were no other household distractions competing for attention in the same space. For example, a family member watching television or a sibling playing with toys in the same room. Our piano sits in its own room (along with my work desk and storage cabinets) - separate from the living room, and the children's study, sleeping and play spaces. This makes it easier to close the doors to create a smaller, conducive space for music practice and nowadays, online music lessons.


Keeping a space well-organised adds to its attractiveness. Nobody wants to function in a messy space where it's hard to find the things that you need, when you most need them. It took us many tries to learn how to organise our piano top to support our practice sessions with book stands for music books, clear folders for sheet music, a tray for practice props (games, stationery, Post-Its, counting beads or blocks, etc.), metronome and microphone (for online lessons).


Make it SOCIAL


Showing that most people do an action encourages others to do the same. Here, you might want to find ways to encourage your children by putting up their progress charts or practice challenges in a shared, visible space to show that we are all in this together. The added bonus is that socialising positive practice might spur some degree of collective action within the home (hopefully!) If you are single-child family, perhaps the parents are working on achieving certain goals or building positive habits (e.g. working out, eating healthily, reading daily) and can stick your progress chart alongside your child's.


One easy way is to display the SMART Goals and pictures of success that your children created at the start of the lesson term. That way, you can also remember where the sheets are when the mid-year review rolls around in June! If your child doesn't have a sibling learning music, one idea is to ask a practice buddy if they would like to exchange copies of each person's SMART Goals to pin up in your family home - and have both families grow through mutual support and peer-to-peer sharing.


Make it TIMELY


People are more influenced by costs or benefits that take immediate effect. When it comes to rewards, we are more likely to continue to make the effort or be willing to repeat an action if we can experience or reap a positive outcome from it immediately. Working out daily to lose weight over 3 months takes huge effort and willpower. Working out to feel healthier, energised and accomplished every day is more rewarding.


Here, finding ways to end each practice session on a positive note creates the feeling of immediate reward and accomplishment. It could be letting your child choose a sticker for his practice chart. Or ending with a familiar piece that he is very accomplished in and enjoys playing. Or complimenting him on his good attitude. Or just with a big hug! Endorphins and good feelings can be a great reward!


One idea is to have a daily practice plan for the child to refer to and check off. The version I have lists every single piece starting from the Book 1 Twinkles to whichever piece the child is working on currently. It is so satisfying to see the list grow! My eldest has 50 + items (including scales, warm-ups and technical drills) squeezed into her A4-sized sheet. (She doesn't play all 50 plus every single day - she rotates through them.) Every day when she practises, she is reminded how her knowledge, skills and repertoire are growing and how far she has come. This single sheet serves as a timely unspoken encouragement and reward for her hard work and effort.


There you go. Some tips on how looking to EAST can help you in making your home a place for positive practice.


What does your practice space look like now? What could you do to make it better? Share with us!

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