Updated: Apr 7, 2021
What does music practice at home look like for each of us?
When the Circuit Breaker kicked in 1 year ago, music lessons shifted to Zoom - giving all of us a glimpse of how each family is set up for practice at home. It was like looking through the window into one another's home practice environment.
Creepy, maybe? I think not! Rather, it was a precious experience for shared learning. Hearing the teachers' observations and suggestions on other students' home set-up prompted me to look more keenly at my child's position at the instrument and make the needed improvements that I had not noticed before. Was the height of the piano stool too low, causing her forearm to slant downwards towards her elbow instead of being parallel to the keyboard? Was she hunching because she was seated too far or too close to the keyboard?
In the spirit of continuing to learn from one another's home practice environment, here's a glimpse into what a typical practice session looks like for our family:
(1) Daily practice is planned for
A daily selection of pieces, warm-ups / technical exercises and sight-reading practice is plotted out for using this monthly practice planner. While we may not always follow it to a 'T', it scaffolds the habit of daily practice that we have worked so hard to build and it takes the brainwork out of remembering what to practise or what has been practised.
Listening takes place for 10 minutes to 15 minutes every morning while the girls prepare for school. For each child, I create a Spotify playlist comprising her current learning piece and 1 or 2 upcoming pieces, and loop it.
(2) A regular order for each session
We apportion our practice time in this ratio, regardless of the child's age and level of playing: 30% on New Material, 50% on Familiar or Review Material and 20% on Ancillary Material (e.g. scales, sight-reading, exploration, for-fun piece).
I start with a recap of the teacher's positive comments from the most recent lesson. I read out what I had recorded in the lesson notes and watch their faces light up with smiles to hear the compliments repeated. This is followed by a recap of the week's Focus Point (e.g. bowing in 'Lane 3', deep Tuna Tone, long legato notes) to apply to our playing this week to make it even better.
To make the best use of our higher levels of energy, alertness and attention span at the start of the session, we begin with New Material, which often involves learning and mastering the hardest sections first - not necessarily because the new piece is more difficult to play than the preceding piece, but simply because we haven't practised it enough yet. Nailing new sections requires clear practice strategies like the use of repetitions, starting slowly and increasing our tempo (tortoise, rabbit and cheetah speeds), listening, evaluating and giving / applying feedback, etc., which I will cover in detail later this month.
Nailing new stuff can be exhausting and may take a toll on our brains - and on our moods. This is when we move on to 'easier' pieces, which in actuality are simply Familiar or Review Material already learnt and practised. Review Material could include earlier sections in the current learning piece, or completed past pieces. We use Review Material to raise the level of playing i.e. playing at a faster and consistent tempo (e.g. using a metronome), applying expression, articulation and dynamics, and honing tone and intonation. Simply put, we try to make our playing Even More Beautiful. Regardless of which book they are currently in, I have the girls cycle through all their pieces from the Twinkle Variations by playing 1 or 2 pieces from each book daily. This is so that they will always be prepared to play together or to demonstrate a piece to any student at any level throughout the music studio. Playing is joyful when you can call up your ability to play any piece that you have learnt before at your fingertips, literally. Sometimes they stumble and struggle to recall the notes and bowing patterns from earlier pieces. It is a humbling experience to have to work at finding your way back to the simplest pieces that you could play as a beginner but not now as an intermediate student. It also prevents the mindset of "old pieces are so easy that I don't play them anymore now that I've advanced to more difficult pieces" from setting in.
The remaining 20% is spent on Other Material. Depending on your child's repertoire and practice assignments given by her teacher, Other Material can be covered at the start or at the end of the session, or bookend the start and end even. My cellist covers this 20% at the start through warm-up exercises, technical skills, scales and arpeggios. If time permits, she may choose to end the session with improv like Happy Birthday or explore finding the notes to a pop tune. My pianists enjoy ending the session with a daily sight-reading exercise that comes with lyrics to sing along to. Today, Claire glanced ahead at the long 16-bar exercise for tomorrow and happily commented, "Oh good, it's a long one. The longer pieces have nicer melodies and are nicer to play." Wow.
Starting and ending in a POSITIVE mood is key to nurturing a positive attitude to practice.
(3) When practising gets hard
Even the best-laid plans and well-oiled systems go awry. There are days when practice is too rushed, too short or happens too late in the day for us to cover 100% of what we set out to do. This usually happens when a dinner outing overruns, and when either I or the girls have a larger-than-usual amount of work or homework to complete.
Then there are the days when the child is distracted, lethargic and reluctant.
This is when I have to call up my mental and physical library of games and stories to lighten the mood and re-energise the bunnies. If time doesn't permit or the child (and the parent!) is genuinely tired, we just go with "pick any piece that you like and apply yourself to playing it the best you can" i.e. with good focus, positive attitude and enjoyment. I would comment positively and may share my observation on an area that we would work on next time to improve, but no corrections would be required of them today. We know that with our monthly practice planner holding things up, we can either pick up where we left off or move on to the next day's practice and cycle back to the uncovered material on the next planned date - exactly as our practice plan shows we will.
This is a glimpse of how home practice looks like for us - for now, as it now works for where we are at in our family routine both within and outside of learning music. Far from being rigid, having a routine is comforting and reassuring. If your child can understand and follow onto why and how her family does it, she will gain immensely from having this knowledge, tools and strategies within her. Today, I asked Claire to try out a 'magic practice formula' called 'Easy +1' to determine how many repetitions to do to in order to play a section better. At the end of it, she exclaimed: "It's magic! It became easier. It also became more joined." I told her that the real magic was not that the section became easier, but that applying the magic formula gave her a new ability to play the section better.
And on some days, what may seem like a very routine and ordinary practice session can end on a colourful note like the one below. With pleasant surprises like these, I can be assured that what we have going on at home is working well for us.