My internet research indicates that you have a whopping 20% chance of sticking to your New Year’s resolutions this year. That’s kind of depressing. So about 20% of us will be successful and sadly about 80% of us will fail in restarting or reenergizing our new, good habits. After a month 50% of us will still be successful with our resolution goals. As a music teacher I wonder what the odds are if you are practicing this year on an instrument? I oftentimes feel and see my students failing and not progressing, but I am determined to save as many of them as I can. I hope you feel the same way.
Our New Year’s resolutions are very similar in many respects to our musical practicing goals. My own experience tells me that breaking things into smaller parts is very helpful, so I teach my students good practice habits of doing less, but doing less, very well. This of course builds confidence and skill that together my student and I can grow upon. At the start of a new year it is a terrific time to assess each student and double down on our aspirations and good habits for the coming year.
Some internet research indicates that education is needed to help people with their goals. Well that is one of our jobs as a music teacher. Unfortunately, we do not just teach music, but also have to be psychologists and private investigators; checking in with each student and their parents/family, to make sure that all really is going well at home with their practice. I assess everyone’s home instrument and their practice space to make sure the student is not bored with the cheesy keyboard at home or lack of a quiet room they can concentrate in. Maybe they are banished to study deep in a dark basement or bedroom with no supervision? Or the student is very social, and their practice room is removed from the family interaction/encouragement which they need to excel? Are pencils and practice materials at each home? Several of my students come from divorced families where their parents split custody, households and practicing duties. You must be crafty and know the many questions to ask to help create the best practice environment at home.
There are 168 hours of time available to each of us every week, which divides into 336 half hours per week and 2016 five-minute periods every week. If we subtract out our work, sleep, play, eating time we use up 90% of our time each week on the day to day things, I still mathematically can prove we have about 34 thirty-minute spots free each week and 201 five-minute practice session spots available to us during the week left over as the 10% we are not overscheduled. So, finding 7 free periods to get some work in, one practice session each day (either 30 minutes or 5 minutes) still looks pretty doable and possible using the above math.
Smaller goals need to be setup and followed by the parent and music teacher. Some students only see the big picture of playing one huge entire piece and this of course looks hard, so teach your students to break things up into smaller pieces and goals, and then you both can add the smaller parts back together later to build the whole piece. Four measure phrases are great places to start breaking pieces up into. Maybe use a copier and only copy the one line a student is responsible for practicing for the week. Then the student is not pressured by seeing they are only practicing one small part, instead they are doing one manageable and small assignment, that is attainable. So, if a song has 4 lines assigning one line per week and make an award be to bring that one line back thoroughly polished before you copy the second line for them.
Also, try making a realistic goal of daily practice every day for just 5 minutes per day to start or restart a student who has gone off the rails. This 5 minutes can be added to after one month or more, the goal is to establish a time commitment and success in achieving progress using this time. Then in a future month you can add time and “up the clock” to 10 minutes of practicing to be done every day, and then when this work continues try to add time and adjust their clock up to 15 and then 20 minutes per day, and in (hopefully) just a few months everyone will see the progress. Use a few lessons to show the student and the parent how short 5 minutes time is and how effective they really can be within 5 minutes of time.
As a teacher, really make a big deal of the commitment to the task and that excellence is the goal in these early stages. You can reward the student in a lesson with gum, a cookie, chocolate, positive comments and reinforcement. Talk to the parent and student about what might work. I use games like dominoes and card and other Suzuki method tricks to offset my lessons with younger students, where they work at a task for 5 minutes and then we play a game for 5 minutes. No work on their part = no game. This really works well.
Remind the parents and family be very complimentary too when goals are getting accomplished. It is very important to strike a balance with the student and parent and get everyone on the same page to commit (or recommit) to a time in the student’s daily schedule that needs to be strictly followed every day of every week to create strong and good habits. It is important to make the student see they have control of their practice time and they receive praise and/or a reward ONLY when they do a good job. The student needs to understand they can earn something ONLY by doing excellent work and excellent practice, no matter how small. I have one student whose parents have given me the right to cancel all next week’s home free time on this student’s Ipad. My student now knows to have his materials fully practiced and prepared for me or they lose that privilege for one week after a poorly prepared lesson. It works, this 2nd grade student’s last question every week when leaving our lesson in front of his dad is “Do I get to use my iPad this week?” I took it away one time about a month into our weekly challenge and, so he knows that this was not an idle threat, so he does good work. He knows his mom; dad and I are expecting good work from him every week. You and the student can’t do this on your own, parents and students need to weigh in and find and use some type of reward system when necessary, but everyone must agree what is expected and what is good work and bad work. If incomplete work or ineffective work or cheating happens then everyone needs to agree no award, and practice needs to be more effective in the next coming week.
I have held students back from participating in recitals and on special events, for not being prepared several weeks prior to the recital/event. I’m not trying to be mean of course, just expectant. I do not agree with everyone getting a trophy for just showing up. I do explain my goals, parameters and our preparation schedule with the student and parent ahead of time, and set mini-goals for them to achieve and accomplish weekly at home. I also follow up with parents immediately, as I set the practice parameters and goals. I don’t want mom and dad caving or mad at me when I told them all 2-3 weeks out that there has got to be more work and a change in their preparation for me to include them on recital with other talented and hard-working students. It is never a pride thing for me or mom and dad, if the student just does their best I will let them play on a recital, but if they are slacking and not getting the goals accomplished that were described previously to everyone then they will be pulled and wait until our next recital, as they did not make their goal of excellent preparation.
I would suggest every parent and student keep a musical notebook and we should all write in goals every now and again. What do we want to accomplish in a month and in 6 months and by next year? Maybe a small calendar is needed to show and plan for what we are doing. Right now, in my studio the month of January is explained as where we are going to finish some winter songs and Christmas materials. I am expecting everyone to learn or relearn one major scale per month (depending on the age and skill level of each student) maybe this goal is one scale every 2 months or 3 months. Can we sight-read one line every day of practice with one hand, then one line of reading with the other hand on the next day. Can we read notes one practice day, then count and play a song on the next day and swap this every other practice? Can we prepare one line of a new song at every practice and repeat that one line 5 excellent times in a row before going on? Be specific with each student and each parent what your expectations are, do they need to write in fingerings or bowings first, before they begin to sight-read a new passage. Can the student count the passage before playing? Can they point to each note on their page and name the notes prior to practicing the song on their instrument? Show them, guide them, model for them in lessons how to practice well and teach the parent so we will all be more successful.
Best wishes in your studio in the New Year!