Practice Makes Perfect: Tips for Success

Posted by Sara Schwindt, Assistant Director

You probably already know that musical success requires regular practice. But what exactly does that mean? Not all practice is created equal—half an hour of intentional practice built on good habits is going to be a lot more effective than two hours of haphazard, unfocused practice. By following a few suggestions, you can ensure that each practice session is time well spent, which will ultimately increase the satisfaction and joy of learning music.

Make it a consistent part of your routine and schedule it in

Twenty minutes of daily (or almost daily) practice is better than cramming in two hours right before your lesson. This is because when you practice, you develop muscle memory—where your brain and your muscles know what to do without having to think about each individual note. When you go long periods of time without playing or singing, you don't get a chance to develop that muscle memory, but when you set aside time to practice each day, every session builds upon the previous one and your skills will improve much more quickly. You also build stamina when you practice every day. Singing or playing an instrument correctly is hard work! Imagine that you woke up tomorrow and decided that you wanted to run a half-marathon. If you tried to train with one long run once a week, you'd probably get frustrated (and sore)—which would increase the likelihood of giving up. But by starting out with shorter, more frequent runs and gradually working your way up, you'd be much more likely to reach your goal and enjoy the process.

As for the best time of day to practice, that varies by person. The best practice time for you is the one that will a) be easy to stick to and b) coincide with the times of day when you're alert. Many kids do well setting aside some practice time before school in the morning, or after school once they've had a snack and some downtime to recharge their batteries a little. One thing to avoid, especially with kids: Don't schedule practice time when it conflicts with another, preferred activity. You don't want practicing to be a source of resentment or become the thing that keeps them from doing *insert fun activity here*.

Set aside a dedicated space for practicing

It's a lot easier to practice consistently when you don't have to set up a space and go hunting for your materials every time. Set up a dedicated spot in the house—ideally, away from TV or other distractions—and make sure it has everything you'll need. If there are siblings in the family, help them understand that the "practice area" is a special spot for a particular use. Who knows—it might inspire them to learn an instrument, too! This is actually how I first became interested in music: when I was four or five, I would listen to my mother practice the piano, and my parents had a rule that you could only play on the piano if you were learning HOW to play it. So I asked to begin taking piano lessons, and that was what started me down a musical path. I went on to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees in music and become a professional performer and music educator.

Go into each practice session with a goal

One of the best parts of music is getting to just sit down and start playing whatever comes into your head—but that's not the same thing as practicing! Each session should start with a specific objective; in other words, when you start practicing, you should know what you want to accomplish by the end. These goals should be small enough to be realistic ("learn an entire clarinet concerto" is just going to set you up for frustration), but significant enough that you'll feel a sense of accomplishment when you reach them. That sense of accomplishment is important to keep yourself motivated. Your teacher is probably already sending you home from each lesson with some good goals to focus on in your practice in the coming week.

Especially for Parents: Practice shouldn't be a battle!

It's a common (and unfortunate) myth that getting your child to practice their instrument is usually a horrible battle of wills between parent and child. Many parents think this is an inevitable part of the process—the price they must pay to give their kids the benefits of music education.

But this shouldn't be the case! Music is one of the great, universal pleasures of life, for both children and adults. We need only to see a toddler bopping to the beat on the radio to know how instinctive it is for human beings to take joy in music. The anxiety around practicing often comes down to one of two things: misaligned expectations, or a fundamental mismatch between the child and the instrument or the repertoire.

We're not robots, and no one feels like practicing 100% of the time. But if you notice that your child consistently doesn't want to practice (and this doesn't change as their skill level improves), or that going to lessons is always a chore, it may be worth a conversation to get to the bottom of the issue. Maybe your child enjoys music, but there's another instrument they'd rather be learning. Maybe they're learning classical music, but they really want to play the blues. Or maybe they don't actually dislike their instrument OR the repertoire, but they're feeling pressure to progress at a certain speed or perform at a certain level that's causing anxiety. If you need any help or guidance around how to start this conversation with your child, don't be afraid to ask their private teacher, myself, or Executive Director Laurie Russell. One of the things that makes WCMS such a great place to learn is that it's a whole community of musicians! Most of us have been there—as music educators, as parents, or as young musicians ourselves—and we would be happy to help.