A most peculiar practice

It may not make you perfect, but a child struggling to practise with a musical instrument needs all the help you can give -
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To practise or not to practise? Many parents, particularly among the middle classes, have keen aspirations for their children to become proficient on at least one musical instrument. But having selected an instrument, found a teacher and paid for the lessons, how many parents are fully aware of the long haul that is ahead of them, the hours of patience, listening and support required - if their child is to make a success of it?

Musical prodigies, from the young Mozart on, have almost always had the draconian hand of a parent propelling them forward. Even for the moderately talented, moderately interested child, the degree of musical prowess they achieve will bear a direct relation to the amount of help and encouragement they receive at home.

Research by Professor John Sloboda at Keele University, published in the British Journal of Psychology in 1996, usefully established that the sheer number of hours of practice - rather than the degree of innate "musicality" - was the key determining factor in children's musical success. At the age of 12 (when many children begin to think of giving up an instrument), those who went on to be the most proficient were practising two hours a day, compared with the children who did later give up, who were practising for only 15 minutes. Parental involvement was also crucial to the results obtained, Professor Sloboda found. Parents of high achieving children kept in close contact with the teacher, either attending the lessons or speaking to the teacher at the end of the lesson, to see what and how the child should be practicing. These parents were also active in supervising practice.

For a young child just starting out on an instrument, to be sent off to a room to practise alone may feel more like a punishment. For the first few years at least, the child will benefit if the parent can be in the room, too: not just shouting from the kitchen occasionally, but sitting with them, listening, asking them what they're going to play next.

To do this well does not necessarily require the parent to be musically trained. Indeed, parents who are highly musical can often be most easily exasperated by a child's seeming lack of progress, and put them off altogether. Better to make the practice fun, and stop when the child loses interest.

Daily practice, even if short, is preferable to one long stint just before a lesson. Five minutes may be quite enough for a young child.

"It's much better to have a short practice willingly done, than a long practice when it has become a chore," says Faith Whiteley, violin teacher and head of the preparatory string course at the Guildhall in London. Some teachers, too, talk about "playing" rather than "practising", replacing the notion of an irksome duty - "Why haven't you done your practice?" - with something altogether more pleasurable: "When are you going to play?"

Knowing how to practise is itself a skill which can take children years to develop. But how you practise is more significant than how long you practise for, according to recent research by Susan O'Neill at Keele University.

She tracked 51 children for their first year of instrumental lessons, and used tests to divide them into "mastery" children, who rise to a challenge and try harder, and children with "helpless tendencies" - who, although able, in the face of difficulty tend to give up. In the middle group of children, who made neither the most or the least musical progress in a year, the "helpless" children were actually spending twice as much time practising.

But children with "helpless tendencies" can be helped to practise in a more constructive way, says Susan O'Neill. Instead of simply playing through pieces they know well, they need to learn to focus on the aspects of new material that they find hard. Parents can be useful here, and making a tape of a week's practice for the teacher can also be illuminating.

Many instruments sound far from beautiful when played by a frustrated beginner, and children need all the praise and encouragement you can find. Make them feel that you are enjoying their music, and be tactful about their imperfections. I am ever grateful to my own mother for making it clear that she liked my practising; my father, on the other hand, used to shut the door.

Don't expect too much, or look for constant, exam-orientated progress. Children often advance quickly in the early stages, and then slow down as it gets harder, around grade three to four. But they will enjoy "teaching" you how to play their instrument. And if you decide to take up lessons yourself, this can be an added bond.

Music is, of course, a great deal more than playing the right notes at the right time. Some parents, according to Maureen Hanks, at Trinity College of Music in London, approach their children playing music rather in the same way they approached them reading books: wanting them to read through as many notes as possible.

"But music should be playing from the heart, not just the head," she says. Parents, she suggests, could ask their children to make up some music off the top of their head, or to play a simple tune, like "Happy Birthday", working it out as they go along.

Classically-trained musicians, in the past, have devoted little or no time to improvising - playing by ear, making up and elaborating on tunes - and are likely to feel extremely nervous if asked to do so. But musical culture is slowly changing, and more instrumental teachers now make use of improvisation with young pupils. A new one-year course for instrumental teachers, run by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, is keen to encourage exactly this, as part of a more broad-ranging and dynamic approach to music teaching.

"Improvising helps your ear, it helps your thinking, it helps you to be creative," says John Byrne, a pianist and "mentor" on the Associated Board course. "Music is a language, and we can organise it."

If, after all this, you are still prepared to help your child learn an instrument, don't be too hard on yourself. It is extremely taxing, and there will be times when neither of you feels much like it. But if you can do this for them, remember, as Faith Whiteley says: "That you are giving them a priceless thing that will last them for the rest of their lives."

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