Nag or praise? How to hit the right note

Home Help No.5: Practising; The fifth in our series on how parents can aid children at school looks at music, where practice makes perfect.
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The Independent Online
Persuading children to practise their instruments is a vexed business in most households. Parents may be accused of nagging their children to practise to the point where music becomes a chore rather than a source of pleasure. If they adopt a laissez-faire attitude, the child may gradually lose interest and give up, then berate the parent late on for not having "made" them practise.

But if children are to become proficient on an instrument, to a level where they can enjoy playing with others, parental support is critical. And research has shown that children make progress on an instrument not so much through innate talent, but by putting in the hours.

A tiny minority of children will take to practising from day one and barely need reminding. For the rest, however, a tremendous amount of parental dedication, interest and patience is required to a get a good regime off the ground.

Practising, all teachers agree, needs to be done regularly and often. For a child just starting out on a musical instrument, five or 10 minutes every day is far more beneficial than having one long session the night before a lesson.

Try to make playing the instrument a part of the child's daily routine - done in the same place and at the same time if possible. Such an approach will avoid it becoming subject to constant and heated negotiation. Try to be there too, if you can: not shouting encouragement from the kitchen but listening properly to what your child is playing, and then talking about it.

It may well add to the child's enjoyment, and yours, if you play an instrument yourself and can sometimes join in. But you don't need musical expertise to give a child the necessary encouragement, and to help them focus on what they have been asked to practise. Just make sure that the teacher explains this clearly to you, either in person or via a notebook.

Children need to learn how to practise - not just playing through the same old pieces every time, but concentrating, for example, on the difficult bars, keeping the rhythm steady and noting the dynamics. Parents can help them to develop such strategies. Often, from age seven or eight, children will have some idea of what the teacher is going to say and are ready to practise more independently.

Some instruments, violins in particular, can sound fairly excruciating in the early years but, right from the start, young musicians need to feel that they are giving pleasure. Praise them all you can, and don't let the need to practise trap you both in a negative downward spiral.

Drop the dread "P word" altogether? Instead of moaning, "why haven't you done your practice?", reinforce the positive and pleasurable side of learning an instrument by asking instead, "when are you going to play?"

Primary School Children

Sitting in on music lessons, where possible, is the best way to find out how to help your child, for the first year or so. Always try to get the teacher to explain to you what she wants the child to work on, either by demonstrating at the end of a lesson or by writing in some details in a notebook.

You can help your child with specific targets when practising, such as playing more slowly (try this with a metronome), perfecting the opening or closing bars, practising hands separately. Also, make sure your child maintains the correct physical posture when playing: ask the teacher if you are unsure about this. Having a large mirror close at hand can be useful for the child.

Don't expect constant examination-orientated progress. Children may get off to a flying start, and then slow down when things get harder. Let them go back to easier pieces, to boost confidence and encourage them - free of pressure - to play to friends and family: most children really relish the chance to show off in safety.

Like learning to read, it doesn't matter too much what they play - pop tunes, classics, made-up music - as this is all part of a growing familiarity with the instrument. Plenty of sight-reading practice will, later on, open up opportunities to play with others. But get away from the printed page sometimes, too: encourage them to work out simple tunes by ear, and to experiment and improvise.

Talk about what they play, and introduce them to the wider musical world, through radio, CDs, music on CD Roms and local concerts.

Secondary School Children

Many children give up their instruments in their first years at secondary school, so this is a crucial time for encouragement from home. Ideally, children's musical motivation needs to be internalised before the teenage years, if they are to become committed to music, and they should now be practising independently, for at least half an hour a day.

As they become more physically at ease with their instrument - realising, for instance, how the correct fingering on the piano or correct bowing on a violin or cello corresponds to the feel and shape of a musical phrase - children should also be starting to focus more on musical expression and form in their practice.

It is usually beneficial at this stage to make a tape of their playing to help them to listen to themselves in a more analytical way. But parents also need to keep listening. Help children tailor their practice to their individual tastes and needs, for instance, by incorporating some improvisation or just listening to CDs.

Playing in a group, at this stage, is often vital to holding a child's musical interest. So find out, from their music teacher or their school, about any local bands, orchestras, jazz groups or holiday music courses.

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