Parents will often ask me how long their child should practice every day. This can be a very difficult question to answer because it depends on so many factors; how old is your child? How long have they been playing their instrument? Do they have exams or concerts coming up? How much material do they have to practice at this moment? What are their goals and aspirations? It probably goes without saying that a university student preparing for their final recital should probably put in a little more time practicing than a 5-year-old who just started playing the piano last month.
That said I find that counting the repetitions is a far more accurate way to direct a practice and it is far more encouraging for a student. And this works for students of any age or ability. Think of it this way, rather than asking a student to play a song for 30 minutes try asking them to play each song five times all the way through. A beginner student may only sit at the piano for a few minutes but they will have gone through all their material daily and they will be prepared for their next lesson. A more advanced student can still use this method but with longer songs and more complex goals it will take more time but ultimately it is the same philosophy of counting repetitions rather than minutes.
Why does it work:
Goals are specific
When we set a ‘general’ goal like practice for 30 minutes the time could be spent goofing around or playing material that is not required a the next lesson. In some instances, it is spent with 28 minutes of fighting and crying and screaming before the child puts in 2 minutes of quality practice just to get away from the piano (i am certainly not speaking from my own experience 😛 )
Yes setting a time limit is measurable but by defining the number of times we are set to repeat a scale or a song we actually tie our measurable goal to a specific activity. You have the ability to count each repetition as your child practices but so can they. Unfortunately sometimes when we practice we are looking forward to the end of practice or what comes after practice. If we can define the endpoint in an achievable way each successful repetition moves you one step closer to that endpoint.
Agreed upon, Attainable, Achievable
I like to get the student involved in this. If the child is involved in these goals and they can count the repetitions themselves. They are easy to attain and easily achievable by the student because five repetitions are not that much. And remember a small number every day adds up to a large number of repetitions each week and a very big number every year.
Sure they may improve better if they repeat that scale 1,000 times every day but I am not sure I can get a seven year old to agree to that? Ten times, three times, five times? The number you choose is really up to you and your child. I like the number five because it seems to be a good number of times to repeat a phrase, a song or an exercise where we can get engagement and improvement but stave off boredom. Of course, every child is different but fewer repetitions every day is better than a large number of repetitions once a week.
I like to think of this as age. As an adult when I sit back to practice I like more repetitions, I like to spend more time with my instrument and I enjoy the process of practicing. Think about the age of the student, their goals and the material they need to practice. A student with a pending recital may need more repetitions and with more material, they will require more time to achieve their goal. I recognize that the ‘timely’ element of a S.M.A.R.T. goal is to create a small amount of pressure to help you achieve a goal, however as a music student sometimes time is on our side. We will improve more and with regular consistent practice, the ‘marathon’ concept where the goal to finish the race is more important than beating a specific time. In that regard, we don’t need the pressure of a ‘time based’ goal as much as we need the encouragement to use the time in order to achieve mastery.
Practicing is not always fun but that doesn’t mean it should be a fight with your kids. I know as a child I fought with my parents every day, kicking and screaming and crying for 28 minutes of every half hour practice. As an adult and a teacher what I hope is to find a what for parents to get the same two minutes of practice but avoid the 28 minutes of “pain”. In fact, why not make it a game, layout 5 smarties on the piano and for each repetition they get to eat 1 smartie…