I’ve been teaching private flute lessons for almost 20 years and the number one question remains, “How much should my child be practicing?”
Parents are investing A LOT of time and money on private music lessons and it absolutely makes sense to ask how to make the most out of such an investment! Should you be pushing and enforcing a regular practice routine? Is it something worth fighting over? Should you quit (or threaten to quit) if your child won’t practice?
My answer may be different than most music teachers out there, but my answer is this: if your child is interested in music and generally comes out of lessons with a positive attitude, it is worth it whether they practice or not.
Let me assure you, if your child is studying under a qualified and skilled educator, they WILL be learning and they WILL progress. The speed at which a child demonstrates improved technique and skill on their instrument depends on so many factors other than just practicing for 30 minutes a day. I urge parents to abandon the idea that a set amount of enforced practice time is necessary to achieve the end goal (of what?) and instead focus on helping your child to find his or her own motivation for playing their instrument outside of lessons.
I can loosely relate it to personal training at a gym. If you visit your trainer consistently once per week and focus on proper form and technique as you are guided through the exercises that are appropriate for your fitness level, you will start to see modest results. As you begin to see improvement, get comfortable doing the basic exercises and start to understand the benefits, you may be inspired to occasionally fit in a trip to the gym on your own. It doesn’t take too long for us to figure out that the more time we put in, the more dramatic the results and the faster we reach our short-term goals. For some, this is a strong motivator to step up the practice sessions while others prefer the slow and steady route. As long as we are seeing a skilled trainer regularly, there will always be progress and benefits.
Over time, some may gain the confidence to try a race or join a sports team or perhaps even discover a passion for going to the gym on a daily basis! A very tiny percentage may eventually find this particular passion to be such an incredible fuel for them that, through intense dedication and discipline (and a little extra talent and luck), they end up with a contract on a sports team or will head to the olympics! We love those stories and love to briefly imagine ourselves or our children reaching those peaks (and nothing wrong with dreaming big as long as your child shares the same dream)… but is that really why we hired a personal trainer in the first place? Is that our ONLY goal throughout the entire learning process? Of course not.
We started with curiosity. It was followed by a desire to find out more and maybe give ourselves a bit of a challenge. We continued because, as we went deeper into the process (whether it was in a gym, classroom or on stage), we were surprised by our own capabilities, talents and potential and we started to see that there was still so much more to explore and understand about ourselves and the world around us. THIS is what ignites passion and once that passion is there, it doesn’t need anyone to tell it to practice.
“Ask yourself what you truly want your child to gain from taking music lessons (or any lessons for that matter). Finding the answer to this question is the single most important thing you can do to get the most out of your investment (and is an incredible gift to your child).”
Spark your child’s natural curiosity and interest in music by trying some of these practical tips:
LISTEN LISTEN LISTEN! Downloading and listening to quality, professional level recordings is a great way to inspire any musician to practice! Explore a wide variety of music and have it playing in the car, on the computer or even better, attend live concerts! See what inspires your child and what inspires you!
Also be sure to regularly listen to professionals playing the instrument your child plays! Easy-to-find world-famous flautists include Sir James Galway or Jean-Pierre Rampal.
My personal favourites are Canadians such as Lorna McGhee (who I’ve worked with on several occasions and she’s a beautiful soul) and my own colleagues and friends who perform regularly in Calgary and with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra such as Sarah Gieck and Sara Hahn.
Listen to Irish flute, Chinese flute, Ian Anderson (“rock and roll” flute), modern flute and Western classical flute.
Encourage “emotional playing”. When your child is in a receptive mood (NOT in the heat of the moment), tell them that it’s a good idea to find a private place and try playing their instrument when they are sad, angry, overjoyed or even hyper. Tell them it’s an experiment you’d like them to try some time but that you promise you would never interrupt or ask questions.
Purchase fun sheet music. Purchase, download or print off sheet music or music books that are exciting and interesting for your child. Disney, Star Wars, Jazz and even classical repertoire that’s beyond their current level… these are all OK for exploration and sparking interest!
Let it go. Don’t worry about what happens in the practice session (that’s the teacher’s job). If you are just hearing “free-play” and “fooling around” when their instrument is out at home (assuming it’s not physically harming the instrument or being used as a toy), don’t feel the need to step in. All exploration is a sign that the curiosity and interest is there and that some learning is happening at a subconscious level. The focus will come with time.
Make it easy to practice! Have a special “music space” that is inviting, clear of clutter and comfortable. If SAFE to do so, have the flute already assembled in an easy-access spot near the music space so that when the whim or desire strikes, your child has no barriers to practice time. (This may not work if there are pets or young siblings that are too curious to keep away).
Clear space in the schedule. If you want to help your child begin to see results on a more dramatic scale or to truly have the opportunity for creative exploration, there needs to be space in the schedule for practicing. 9pm on a school night after 2 hours of homework and 3 hours of after-school activities is usually not an appropriate time to do anything other than relaxing or sleeping. Feel free to make SUGGESTIONS for good times to practice. Mondays and Wednesdays just before dinner? Sunday afternoons? It’s certainly a good idea to create space in the schedule for practicing, it’s just important that it remains flexible and doesn’t become a chore or an argument.
Goal setting. Setting goals such as learning a challenging piece or performing in a recital or taking a music exam can motivate some students to increase the number of focused practice sessions they choose to do each week. I tell my students that a focused practice session is the time used to develop skills and techniques that enhance their “toolbox”. These might include scales, breathing exercises, assigned studies and isolating specific sections of music for accuracy and detail. The bigger the toolbox, the more power you have to learn about your own talents and capabilities, to express your feelings through music and to share the messages that the music offers.
YouTube links to watch with your flautist:
Flute duo performance by Gwen Klassen and Lorna McGhee at Pender Island Flute Retreat (Gwen was MY flute teacher and currently plays with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. Lorna is an incredibly expressive and talented player whom I have had the honour of working with on several occasions.)
A performance of "Let it Go" by my dear friend, the talented Sarah Gieck on flute, Michael Hope (CPO Assistant Principal Bassoon), and Reggie James (piano) at MusiCamp Alberta in Red Deer.
Flight of the Bumblebee performed by Sir James Galway.
Ian Anderson flute solo 1976
… Aaaand when practicing doesn’t go quite as planned ;)