How to Practice: A Guide for Parents and Caregivers

Kay BarkerMusic EducationLeave a Comment

About the Author

Kay Barker

Kay Barker is a teacher and musician with degrees in vocal performance and psychology. She co-founded Musicologie in 2014 and has toured nationally with her band Bella Ruse opening for artists like Sarah McLachlan and Heart.

We hear it from parents of young learners all the time: “My child isn’t practicing.” Often parents think it means their child is too young for music lessons, or isn’t interested. But a reluctance to practice is perfectly normal. In fact, it’s expected! The love of music is intrinsic in all of us. But practice habits are not. Think of it this way: We don’t expect daily homework for a five year old, daily sports practice, daily language drills. So we shouldn’t expect daily music practice right away, either. Instead, practice habits should be developed slowly according to your child’s stage of development. Learning and applying developmentally appropriate practice is one of the fundamental keys to learning an instrument. 

And the exciting thing is that the practice habits your child develops in their lessons will translate to learning anything! Your child will build the grit and determination it takes to try, try, try again when things don’t come easy. Lessons nurture the natural passion we all have for music and turn it into a life skill and life love that will mature with your young student throughout the years. 

Tips for Parents and Caregivers

Invest in Your Child’s Future

Learning an instrument at a young age is about so much more than just learning the notes on the page. It is a long-term investment in your child’s cognitive, emotional and physical health. Study after study has shown learning an instrument improves coordination, language, reading and math skills, and even improves test scores. Plus—get this—learning music actually makes your brain bigger! And the earlier a child starts, the more their brain changes. And these changes are lifelong. For instance, older adults who played an instrument as a child have decreased chances of hearing loss and dementia. It’s not just that music provides these benefits; research shows learning music is the best way to get them. Be confident in the knowledge that music lessons are one of the most important and impactful investments you can make in your child’s future. 

Expect Gradual Growth

We won’t require your student to practice a specific amount of time each day right away. They’ll be guided, gradually, to make music a daily part of their lives and then encouraged to set their own goals for their learning. This means they’ll learn to take responsibility for their musical journey and grow a deep sense of ownership of the music they create. 

Support, Encourage and Guide

Don’t worry about correcting mistakes. Your student’s teacher will take care of that! Your student needs your support and encouragement, and maybe your gentle help and guidance, if they request it. But mistakes are not problems—they’re opportunities for growth! So we encourage you to allow your student the space to make mistakes. We all do sometimes. Music lessons are a safe space to use those mistakes and grow into a more resilient learner.

Don’t Force

We strongly recommend that you resist the urge to force practicing at home. It’s so easy for a young student to be pushed too hard, burn out and lose the love of music that made them want to play an instrument to begin with. Our goal is for your student to develop independent habits, and learn to love playing music for its own sake. It takes time, and each student’s journey will be unique, but it’s so worth it!

Have Age Appropriate Expectations

The first few steps include age ranges as a guide to make sure that your very young student is at the right developmentally appropriate step. But the age and time spent at each step is incredibly variable. (That’s why the highly individualized format of one-on-one music lessons is so important.) These steps are meant to be a conversation starter between you and your child’s teacher. And they are meant to help incentivize your student as they graduate from each step to the next!

The Practice Steps

The practice steps below are divided into 8 steps based on a student’s age and stage of cognitive development. If your child isn’t practicing like you think they should, make sure they’re on the step that’s right for them. Often, parents start lessons thinking their child needs to practice 5, 10 or more minutes a day right away. This is usually not the right expectation and can easily lead to frustration and burnout for both the student and the parents. So, make sure you have age-appropriate practice expectations for your child. Notice that setting an amount of time for daily practice doesn’t happen until Step 5.

STEP 1: Occasional Performance (4-6 years)

Perform at home at least once during the week

The Strategy: Your child will be given pieces able to be learned in one week, and should perform that piece for you at home at least once during the week. They don’t need to play every day, and their playing shouldn’t be timed. We use the word ‘perform’ instead of ‘practice’.

The Science: At this developmental stage, learning is accomplished through play and exploration, and your child is still developing a sense of who they are as a music-lover and creator. Practice that is too structured or coerced may override the intrinsic joy of music-making and turn a child off to music completely, so it’s incredibly important to allow your child to be in control of when and how they perform and explore at the instrument.

Some Tips:

  •  Encourage your child to perform their piece for family, friends, or even stuffed animals.
  • Make performances a big deal! Clap, cheer, make tickets or banners, create a stage area.
  • Children who are new to reading may benefit from an adult pointing to each note as it’s played, guiding their eyes from left to right on the page.
  • Performance doesn’t have to be playing only the assigned pieces. Try practice games or apps, flashcards, writing a song, or simply listening to new music.
  • Exploration and improvisation is ok! It’s totally fine if your child explores music-making outside of what they’ve been assigned. They’ll learn a ton about how their instrument works and gain self-confidence through unstructured play.
  • Simply sitting with your child while they play may help them feel supported and minimize frustration.

STEP 2: Daily Performance (4-6 years)

Perform a little every day

The Strategy: Your teacher will ask your child if they’re ready to play every day at home. If they say yes, you can help them as they work to meet this goal. It may take some time for them to grow into this, and that’s okay, as long as they continue to say they would like to try. It’s also okay to return back to Step 1 a few times. 

The Science: As your child matures and begins school, it’s likely they’ll be ready to take this first step towards structured, daily practice. Young kids have not fully developed their idea of their “Future Self”— they have a hard time imagining that they will change in the future—so they can’t yet conceptualize that practicing every day will make them better or make hard things easy. But that’s one of the things this step  helps to develop! Assigned pieces will be kept easy enough to learn in a week or two as your child begins to make daily music-creation a habit.

Some Tips:

  • Help your child find a regular time every day to perform. The goal is to make it a part of a routine to take the remembering and decision-making out of the equation.
  • Continue to make performances a big deal! 
  • An adult pointing to each note as it’s played may continue to be helpful for your child as they develop their reading skills.
  • Use practice games or apps, flashcards, writing a song, or listening to new music to reinforce concepts and keep practice varied and engaging.
  • As in Step 1, exploration and improvisation is okay! Both really hit on the intrinsic joy of music creation, so we don’t want to stifle this as long as it’s happening alongside playing of assigned pieces.
  • Continue sitting with your child while they practice, if it helps them feel supported and stay on task.

STEP 3: Daily Repetitions (5-7 years)

Perform a piece a set number of times each day

The Strategy: With their teacher’s guidance, your child will choose a number of times they’d like to play their piece each day. Each week, they will discuss with their teacher how they’re doing meeting practice goals, and they’ll learn strategies for consistent practice.

The Science:  As the music your child is learning grows in complexity, the amount of time spent playing it at home needs to increase. Some children can be ready for more structure and longer practice earlier than others. If you can sit with your child at home while they perform, they will likely progress more quickly.

Some Tips: 

  • As with every step, it’s okay to not reach a practicing goal every once in a while. Your child will work with their teacher to set realistic goals and take ownership of their practice and progress.
  • It is your child’s responsibility to find daily time to practice, but it’s okay for them to ask for help from you. If they request it, you can support them by reminding them once to practice at their daily practice time.
  • No need to remind more than once or make it a battle. Your child is learning independence as a musician and practicer, so if they are struggling to meet their practice goal, communicate with their teacher so that they can address it at their next lesson.
  • As concepts grow more challenging, supplemental learning materials will be key. Flashcards, workbooks, note-reading apps, and practice games are all great ways to vary your child’s practice at home.
  • Continue sitting with your child while they practice, if it helps them feel supported and stay on task.

STEP 4: Timed Daily Repetitions (6-8 years)

Time the daily repetition practice each day (no specific timing requirement)

The Strategy: Once your child has learned the habit of consistent practice, it’s time to start preparing them for more advanced practicing techniques. They should start thinking about how much time they’re spending and how to break their practicing into sections. There is still no time requirement here; you should just note how long they’re practicing and write it in the log—or better yet, have them write it.

The Science: Practicing well is not just about how often or how much. It’s also important for your child to learn how to practice well! Starting to think about just how much work it takes to learn a song or concept is an important step towards more mindful practice. But we want your child to own this new milestone and to learn what they are capable of, so timing their repetitive practice gives them a better understanding of just how much time they already spend. And as they step away from simply playing each song from beginning to end, they’ll learn how to get the most out of that time.

Some Tips:

  • Check that your child is keeping track of their minutes in a practice log, so they develop a good sense of how much time they are devoting to music each day.
  • Encourage and support their practice, but be sure to leave space for independence. For example: provide a stop watch, but let them be in charge of the timing, or sit in the room with them, but don’t intervene in their practice process unless they request it.
  • Video Game Style Practice: Just like in a video game when your character dies and has to return to the beginning, your child will start their piece at the beginning and start over any time they make a mistake, trying to “beat the level” and get to the end.
  • Slow Practice: slow, slow, slow! Remind your child to set a pace where every motion/note/rhythm can be deliberate and controlled.
  • Supplemental learning materials will continue to be helpful to vary your child’s practice at home: flashcards, workbooks, note-reading apps, practice games, etc.
  • Continue sitting with your child while they practice, if it helps them feel supported and stay on task.

STEP 5: Beginning Timed Practice

Practice for 5-15 minutes each day

The Strategy: Your child will choose a number of daily minutes as a practice goal with guidance from their teacher, using their Step 4 timed practice amount as a starting point. 

The Science: In general, kids can be expected to concentrate on any one task for as many minutes as years old they are. This is why it’s not appropriate to jump right into practicing 15-30 minutes a day. As their attention span grows, they’re also ready to learn strategies for varying their practice. Playing the music a different way each time, focusing on a variety of technical aspects, and breaking the music up into sections all keep practice from getting monotonous and keep your child engaged and able to spend more time at their instrument. 

Some Tips:

  • Check that your child is keeping track of their minutes in a practice log, so they have a good sense of how much time they are devoting to music each day.
  • Encourage and support their practice, but leave space for independence.
  • Supplemental learning materials will continue to be helpful to vary your child’s practice at home: flashcards, workbooks, note-reading apps, practice games, etc.
  • Implementing a daily practicing timeline is a great precursor to more structured practice. For example, Try Old/New/Slices/All. 1) Start with playing everything learned so far. 2) Try to play something new or that can’t be played fluently yet. 3) Break it into “pizza slices” and practice the slices. 4) Play the old and the new to see the progress made!
  • Which Practice Strategies to Use: Your child will be learning how to determine which practice strategies to use during their practice. Their independence is important, but it’s okay to support their practice by suggesting some of the following methods to your child, if it seems appropriate:
  • Video Game Style Practice: Just like in a video game when your character dies and has to return to the beginning, your child will start their piece at the beginning and start over any time they make a mistake, trying to “beat the level” and get to the end.
  • Good Guy/Bad Guy Practice: Choose a challenging measure or two. When your child plays it correctly, Good Guy gets a point. When they play it incorrectly, Bad Guy gets a point. Keep playing until Good Guy wins!
  • Pizza Slices: You wouldn’t eat a whole pizza in one bite! Break the music into “pizza slices” of measures and choose a different way to play each section: fast/slow, loud/soft, high/low, with a metronome, saying note names/finger numbers out loud, phantom playing (without actually making a sound), hands covered, eyes closed, distraction mode (while someone else makes a ton of noise!).
  • Don’t Start at the Beginning: You always have your freshest brain at the beginning of practice, so start with a different section each time you play a piece.

STEP 6: Intermediate Timed Practice

Practice for 15-30 minutes each day

The Strategy: Your child will choose a number of daily minutes as a practice goal, with guidance from their teacher.

The Science: Five times your child’s year in school (i.e. 25 minutes in 5th grade) is a good rough idea of how many minutes per day they can handle. But each child is different, and their goal should be their choice and their responsibility. And the number of minutes each day should grow as your child progresses to more complex, intermediate pieces. Because this step is the last step towards totally independent practice, your role as caretaker will start to be much more hands-off and your child will be independently using the practicing tools and strategies they’ve been developing since Step 1!

Some Tips:

  • Practice should be developing more structure: 1) warm ups, scales, and technical exercises,  2) work on assigned pieces, 3) theory, supplemental assignments, 4) free play- improvisation, composition, review of past pieces
  • Some intermediate practice strategies:
  • Adding/Subtracting Practice: Choose a section, play the first note and then gradually add one note at a time, each time starting at the first note. For example: note #1, then 1 and 2, then 1 2 3, then 1 2 3 4. Then when your child has played the whole phrase, start subtracting one note from the end each time.
  • Zoom In Zoom Out: Play until you find a mistake and “zoom in”. Play that one note several times. Then “zoom out”. Gradually add notes, one at a time, on either side until you are playing a whole section.
  • Goldilocks Metronome: Just like Goldilocks needed to find the porridge that was “just right,” set the metronome at a fast speed and try to play along while it’s “too hot.” Then set it slow and play along to “too cold.” Last, find the speed where everything feels “just right.”
  • Zig-Zag Metronome: Find the Goldilocks speed and then “zig” up 10 bpm and play a set number of times. Then “zag” down 5 bpm and see how easy it feels. Keep zig-zagging until the desired speed is reached.
  • Phantom Playing: “Play” a section by just moving your fingers in the right way, but without actually making a sound (i.e. tap the tops of the piano keys without pressing all the way down). This makes it trickier because it takes away all of the feedback your ears give you about whether a note is correct or not!
  • Play the Odds: We want the odds of performing a piece perfectly to be in our favor! So try to play the piece correctly a certain number of times in a row. (Younger children may have fun using a little token or toy to keep track of how many times they’ve played the song correctly.)
  • Performance Prep: Practice for Perfection, but Prepare for Problems! Your child should practice moving forward from mistakes without correcting them, in preparation for performance.

STEP 7: Advanced Timed Practice

Practice for 30+ minutes each day 

The Strategy: Your child will set a daily practice goal and independently work each week to achieve it. 

The Science: Now that your child is making practice a daily part of their life, they should be setting practice goals that are appropriate for their goals. In practice, the time put in is equal to progress made, so there is no limit (other than logistical) to the number of minutes a child should invest daily. The practice goal will be based, then, on the complexity of the music and the rate of progress they’d like to achieve. 

Some Tips:

  • Practice should be structured and varied: 1) warm ups, scales, and technical exercises,  2) work on assigned pieces, 3) theory and supplemental assignments, 4) sightreading, 5) free play (improvisation, composition, review of past pieces)
  • The majority of practice time should be spent on assigned pieces, working on small sections at a time.
  • Your child should now be using a variety of practice strategies, easily and quickly switching from one to another, depending on what they determine the music requires.
  • Performance Prep: Practice for Perfection, but Prepare for Problems! Your child should practice moving forward from mistakes without correcting them, in preparation for performance.
  • Some advanced practicing strategies:
  • Swinging the rhythm of a section: This means that you have to get to half of the notes faster than normal. 
  • Blocked or arpeggiated chords: Play chords in blocks or arpeggios to better learn hand positions.
  • Backwards: Play notes in reverse order.
  • Subdivided beat metronome: Set the metronome to twice as fast to keep eighth notes and sixteenth notes even.
  • Sing along: Hum, “la,” or scat; it helps you breathe life into the music you create.
  • Memorization: Close your eyes, close your book. It gets the music out of your head and into your muscles and bones.
  • Record yourself: It’s a good way to practice for performance because it puts a little pressure on. And listening back is a great way to get an outside perspective on the music you created.
  • Practice blocks: All practice doesn’t need to be done in one sitting. Breaking it into blocks throughout the day can prevent mental fatigue.

STEP 8: Advanced Goal-Oriented Practice

Goal-oriented, keeping track of practice

The Strategy: There is no time limit at this advanced stage. Practice length is determined by goals for achievement.

The Science: At this point, advanced practicers will have no problem making substantial time for daily practice, and there is no need to constrain practice to a certain number of minutes. It should instead be highly goal-oriented, both short-term and long. 

Some Tips: Set and revisit short, medium, and long-term goals often.

Short term goal examples:

  • Master one section of a piece
  • Sightread every day
  • Increase a piece’s tempo
  • Learn a new scale
  • Memorize one section
  • Write a schedule for medium and long term goals
  • Medium term goal examples:
  • Learn all the movements of a major piece
  • Practice every day for a month
  • Perform in public
  • Write a song
  • Join a band
  • Apply for competitions or festivals
  • Really work to develop one area of technique

Long term goal examples:

  • Choose a challenging piece to grow into
  • Record an album
  • Get into a university-level music program
  • Develop into a professional musician
  • Learn another instrument
  • Write a schedule for goals: Set timelines for achieving goals, and delineate and plan out the steps to get you there.
  • Keep a detailed practice log: Note time spent warming up, what technical concepts were focused on, daily goals, pieces played and sightread, and problems found/addressed. 
  • Talk with your teacher about other ways to develop your abilities and scope as a musician: ensembles, supplemental classes in theory, composition, recording, etc., Musicologie U (our college-prep course), competitions. 

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