Young students: How much to practice?
Someone on the flutenet discussion group posed this question:
So this is for the teachers of young students, fifth grade and younger. How much time do you ask your beginners to practice, and what do you do when parents want to curtail lessons because students "aren't practicing seriously enough" despite excellent progress?
Here is a slightly-edited version of my reply:
My dad was a 5th grade teacher for over 30 years, and every year, a parent of a new band kid would say, "I'll buy the instrument, but I'm NOT going to tell him to practice. He's going to have to be RESPONSIBLE." Dad would calmly say, "Don't you have to remind him to do his homework? Brush his teeth? Go to bed on time? Of course you do! And doesn't he forget to bring home papers for you to sign? Well, playing an instrument is even harder to remember than all of those things, because it's a totally new skill set. YOU, as the PARENT, are going to have to help at home if you want your child to be successful."
That was good advice, and here's how I implement it in my private studio:
1. Lots of VARIETY in practice assignments. We flute teachers have, for years, given a kid ONE lone method book and sent them home to practice. (Along those lines, can you imagine anything more boring for a beginner than trying to play a bunch of whole notes--which they can't hold out yet--in the first Rubank lesson? I wouldn't take practice seriously, either, if that's all I had to look forward to each day.) Piano teachers, on the other hand, tend to assign materials out of 3-4 books, even for beginners, and those books have FUN pictures in them that little kids like. I use two books: a standard method book AND a "solo" book. In my case, those two books are A Tune A Day (the old one, which is GREAT for teaching rhythms and reading music) andAbracadabra Flute (fun tunes and cute pictures). The kids LOVEAbracadabra and will put up with Tune a Day so that we can get to "dessert." If [the original poster's] students ARE indeed practicing, perhaps working out of more books will convince the parents that the kid is doing enough "homework."
2. VERY SPECIFIC practice assignments. I don't use a lesson notebook with young kids--it's one more thing for them to forget to look at. Instead, I use colorful post-it arrows on each page. (Yes, I go through a lot of arrows.) Then I circle any assignment the student is supposed to practice. I don't teach tiny kids about the subtleties of practice yet...when they are first starting to play, I tell them to play each exercise through three times daily. (A few months later, we'll work on more sophisticated practice techniques.)
3. LOTS of practice assignments. Why assign one page when you can assign four? You'll soon learn just how many pages or exercises your students can handle each week. But the more we assign, the more they are likely to practice (or at least to play through three times daily).
4. PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT. This is the most important item on my list. I require parents to attend lessons until students are in 5th or 6th grade. Parents are responsible for taking notes during the lesson. I'll often say, "Mom/Dad, please jot a note so that you can remind Suzy to sit up tall and hold her flute up this week" or "Please make sure Johnny plays his F scale three times daily." Then, when the kids are practicing at home, I expect a parent to sit down with them at least half of each practice session. I coach parents on how to do this: they aren't to criticize, but rather to ask questions: "What else are you supposed to play today? How many times? Do you remember what else Dr. C told you to do when you played this song?" and to give compliments: "I love the way you played that with such a full sound" or "wow, you got that right! Good work!" Parental involvement MUST start at the very first lesson. If a parent doesn't have time to sit down for 20 minutes daily for a practice session (and I don't blame them if they are too busy--I'm asking a lot, especially for parents who also work outside the home), then that student probably won't be a good match for my studio. Having the parents in the room makes them part of the experience, and I've even seen it do wonders for parent/child relationships.
5. Set practice time expectations. "Ten minutes, twice daily, six days a week" is a good rule for young beginners. Breaking up the practice into two short segments is better for short attention spans and keeps kids from getting bored. 20 minutes daily is a good rule for a beginner. When they are able to focus for that long in a lesson, I tell them I am so proud of them, because now they are GOOD ENOUGH to practice longer! We then add 5 minutes of practice to the daily routine. With [the original poster's] students it sounds like they ARE making good progress, but perhaps the parents have unrealistic expectations. I think that telling parents that "this is appropriate progress and work for an 8-year-old" is ok to say. It's also our JOB as teachers to warn parents that insisting on hours of daily practice for a tiny kid is just asking for burnout and resentment later. At this age, flute lessons are a "music readiness" experience, not a second chance for a wanna-be stage parent to play an instrument vicariously through his/her child.
6. Rewards. Sure, music should be its own reward, but I've found that most kids like stickers, too! :) Even my college students love getting a smiley-face when they've finished a particularly difficulty Andersen etude! A big dose of praise is good, too, when students do particularly well. I don't say "nice job" very often, because that's too vague. Rather, lots of mini-compliments such as "wow, you remembered every F-sharp! Nice improvement!" goes a long way. If parents are sitting in on lessons, they'll hear these compliments and realize that the kid really is taking music seriously.
© Shelley Collins 2010
Music is a mixture of rhythm and melody. Without the rhythm, a melody cannot be understood. So rhythm is the most important element of music making. It forms the structure and foundation on which the notes sit.
We all have a connection to rhythm in our everyday lives when breathing, talking or walking. Making a connection with that inner sense of pulse is essential for helping our music to be understood.
The following exercises will help you lock into your inner sense of pulse. The idea is that you play the top line and tap the rhythm with your foot, using either your big toe or heel.
Quavers or eighth notes have the value of half a crotchet or quarter note.
Clap the rhythms below and then play them.
Individual quavers have a tail on their stem. When there is a group of quavers, they are joined together.
Information on how to play music can be given in English or Italian terms. These terms usually describe how fast a piece should be played and how loud or soft. Louds and softs are called dynamics. Dynamic markings are often abbreviated:
Mezzo forte/moderately loud/mf
Mezzo piano/moderately soft/mp
Lines to indicate getting louder or softer are called hairpins:
Playing long notes helps you to improve your tone or sound. This is because you have time to listen. Long notes also help improve your posture, breathing and technique because you have time to think.
Play the following exercise slowly, using all your air supply. Experiment to see what changes you can make e.g. blow more or less, relax or slightly tighten your lips/embouchure, make your teeth closer or further apart.
Listen to the effects of all of these and decide which ones improve your tone production.
How much you cover the mouth hole with your lips makes a big difference to the sound. Try to cover about a third of the embouchure hole.
Breath control is also a very important element. When you take a breath, take care not to let your shoulders go up. Let your tummy muscles expand outwards and then use those tummy muscles to push the air out
Posture and breath control help create very solid foundations which enable you to develop all areas of your flute playing.
Below are flashcards, which give you all the information that you need to help remind you of the essential points. Print them out and have them on your music stand as a regular reminder.
FLASHCARDS No. 1
- Keep your head up
- Feet shoulder width apart
- Shoulders relaxed and down
- Turn head slightly to the left
- Lift flute to lips – not lips to flute
- Keep a 45 degree angle between the end
of your flute and right shoulder
- Relax your elbows
- Use a mirror to check
FLASHCARDS No. 2
- Check your posture
- Breathe in slowly
- Keep shoulders relaxed and down
- Imagine filling the bottom of your lungs first
- Let your abdominal muscles expand out
- Let your ribs expand out
- Use your abdominal/tummy muscles to push the air out