Tips for Parents of Student Musicians

NOTE: This is a lightly edited version of a handout prepared by Elm music teacher and band director Mr. Kyle Rhoades. The original version can be found here on Mr. Rhoades' Elm Middle School Band website.

Practicing a musical instrument is the most important thing students can do to improve as players. Parents who encourage organized, regular practice sessions support this improvement exponentially. The more you, as parents, understand about quality practice, the better you can support your child.

Best Practices for Good Practices

Please keep in mind that when music students are practicing they should:

► Have specific goals

► Practice in a place where they can focus

► Practice small sections of the music, not the whole piece

► Practice SLOWLY

► Not practice mistakes, but fix them immediately

► Practice regularly (and not cram!)

Provided they do it regularly (daily, if possible), most students can benefit nicely from about 15 minutes of well-organized practice for every two years of experience. It’s the quality — not the quantity — of the practice sessions that matters most.

Consistency is key. It’s better to play for 15 minutes every day than it is to practice an hour on one day and skip the rest of the week.

Practicing doesn’t have to occur in long sessions. In fact, many professional players break their practice time down into half-hour or one-hour sessions.

When players are tired, having trouble concentrating, or are fatigued, they should stop. It’s no longer worth it. They should come back in an hour or two when they’re not tired anymore.

If their attention is wandering while practicing, they should take a short break. Students will achieve more of their desired results if they take necessary breaks than if they try to push through.

Additional tips for parents who want their children to get the most out of practice sessions can be found below.

Establish a Practice Routine

Routine is valuable for young people. They should do things in the same order every time they practice. They should strive to practice at the same time, in the same place and for the same length of time on a regular basis.

Set Practice Goals

This comes from students taking the time to look through their music and deciding that they will learn a specific section of a piece during one practice session. If they  already know their piece, they can choose to improve one aspect of the music— articulation, accents, dynamics, etc. Goals help them to focus on the end result and give them something to aim for.

Practice in a Comfortable Setting

For some people this means a quiet room with absolutely no distractions, for others it's the garage, and for others it's the bathroom! There is no "perfect" setting in which to practice. Students should practice wherever they focus best. The more you can do to help your family organize an environment that is beneficial for practice (a well-lit space where your child can keep a music stand, music and instrument), the easier it will be for them to stay disciplined about it.

Respect the Scales

Scales are of vital importance, but many students find them boring and pointless. Please encourage your children to begin their practice sessions with them. They are the building blocks of good technique on every instrument — finger patterns that occur over and over again in all forms of music.

Once students really know their scales, playing other music gets easier. They should treat scales (and arpeggios) just like pieces: Don’t just play them a couple of times, but break them down and work on the difficult bits over and over before putting them back together again.

Avoid Playing Only Band Music

Play warm-ups first, then scales and then etudes. Then get out the band music they need to work on, focusing on the section(s) they want to fix.

Practice in Chunks

Encourage your child to break their music into small sections of specific groups of measures and practice those "chunks." Only very rarely should they play any piece all the way through. Instead, they should pick a short section and really work it out slowly and methodically. Remember, playing a piece all the way through and then putting the instrument away is not practice.

When in Doubt, Practice Slowly

Too many people think that speed is the key, that practicing at a fast tempo will help them move faster and become a better musician. This is not true. Practicing slowly and accurately is much, much better than fast practice. If they play accurately at a slow tempo, speed can be added gradually and naturally. If they practice too quickly, they will trip up over the same things over and over again.

Stop and Isolate Any Problem

Make sure you let your children know that if they notice they are making mistakes, STOP and isolate the problem section. Have them play any problem sections extremely slowly until they are played correctly.

If rhythm is a problem, use a metronome. Tell them to put their instrument down and clap and count the rhythm. Then play the rhythm on their instrument with air and fingers only (no tone). Then, put it all together again, still slowly.

Don’t allow them to practice mistakes — this is useless!  Anything they do wrong more than once is a mistake, and they should stop and correct it immediately.

Purchase a Metronome and Tuner

A metronome is a device that keeps a steady beat and can be set to specific speeds. It helps musicians maintain an even and accurate tempo while playing. It will force the student to play slowly or play quickly, but exactly in time. Tuners are electronic devices that check to see if the specific pitches on an instrument are correct and “in tune” — in other words, at the correct frequency.

Most wind instruments are actually made with a few notes out of tune, as a compromise so that the majority of the other notes are closer in tune. All students need to work on their individual intonation, because the better their individual intonation, the better the ensemble’s intonation.

Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect — Practice Makes Permanent

Whatever students play repeatedly, they will master. If there are consistent mistakes during practice, they will happen again during the performance! Slow it down, work it out and be successful!

Be Your Child's Audience

Students who practice in a vacuum receive neither positive nor negative feedback. Ask your children to play for you — tell them what you liked, and what you think they can improve. Tell them what you learned from listening to them and watching them, even if you don’t know much about music.

Some parents go so far as to ask their child to teach them how to play the instrument. There is no better check for knowledge than by having to pass that knowledge on to someone else. Most importantly, music is a performing art. Give your child the chance to perform for you regularly. It’s a great bonding experience for both of you!