I've been thinking a lot about practicing since I am presenting a session about motivating students to practice at the 2015 NAfME National Convention in Nashville. My oldest son started taking Suzuki violin lessons when he was 4 years old. I practiced with him every day and we made some good progress, as long as we practiced exactly the way the teacher told us to practice. But, there were plenty of times when I could hardly get my 4-year-old to get out his violin...let alone get him to hold his instrument the right way. After a year or so, my little beginner violinist was in a rut. We weren't making any progress, even though we were practicing. He was getting frustrated, and so was I...because I knew it was my fault. It was such a struggle just to get him to practice, I was allowing him to quickly play through all of the songs and exercises, without really working to make sure he played accurately. We were practicing every single day, but we were practicing just to check it off the to-do list... not to improve skills. This slowed his progress tremendously and it wasn't as fun. It was like we were stuck at a red light that was never turning green. We just couldn't progress. Thankfully, we had a wise and experienced teacher who waited for us to get it right before we moved on in the repertoire. If she had let us move ahead before mastering necessary skills, my son probably would have become more frustrated and quit lessons.
I didn't want to be working on Twinkle Twinkle forever. I knew we had to transform our practicing and raise our standards. To help my son stay motivated, I installed a toy basketball net on the door to our living room and I let him try to make a basket every time he completed a task on our practice agenda. We worked extra hard during practice, paying attention to every bow stroke, every note, and every sound that came out of the violin. We focused on one technique at a time during each repitition that he played: Intonation, Tone, Bowing, Rhythm. Instead of just playing through our exercises, we listened, analyzed, and corrected. We made sure each repitition was perfect. After one week of our new practice standards our teacher was amazed at our sudden improvement. After hearing my son at his next lesson, she exclaimed, "What's the secret!? What did you do!?"
The secret about practicing is that time doesn't matter. The secret is about paying attention, focusing and correcting everything you do. It's about practicing with a PURPOSE! This takes a great deal of maturity, so a parent must help a young child when they practice. As a public school orchestra teacher, I need my students to learn how to practice effectively on their own. I guarantee that most students think practicing is playing through a song once or twice - that's how I used to practice as a kid and I wish I would have known better. Specific practice assignments which describe exactly how and what to practice will help students learn how to progress. Since beginners don't know how to break up a piece into smaller sections, tell them the measures you would like them to work on and demonstrate how practice bowing, intonation, etc.
Here is a poster I just made to help students remember how to practice. This will help students remember that practicing takes thought, focus, and purpose!