Saying that practice makes perfect is far from just a trope in the world of music. Practice is where a budding musician finds their heart, soul and drive for excellence. Of course, discipline and a mastery of time-management skills come before the big creative burst. A good practice routine is what ultimately makes the notes flow like steam from the fingers of a seasoned musician. In fact, we generally know what it takes to create an expert-level performer from an early age. Literature tells us that expert-level performers sustain and increase deliberate practice over a span of 10 years. Let's talk about why a practice routine is so essential for getting the benefits and gratification that go along with being a music student.
Why a Practice Routine Is Valuable
Maintaining a routine of any kind can feel like a burden at first. However, many soon learn that there is a true freedom that comes from discipline. That's because embracing routine fosters good time-management skills, builds momentum, tackles procrastination and creates confidence. Unfortunately, many people wrongly assume that a routine brings limitations because they can only look at the demands of sticking to a strict schedule. People who grow up studying music see it differently.
The reality is that taking control of the way you manage time allows you to feel more in control of your life, reduce stress and have more time to do the things you enjoy. A commitment to building a routine is simply a recipe for long-term success and personal fulfillment. In fact, research shows us that consistent routines benefit children in the long run.
How Music Education Creates Sharp Time-Management Skills
A music program provides an essential foundation for learning how to set and maintain a routine. The demands that go along with mastering an instrument require learners to set aside time to consistently practice. There's simply no replacement for practice when learning an instrument. What's more, a lack of dedication to putting in the time is very evident from the first note. In fact, the feeling of being unprepared in class can often motivate a student to adopt a solid routine.
How Much Time Should a Student Spend Practicing an Instrument?
Consistency is the most important element of any practice routine. Some parents worry that a commitment to a musical instrument will be disruptive to a family's schedule. However, the block of time that should be dedicated to practicing an instrument daily is quite reasonable. Suggested practice times will depend on a student’s age, the instrument being played and the goals of a student. Here's a look at what practice routines should generally look like:
- 15 to 20 minutes daily for very young learners.
- 20 minutes daily for learners in elementary school.
- 45 minutes daily for intermediate learners in middle school.
- 60 minutes or more daily for advancing students.
Obviously, a student with a deep passion for pursuing music at a collegiate or professional level may desire to put more time into practicing. In addition, an instrument like the piano will simply require a deeper dedication. The first step to developing a good routine shouldn't necessarily be to focus on the time spent. Simply dedicating time each day to picking up the instrument during the early days of exploring music will plant the roots for a sustainable routine.
What Happens to Your Brain and Body When You Practice an Instrument Consistently?
Yes, you really can feel smarter, sharper and more focused in all elements of your life simply by practicing an instrument consistently. That's because your body and brain are being stimulated and exercised in unique ways when practicing an instrument. Practicing consistently actually helps to activate and develop areas of your brain that might not be stimulated through other activities. What's more, the mechanisms that are activated within your body will actually help you become better at playing over time if you practice consistently. Here's what happens at the biological and physiological levels with consistent practice:
- Your brain processes and recalls information learned during lessons more easily.
- Procedural memory is activated within the muscles as your hands and body repeat the same movements over and over.
- Your fingers begin to "instinctively" remember notes and finger placement.
- Your muscle memory allows you to play notes and songs without much active thought.
Consistent practice is what actives all of this in a young brain. What’s more, a foundation for perseverance is laid down due to the fact that the brain is getting positive feedback from seeing and hearing an improvement in skill level. Research conducted at Boston Children’s Hospital using MRI imaging discovered a possible link between early music training and improved executive function. This is significant for young learners because executive function is correlated to academic success.
The practice that's done at home makes every live lesson with an instructor more valuable. That's because consistent practice allows your brain and body to recall and build on what has been learned in class through repetition. This moves us into the next point regarding how consistent practice helps to build a stronger, more productive relationship between the student and instructor.
How Practice Enhances the Classroom Experience
When it comes to classroom time and independent practice, you really can't have one without the other. One of the biggest reasons for stagnant, unfruitful classroom sessions is a lack of practice at home. Some students incorrectly assume that they can "make up" for a lack of independent practice by working hard during classroom sessions. Unfortunately, it is difficult for an instructor to move forward when a student hasn't put the time in to create the "muscle memory" and cognitive strength needed to progress with an instrument. This can create tension and distrust between a student and instructor.
What may seem like a harsh reality for a young learner is actually one of the most important life lessons. An instructor should be able to count on a student to fulfill the obligation to practice at home once they have made a commitment to learning an instrument. There is simply no masking a lack of practice in a classroom setting. As a result, accountability quickly becomes one of the major components of the student-instructor relationship.
A music student discovers that their willingness to stick to a practice routine sets the tone for how the classroom experience progresses. An instructor can only provide as much support and guidance as a student is willing to "qualify for" through consistent practice. In addition to demonstrating the cause-and-effect model behind practice and performance, this reality also helps a young learner to enter into a very important dynamic that will undoubtedly play out throughout their educational and professional pursuits.
How to Stay Motivated and Inspired to Practice an Instrument Consistently
The passion to master an instrument is like nothing else! What we're really talking about when discussing the process of learning an instrument is a journey of personal growth and creative discovery. Of course, this journey can only be born from discipline.
The why behind developing a consistent practice routine is clear. However, many parents have trouble implementing the how portion of nurturing a dedicated musician. Parents play a vital role in creating the right environment for consistent practice. This includes everything from providing encouragement to creating an ideal space without distractions. Here's a checklist of the most important things parents can do to encourage kids to practice:
- Build time into your family's schedule that allows your child to practice without disruptions.
- Provide your child with a private, distraction-free area within the home where they can practice. Good lighting can be important. Additionally, things like outside noise or wandering pets should be prevented from breaking your child's concentration.
- Don't mix practice time with chore time. It's best not to lump practice time in with other obligations that a child may dislike.
- Create a positive mindset around practice time instead of treating it like a "burden" on the family schedule.
You may be wondering about the best time of day to practice an instrument. We suggest that you sit down with your child to identify the time of the day when they feel most capable of focusing on a task. Many parents find that trying to have a child practice after a full day of school and activities can be counterproductive. We often find that trying to stack in practice at the end of the day can make it difficult for children to stick to their routines. One of the strategies that many parents have success with is a morning practice routine that takes place before school. A morning routine offers the added benefit of motivating a student to wake up an extra 30 or 45 minutes earlier to fit in a practice session. Building time in at the start of the day can help to eliminate some of the anxiety a child might feel over needing to squeeze practice in before going to bed. This eliminates the need to try to rush through practice or maintain focus while groggy.
Finding Motivation to Keep Practicing
There will undoubtedly be days when your child is having a hard time finding the motivation to practice. It's important to not take a negative, dismissive or punitive approach to trying to motivate your child to get going. We find that simply doing some moves to get blood flowing can create the right mood for a practice session. Encourage your child to do some stretches to start "waking up" before practice. Some deep breathing can also be helpful if your child is feeling stressed or overwhelmed due to outside circumstances. It can also be helpful to encourage your child to simply commit to putting in just five minutes when they cannot find the motivation to begin a practice session. Typically, the time will go by so quickly once your child starts that they won't notice the full session time has passed!
Setting the Perfect Tone for Practice Time
While saying that practice makes perfect is true, we're not necessarily seeking perfection out of each practice session. The goal of a practice routine is to help a young learner build the brain memory and muscle memory necessary to become familiar with an instrument. Building an encouraging, structured environment that provides your child with time alone to practice will help to foster positive lifelong habits that will carry them through both musical pursuits and life passions! A routine for musical practice is really just a routine for success.