In his best-selling book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that becoming a world class performer is a matter of time devoted to practice—10,000 hours to be exact. Research at the Berlin Academy of Music concluded that student musicians of “world class potential” practiced two or three times more than their less talented peers. Gladwell relies on this research to assert that even Mozart’s genius may have had less to do with in-born talent than with the old adage, “practice makes perfect.”
Focus on Fun
While critics argue that the “10,000 hour rule” overlooks the complex nature of mastering an art form, great artists are undeniably obsessive about their training. Choreographer and dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov has said the five hours he spent practicing after his classes were over made him a better dancer. While expertise in any discipline demands regular and sustained practice, arts educator Cynthia V. Richards, author of How to Get Your Child to Practice Without Resorting to Violence, asserts that a child’s earliest experience in the performing arts should focus on exploration and fun—and not on the clock. “A child who was excited about beginning music lessons may lack the patience and commitment to give the routine attention needed,” she writes. “… It usually takes an adult with experience and long-range perception to help the child continue on.”
Practice, Practice, Practice
The Art of Getting Your Child to Practice
Whether your child studies music for a year or suddenly discovers the drive to become a “world class” musician, the development of good practice habits is an art in itself. Here are some tips to make practice times more enjoyable and productive:
• Establish a regular time of day and place to practice. Children tend to be fresher in the morning if there’s time to practice before school. After school, offer a nutritious snack and some relaxation time before encouraging your child to practice.
• Create an inviting atmosphere. Let your child start every practice session by opening curtains, or coloring in their practice chart to focus on the task at hand. Keep the room comfortable in temperature and light. Make their space comfy and personal by decorating it with your child’s art, framed photographs, or stuffed animals.
• Not whether, but what. Don’t allow practicing to become a negotiation. But do allow your kids to control the order in which they work on material.
• Set an age appropriate rewards system. Be creative and varied in your rewards. Ask your child for ideas. Younger kids like short-term benefits with daily or weekly rewards. Older kids may appreciate long-term benefits, something “big” at the end of a semester or year.
• Emphasize goals, not time. Break practice into bite-sized goals, sections of a song, a musical passage, or a single movement. Create fun challenging games that encourage them to review, repeat, and correct their playing.
• Make music social. Have music or dance play dates. Record your child playing and send it to family members and friends. Attend youth orchestras with a group of kids. Send your child to music, dance, or theater camp. Encourage impromptu concerts and jam sessions. Take out your own instrument and play duets with your child.
• Start with success. Encourage your child to play something familiar and fun as a warm up. A sense of mastery, progress, and confidence are helpful in facing new challenges.
• End with invention. Invite children to improvise at the end of practice sessions, giving them a sense of creative power and allowing them to freely discover their instrument.
All in Good Time
If parents can encourage practice for three years, a child will realize the benefits for a lifetime. A recent Harvard University research project reports that “children who study a musical instrument for at least three years outperform children with no instrumental training—not only in tests of auditory discrimination and finger dexterity (skills honed by the study of a musical instrument), but also on tests measuring verbal ability and visual pattern completion (skills not normally associated with music).”
There’s no time like the present to get started.