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  • Writer's pictureCraig Birchfield

How to Beat those Practicing Blues – Guest Post by Brian Eliason, Eliason School of Music

Most parent’s do not expect their children to become professional musicians, but they would love to see their children enjoy music for the long term, hopefully playing through their adult years for enjoyment. The truth about practicing any instrument is that the path of learning is a winding and bumpy road, full of highs and lows. It is easy to continue to practice and move forward when things are going well, however when practicing hits a slump many will decide to quit just because it seems too difficult to keep going. This is unfortunate, and as a music teacher I cannot tell you how many parents I meet weekly that “wish” they would have stuck with it rather than quit. This article is aimed at helping parents to guide their children through those low points when practicing has become a struggle. Here are several suggestions to turn the ship around and get things moving in the right direction again. 1). Set up an incentive program. This involves finding a reward that is exciting for your child to think about. It could be going to the movies, out for ice cream, or getting some game or toy. Many parents are turned off by this suggestion because they want their kids to have a desire to play that comes from within. I agree that this is ideal, however it is not realistic for most families so using incentives temporarily can really help to move past difficult times. We have an incentive program at our school and we find that over time the kids eventually lose interest in the prizes. In time the music making experience is enough and they do not need any additional reward. You can set a goal of a certain amount of sessions per week with a certain amount of minutes of practice. If you have a practice chart you can put stickers on it to track the successful practice days until they accumulate and a reward is given. I should mention that the goals should be realistic and not too ambitious until motivation increases later on. 2) Music before technology. We have a handful of families in our school who have made a rule in their home of “no technology until after practice.” This works beautifully for these families and kids seem to always do their practice when it is required before computer time is to take place. I should mention that the focus gained from practicing is a wonderful antidote to the lack of focus that can happen from too much exposure to technology. 3) Music Games. Perhaps my favorite game to play in the lessons is one called “stepping stones” and it almost always works to make the practicing more fun. This involves taking about 10 to 12 pieces of paper and cutting them into kidney bean shapes, much like stones you would walk across in a garden. Underneath every stone is a written explanation of the practice activity, such as “play the G scale three times and focus on your intonation”, or “play Minuet 1 with the metronone at 72, ect. “ The stones are placed across the room and you move forward to each new step after you have completed the task written under the stone. At the end of the trail there is a prize for the student, ideally it is hidden in a box or something else to conceal it. The element of a surprise at the end makes it more intriguing and motivating. The prize can be something simple like a balloon, a candy or perhaps some pretty marbles. We get these small prizes from the dollar store and we put them in a brass prize box in the corner of the room. This makes the practice time a fun game, as well as a challenge, and the stones show the student where there are and where they need to go. It is a lot of fun for everyone and I recommend giving it a try. 4)Board Games. This involves taking a sheet of paper or construction paper and designing something simple, such as twelve shamrock shapes arranged in a circle, or twelve heart shapes in a circle. There should be a start and a finish marked on the game and you can place an action figure or anything you like to be your game piece to land on each spot. There should also be a stack of 12 cards you cut out and on the back of each card is written the activity you will do. At the finish of the game you can have a prize resting there, or have it hidden somewhere such as in a box. Once the student has drawn all 12 cards, completed each task and the action figure made it to the finish you have won the game and you get the reward. The board games work great for all instruments, where the stepping stone works best for string instruments like the violin. 5) The like list. This idea came from a book I read years ago that discussed how people make decisions in their mind. The author explained that you can imagine inside your mind is a large scale that lists on one side the reasons why they should do something, and on the other side of the scale is a list of the reasons why they should not do something. There comes a time in the day when parents ask their children to practice and at that moment children might be thinking about all the reasons they do not want to practice, such as “I’m too tired” or “that new song is too hard” or, “I don’t have enough time,” ect. When kids focus on the reasons why they should not practice they naturally decide they do not want to. The like list is an attempt to balance thinking and to list all of the reasons we want to practice and to focus on the good that is in practicing. At my school I ask kids to make a list of ten things they DO like about music and playing their instrument. For some kids this is very difficult so I tell them there is a reward for 10 unique answers. These could be things such as “I like the sound of my instrument” or “I like it when I learn something that was once difficult” or “I like Minuet in G” or “I like when my parents compliment me on my playing”, ect. Once the list is complete and written down you place it on your fridge and you read it every day for several weeks. This is not a guaranteed technique but my experience has been that 80-90% of students practice more after trying this for a few weeks. It trains your mind to focus on all the good that is practicing, what’s in it for you, and naturally you feel like practicing more. 6) Dessert First. This idea is tied in with the previous idea in that it attempts to shift thinking to the more positive. If you ask your kids to practice and they do not want to then ask them “what is your favorite piece to play that you have always liked?” You can help them to figure this out and then tell them to just go play that one piece. After they play it, compliment them and tell them you would love to hear it again. This can work great because once you have begun playing your instrument it is much easier to keep going. I call the favorite piece “dessert” and it is ok to begin with this if you do not feel like practicing. Scales and warm up’s can then happen later since we now have some momentum. 7) That piece is so cool! This works great for students that are a little older and who are not interested in prizes. This involves taking about 6-10 pieces of music that are of a great variety. You number each piece on a sheet of paper and then you play a sample of each piece for the student and ask them to rate it from 1-10. For example, you could play the Harry Potter theme and ask them to rate how much they like it in the numbers. Perhaps they rate this at a six. Then you could play “Somewhere over the Rainbow” or the Pachelbel Canon, or the Star Wars Theme. Every piece gets a rating in terms of numbers. At the end of the playing the samples you most likely will have found one or more pieces where the student rates it at a 7 or higher. These pieces are to become part of the new practice routine and they should boost enthusiasm and motivation in regards to playing. It is my hope that this article helps people to reenergize practice routines and to beat those practicing blues that can creep in. I have dozens of other helpful ideas to share, however these are some of my top choices for students. If you have any questions or would like ideas please feel free to email me at, call me at (503)293-2390 or contact me through our school website Happy Practicing!

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