Most parents want their child to be able to play an instrument. The problem is you have to make them practice. This often leads to conflict. Still, without practice they won’t grow, so just how much should your child be practicing?
While some teachers advocate for up to an hour of practice a day, six days a week, beginning students only needs four or five 15-minute practice sessions a week. If you are doing the math, that is between an hour and an hour and fifteen minutes a week. While this may seem like too little, it is, in fact, the perfect amount of time to spent learning a new instrument. In fact, asking them to practice longer could be detrimental to their musical development. Here’s why:
Did you ever cram for a test? Not that I have ever done such a thing ;), but I have heard the material that you learn in cram sessions is forgotten almost as fast as you learned it. Massed practice is the label used to describe massive learning done in a single time frame. In this case, massed practice takes the form of hour-long practice session.
The more successful alternative to massed practice is spaced or distributed practice, where short bursts of learning are spread out over a long period of time with frequent intervals of rest. Studies have shown significant advantages to spaced practice in the development of long-term skills and memory. So if you only have an hour a week to practice you are better off doing four 15-minute sessions spread out throughout the week, then trying to get it all in on the Saturday or Sunday before your next lesson.
Focus of Sessions
Here is a fun experiment to do with your kids: sit in a room and ask them to just listen to what they hear. Say, “See if you can just listen to what is happening in the world around us, without talking or letting your mind wander for five minutes”. In addition to being a good introduction to mindfulness, this exercise highlights just how hard it is to really focus on something. Even adults have to practice this one. Focusing on one thing is hard!
One of the first skills incoming music students at conservatories have to learn is the ability to practice at a high level for extended periods of time. With young beginners, you are most likely to get 8-15 minutes of quality work and then a lot of noodling and daydreaming, even if you force them to practice 30 minutes. Remember, the job will expand to fill the allotted time.
Fifteen minutes is a totally do-able amount of time— even for kids. They may scream, “I don’t want to do it!” but when you remind them that it is only fifteen minutes and then they can move on to something else, they usually agree to just get it over with. You can even have them set their own timer that will go off when 15 minutes has passed. Of course, they don’t have to stop after 15 minutes and after they build some skills and good habits, many children take a little extra time at the end of their practice to finish up an exercise or noodle around and explore their instrument more. This should extra, less focused time, should be encouraged but not forced.
Practicing for the beginning musician is all about establishing good habits. Completing four or five 15-minute practice session over the course of a week achieves this goal. The short practice window ensures that students are focused for the entire time they are practicing. And the frequent and manageable practice sessions help them develop a positive attitude toward practice and their musical development. These easy wins are important in developing momentum and fostering a sense of internal motivation that can carry them forward for years to come.
Not Just for Practice
Over time, I have come to realize that the fifteen minute for beginners rule applies to lessons as well.
Here is the way a typical thirty-minute lesson goes:
- :00-3:00 Introduction and getting to know each other
- 3:00-11:00 Teaching of a developmentally appropriate amount of material
- 11:00-20:00 Re-teaching and practicing of material
- 18:00-22:00 Teacher realizes they still have about ten minutes in the lesson
- 22:00-30:00 A good teacher will call in a parent to review the lesson one more time in front of the parent. A bad teacher will start adding lots of additional things (names of the strings, parts of the guitar, how to play chords). These things may be useful to the student someday, but at this point, the extra material only serves to confuse the student and take their focus off fundamental posture and left and right-hand technique.
As you can see, there’s only about ten minutes of novel material to cover. The rest of the time is review and reteaching. This is useful in the learning process but is more effectively done over the course of the week, rather than cramming it into one session. Lessons in Awesome Guitar for Kids should only take 15 minutes, at most. This short time-frame ensures focused practice.
Eventually, students do need to learn how to practice longer, when they are developmentally ready and they have enough material to warrant it. But in the beginning, new students benefit most from short, frequent lessons and practice sessions. Making 15 minutes more than enough time to practice.
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