The Complete Guide on How to Practice Effectively

Parents & Students: How to Practice Effectively

playing piano

Considerations regarding some instruments:

1. Piano, as much as it’s an easy instrument to start with, it does have its challenges to master. Many students feel like they progress so much in the beginning then they plateau, this is normal, it does take a lot more work to get from the beginner’s level to go up to the intermediate level then the the advanced level. A lot more detailed work and careful practice will need to be included in daily practice. Many piano students excel more when they have specific goals like doing the RCM exams, as there is curriculum and timeline that can be followed.


2. The violin/cello is a challenging instrument, just like any string instrument. Our own kids took violin and cello lessons, and the one on cello started when he was just  So I sat with him daily for 10-15 min. A lot more listening is required to make the sound sound good.



For very young children:

A. APPROACH: Back when our son was 3 I would call it “Let’s play the cello now” instead of “practicing” in the very beginning, so that it was seen as a fun thing, which it can be! And simply go through the things that the teacher has done at the lessons too.


B. BE ENCOURAGING: I always encourage by saying “that’s good, now let’s do that a couple more times”. Even if it’s not perfect, or even if it’s perfect, the repetition will build the skills. I find that kids really need encouraging words even for the little successes like the correct bow hold for a violin or cello student – those words go a long way.


C. CONSISTENCY: The more consistent practicing is, the easier it will actually get. It’s best to set the same time each day (ex: 10 minutes before school, or right after school…etc) – just like brushing our teeth twice a day we simply do it – habits form by doing the same thing consistently, and practicing will eventually become a habit too.


Bonus things:
REWARD Chart: Some kids like having a practice chart and getting a star for each day of playing their instrument. The point is to build a good daily playing habit and encourage them.


You can also ask the teacher (and/or the sub) to go through how to actually practice, so things are easy and clear.


Again, this is very common and we are here to help.



For children aged 7-10 years old:

*Things to consider: Are they playing and doing the instrument they LOVE? What kind of music do they listen to? Would they rather sing or play the guitar or try another instrument? Do they have a good instrument at home?

If it’s the piano, is the piano located in a good area of the house? Centralized but not full of distractions, yet they have a bit of privacy for them to focus.



Building Blocks of Musical Training:
Lessons, Daily practicing, Performance practicing, Performances:
Success in Music and in Life!

By Lusiana Lukman © 2008 L. Lukman(ABC) & Cheng-Feng Lin (DEFG) © 2008 C.F. Lin


I. Essential Elements in Home Music practicing Sessions:

Attention & Approach: Awareness and Focus are key to getting results in daily practice. The student can’t be practicing on auto-pilot. One needs to be aware of what the goal is that needs to be achieved. Most teachers will be writing down in your child’s dictation book (notebooks are given free here at CMC, because we want to make sure all students have them for this very purpose) what the expectations are of what can be achieved in that week. I highly recommend reading the book and showing it to the student, if they can read. Your child can read it to you even, as this empowers them and teaches them independence, which is a skill that can be applied to everything else they do in life. Approaching the practicing time as a habit and as play is always a good way to make it less of a chore for kids of any age.



Be Encouraging: Every student works better when they are encouraged, and when they feel empowered and know that they are getting better. So this is again an element that MUST be present at every practice session. Just a simple, “That’s good dear!” and “That sounds better already!”, along with a smile does wonders, for both you and your child. Some kids even like doing a bit of a “competitive” thing either with themselves or with you. Perhaps if you can say something like, “I bet you can finish learning that bar, or those 2 bars, before I … (you can fill in the blank here)…” or it can be as simple as before the 5 minutes is up.



Continuity & Consistency: Daily practice is very much a MUST. Here are the reasons: Not only will you get the benefit of the repetition, you need to see that musical instrument playing is an Art, Science and Sport. The student, especially very young ones, will not be able to comprehend this, but as you, the parent, start to help guide them daily to include practicing as much part of the daily routine as possible, it will become a habit that they will incorporate into their lives. Cheng-Feng will talk more about how to accomplish this without complaining and fighting.



II. Beyond A, B, Cs:

Delight: We propose mood regulation. Preparing oneself mentally, emotionally, and physically before coming to the instruments brings more pleasure for the musical tasks at hand. Observe the children, and prepare them at least about 15 min prior to practicing and restore them to a state of equilibrium (not under or overly stimulated.) Strategies would be different if a child came out of a nap, versus if a child just came back from a birthday party. Quiet surroundings in the practicing zone? Let silence frame the music. And very importantly, HUMOUR—especially when handling some challenging coordination tasks from the repertoire. Humour relaxes us and helps us to regain focus. When the child is in a state of pleasant mood, relaxed and not flabby in attitude, many physical alignment issues in playing an instrument magically disappear.



Efficiency: Children of ages 5-6 tell me that they are busy, let alone the adults—who are now given a new task of involving in some ways of their practicing life. For younger children: they love to explore, and such exploration has great value. However when learning an instrument, the teacher often assigns activities that are short and specific. Please honour that and follow through at home. I often explain it as ‘free play time at the instrument’ and the ‘practicing time at the instrument.’ For older children: Goal setting is important—for example, in the next 5 minutes, focus on only measures 9-12 left hand part because the fingering needs correction. We become what we practice. Practice for efficiency and productivity, we achieve productivity.



Fantasy: this is one top factor that draws many to music. Storytelling through sound images and characterization is present in your child’s repertoire right in the beginning. The convincing characterization in music is represented through various touches and certain attitudes in our body movement. This is the ‘doing’ part; then there is the ‘feedback and adjustment’ part which requires ACTIVE LISTENING. *One does not need to finish ‘learning the notes, and play in correct rhythm’ before ‘applying the expression’. Mathematical accuracy in rhythm is only one side of the coin—the other side is the flow and vitality in rhythm which is represented through the quality of a series of tones executed through the attitude of the whole self. Practice musically and artistically will bring the child closer to the ultimate goal. We do become what we practice. As we practice being a musical artist, we become one.



Grace: Practice with grace and ease. Make the physical effort easy. This is not negotiable—for future injury prevention begins right now. Intensive focus in the mind does not equate to straining physical effort. The body needs to work at ease, and the same goes for breathing. Check your child’s posture and sitting height. Consult your teacher about elbow/wrist/arm/shoulder/upper torso/lower torso support issues specifically relating to your instrument.



To summarize:

  • Attention & Approach
  • Building up
  • Continuity
  • Delight
  • Efficiency
  • Fantasy
  • Grace



Learning to Play: Tips for Parents of Young Musicians


Brought to you by MENC: The National Association for Music Education


Whether you play an instrument yourself or can’t even whistle, these tips will help you guide your child into the wonderful world of music-making.



Choosing the right instrument
  • Ask your child what sounds they like and what instruments appeal to them
  • Talk to the school band or strings teacher about your child’s interest, as well as their size and facial structure, before making a decision. Most beginning band and orchestra teachers let students hold and try out different instruments to help them make a choice.
  • Allow your child to explore. Many musicians started out on one instrument only to switch a few years later to another instrument with much greater success.
  • Learning a musical instrument is a family affair! Your child needs your guidance and encouragement. Read on for age-specific tips on how to create a lasting relationship between your child and their instrument of choice.


Practice Tips for Elementary-School Kids
  • Help your child set up a special place at home to play the instrument.
  • Establish a time each day to play. Some children are at their best in the morning, before school. Some parents set a time after the evening bath when the child is relaxed, but not tired.
  • Consider using the phrase “playing time” rather than “practice time.”
  • If possible, be a positive part of your child’s playing time. Sit with your child while they play and ask, “Show me what you’re learning.” Or, consider learning to play the instrument with your child.
  • Praise your child for each step forward.
  • Never make negative remarks about how your child’s playing sounds. It takes time and effort to produce musical sounds.
  • Encourage other family members to applaud the child’s efforts. Positive attention is a great motivator.
  • Remember that there are always peaks and valleys in the learning process. You and your child should expect times of discouragement, accept them, and focus on the positive fact that they’re learning to make music. Remind them that everything worth doing takes time and effort.
  • Provide positive role models. Bring your child to hear amateur or professional musicians perform. Take your child to movies that show musicians in a positive light, such as “Music of the Heart.”
  • When seeking private lessons, find a qualified teacher you can talk to easily. Ask about the teacher’s philosophy of education, and ask to talk to some of the teacher’s current students or their parents. Make sure your child is comfortable with the teacher.


Practice Tips for Middle- and High-School Kids
  • Help your child set up a regular time every day to practice.
  • Help them establish a routine. This may require some consultation with the teacher. A typical middle schoolers’ half-hour practice routine might include:
    • Warmup — 1-3 minutes
    • Play a fun, familiar piece — 3-5 minutes
    • Work on a new or difficult piece — 10-15 minutes
    • Work on technical requirements, such as scales or other technique builders — 5 minutes
    • Play something fun to conclude the session
  • High school students may have more technical problems to work on, but they also have the ability to practice longer in a more concentrated way.
  • Help your child understand that playing only familiar songs will not help her improve.
  • Explain to your child that learning happens in stages. Sometimes a student will work on something for a long time with no apparent improvement, and then discover a sudden leap in ability. Other times, learning happens very quickly. The important thing to stress is that consistent practice will yield results.
  • Help your young musician set practice goals. Keeping a journal, not just a practice chart, helps track the peaks and valleys of learning a new piece or improving fundamental skills.
  • As a parent, don’t make judgments about the musical quality of your child’s practicing. Learning an instrument requires lots of squeaks, scratches, and wrong notes.



Practicing Tips


“Learning about music or learning to play an instrument does not happen without commitment and involvement on the part of both parent and child…development depends on continuity and dedication…it is cumulative effort that leads to success, not intermittent moments of enthusiasm or occasional bursts of energy.” (1)


“Our society often wrongly equates work with drudgery. Work is food for the soul if the attitude towards it is positive. It is only through constructive effort that one is led to accomplishment and a sense of worth. The happiness of achieving a goal should not be greater than the joy of working towards it.” (2)



Preparing to Practice

Before you start practicing, do some relaxation exercises. Tighten and then loosen the muscles in your body, starting with your feet and working up through your legs, arms and neck. Be sure to include your hands and fingers.


Take a few minutes before you start playing to clear your mind of thoughts from the day’s activities. You want to be able to concentrate on the music completely, and you can’t do this if you are thinking of what else you need to do or of situations that occurred in school instead.


Find a place to practice that is away from the family activity areas. There should be no distractions such as TV, radio, other children, pets or telephone. Ideally, the room should have a door that can be closed for privacy and to help concentration.
Try to practice consistently at the same time each day. This period should be built into the family’s schedule.


While the duration of the practice will vary from child to child and according to age and commitment, it is important to play daily, including on the day of a lesson. Learning to play an instrument is somewhat like learning to play a sport; your muscles need to be developed in a particular way in order to master the physical part of playing, and this can only be done through consistent workouts. As Paderewski, the famous pianist, once said, “If I don’t practice for one day, I know it. If I don’t practice for two days, the critics know it. If I don’t practice for three days, the audience knows it.” Or, as Dr. Suzuki puts it, “Only practice on the days that you eat.”


Sometimes, two or even more shorter practice sessions are better than one extended period. You can fit in some work before school, for example, then another short period later in the day, perhaps after supper so as not to conflict with other after-school activities.


Equip your practice space properly. It should have a good chair, a sturdy music stand adjusted to the correct height, proper lighting and a place to store extra strings, rosin, music, pencils, markers, notebook and the like. Keep your materials in good order so you don’t have to interrupt your practice session to look for something. If you play the piano, be sure the instrument is tuned and maintained regularly.


The AMOUNT of time spent practicing isn’t always as important as HOW it is spent. Have a plan in mind as to what you want to accomplish in a practice session before you start. Divide your practice time into sections. Allow so many minutes for exercises, refining the playing of your current pieces, sight reading, etc. Work with your teacher to make a chart that will help you with this schedule.


Always warm up before attempting to play your actual music. These activities put playing muscles into proper shape and help focus the mind on tone quality. Warm-up music doesn’t have to consist of boring exercise and scales; the important thing is to find something to play that allows you to become involved in the music and makes you ready to start practicing in earnest.



Practice Hints for the Musician

Don’t start at the beginning of a piece each time you sit down to practice it. Work on the passages that are giving you difficulty first. Play them slowly, so you can see where the problems lie. Break down a hard section into small bits, perhaps even to the point where you are playing single notes, and practice each several times until the music becomes easy to play. Then put the piece back together and gradually bring it up to tempo.


If you can’t play a measure or phrase, you shouldn’t go on to play the rest of the piece until it has been mastered.


Take time to figure out the fingering of passages note by note. Write this information directly into the music; don’t rely upon your memory.


If you are having problems with tempo, practice with a metronome. Set it at a slow count at first, then gradually increase the pulse until you arrive at the final tempo.


If you are making mistakes, it means that you are playing too fast. Slow down! Remember that if you play a passage wrong several times in a row, you are actually teaching yourself to play it incorrectly!


It is often easier to master difficult rhythmic patterns if you first play the passage on a single note. Add the melody after you have mastered the beat.


Sometimes it helps to play a difficult passage in a different rhythm. This can help you to learn the note pattern better.


The Suzuki method of teaching recommends using what it calls the scramble game. A piece is divided into phrases and sections, each of which is numbered and learned separately. These sections are then played out of order, according to numbers drawn at random. This procedure helps in developing concentration and in memorization.


Ear training is important. Try to hear a note in your mind or sing a phrase before you play it. It’s also fun to have someone play a note on the piano so you can try to guess what it is.


Make good use of pencil and markers to indicate places where you keep making the same mistake.


Work on the musical aspects of a piece as you practice the technicalities. What is the piece all about? How can you convey this message to your audience? Try to get a sense from the first of the overall message of the work.


Think about your posture as you play and check your arm, hand and finger positions regularly during practice. Bad habits can be hard to break and may lead to injury and pain.


A video recorder is a great tool to use when practicing. Use it to record yourself so you can hear problems, particularly regarding tempo and interpretation, that you might otherwise miss.


End a practice session by playing beautifully a piece that you know well.



Practice Hints for the Parent

Learning to work independently is difficult. Therefore, it is sometimes a good idea for a parent to sit in the room with a young child while they are practicing. Criticism is inappropriate in such situations, but quiet guidance and suggestions will be very helpful to the youngster.


It is okay to reward a child for practicing successfully with a small treat as well as with kind, positive words. Robert Cutietta suggests a random system of rewards that can be either extrinsic (a book about music, for example, or a musical tote bag) or intrinsic (a performance for the family). Both types should be related to music. (3)


Some parents of young children like to sit in on a lesson so that they can be of more assistance during practice times. This is fine, but be sure not to be intrusive. It is your child’s lesson, not yours!


It is important to praise your child often! One can applaud effort as well as accomplishment.


Remember: “Only time, positive parental support and excellent teaching can achieve satisfactory results.” (4)



Why Doesn’t My Child Want to Practice

If your young child is resisting practice, ASK them why they don’t want to work. It may be because they don’t like the music they are playing, or that they don’t relate well to their music teacher. Or, perhaps the practice session is taking place at a time that conflicts with another desirable activity. You won’t know the reason unless you discuss the situation openly.


A parent should not assume the role of “practice police.” Before a child starts lessons, the rules and guidelines for practice should be carefully discussed and decided upon. Practice should therefore be non-negotiable.


If a piece cannot be learned in a relatively short period of time, it may be too hard for the student. This can cause frustration and lead to a desire to give up learning to play the instrument entirely.


A child may not want to practice because the sessions are too long. Parents of young children should adjust the length of time spent working at an instrument so that the child stops before they become tired.


If your child is having difficulty during practice sessions, tape them so that their teacher can hear what is really going on.




1. Machover, Wilma and Uszler, Marienne. Sound Choices: Guiding Your Child’s Musical Experiences. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 209.


2. Cutietta, Robert A. Raising Musical Kids: A Guide for Parents. New York, Oxford University Press: 2001, p. 96-98.


3. Machover and Uszler, 207. Nathan, Amy. The Young Musicians’ Survival Guide. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.



Notes from former CMC student:

On the topic of keeping practicing fun, I found the following things effective:


– Take breaks every so often, practicing in many smaller bursts.


– Make small goals for you to accomplish during your practicing, kind of like a game. ( with a reward if accomplished?)


– If you get tired its okay to sit down.


– Jump around to different hard sections as it will stick in your fingers more to come back to it.


– When I was little, I had a sheet with my dad and every time my dad thought I had a successful practice (long enough and focused with no meltdowns) he would put a sticker on the paper. Once the paper was filled with stickers I got to pick out a toy.


– When I was little, my dad would put a candy on my violin ( in a rapper, not sticky) and if I went a whole piece without dropping the candy I got to eat it. (the candy would drop if your scroll went down meaning your posture faded).


-Another thing to go with posture and keeping your scroll up is putting a sticker on something like a wall at the proper height so you have a definite point to go off of and its fun to look at.


– I also loved having songs to go with things like the rest position song and the bow hold.


– If you are finding it really frustrating not being able to play something, take a break and play something fun to put you in a better mood, then tackle the hard thing again.

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