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Managing practice workload for frustration-free practice

Well, I can’t exactly guarantee frustration-free practice but we can try.

Somewhere around the second half of Book 4 and beyond, we began to feel the burden of lots of material to work on. It seems that the list of to-do’s grows by the month: Suzuki repertoire, other solo repertoire, orchestra, ensemble, string quartet, scales, exercises, music festivals and competitions. And of course, review. It’s a lot. And it can make for frustrating practices when the sessions seem to go on forever. Here are a few ways we’ve managed a growing practice volume.

Have a plan

Having a roadmap for practice is invaluable for getting through the material efficiently. My daughter likes to have everything written out as a plan beforehand. But even with children who are happy to forgo the checklist, you can keep a rough schedule in your head and stick to it. If the plan is written out, there’s a visual indicator of how the practice is proceeding. An hour can seem like forever for children, so being able to track progress during the session makes it seem less interminable. I also find that by planning the practice session in advance, it’s easier to move from task to task without much interruption.

Be strategic

You don’t have to practice every single thing, every single day. Likewise, not everything has equal weight. Figure out what the priorities are for the week - recital preparation, upcoming festivals or exams - and strategically give more time to pieces that have a deadline.

It’s not essential to play through the working pieces from start to finish every day. If the memory is secure, then it’s fine, even preferable, to focus on technically challenging passages. It’s about using limited time in a strategic way.

Review sensibly

I’ve heard stories of kids who play through every piece they know every day through Book 7. I suppose it’s fine if you have the time; but few of us have that much time. As with the working pieces, being strategic with review is a huge time-saver. I understand Suzuki’s principle of “Raise your ability with a piece you can play.” That said, if your child is playing in the upper books, is it really essential to review the Twinkles every week?

We’ve organized review around two variables:

  • What pieces does she know less well?
  • What pieces are on the summer institute review list?

Periodically we assign pieces to different groups (A,B,C) based on how well she knows the piece. Then I make up a review list for the month, organized day-by-day. Pieces that are less well-polished appear every week while pieces that are performance-ready may show up only once a month. And those that fall between we may do once every two weeks. The idea is similar to evidence-based Suzuki playlists that I wrote about previously.

Even with your review program, you can work only the more challenging technical parts in lieu of playing the piece from beginning to end. It can be a real time-saver while still working on what’s important.

Don’t force it

Your child has limits of endurance. Just because another child, even of the same age can endure for 2-3 hours, doesn’t mean yours can (or even should). The limit with my 9 year-old is about an hour at a time. Undoubtedly some 9 year-olds can do more and some less. If you’re working with your child every day, you have a sense of what they’re capable of. Whatever their endurance is, that’s what it is. The law of diminishing returns comes into play if you push them past that limit. Try to finish whatever you can before they reach the melting point.

Split practice into smaller sessions

Can you practice more than once a day - before and after school? If so, you can capitalize on the time and attention they have. It’s not possible for everyone; but it works for us.

Rotation is your friend

This idea works well for scales and technical exercises. Set up a system of rotation, like you may be doing with review pieces, and use that to organize that section of practice. Consistency is great, but it doesn’t mean doing the same thing every day. If you organize it in advance with a rotation system that covers everything over the course of the week, you can be confident that you aren’t missing anything.

Learn to say “no”

Not every opportunity that comes along is of equal value. We humans are notoriously bad at accurately estimating how much some activity in the future is going to require. So we tend to say “yes” without really thinking about the impact on practice volume. So a strategic “no” means “yes” to a smaller subset of more valuable activities.

Organize early and often

Keep your child’s books out on the stand or within easy reach. Flag the pages you’re going to need. By shaving off preparation time, you can do a better job of keeping your child’s attention and moving from task to task.

Don’t sweat it

If you can’t get everything accomplished, what’s the worst thing that can happen? Miss a few notes in quartet? Not nail that shift in recital? It’s just music, not life-or-death. Celebrate the beauty of their music as it is, and trust that time will solve lots of little problems.

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Written by:

Alan is the main practice partner and accompanist for a young violinist.