Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Inspiring Practice: Dealing with Short Attention Spans

As a violin teacher, I've had many parents fret over their child's reluctance to practice. They know that practice is essential to learning music, but their children just don't want to practice by themselves, or maybe aren't doing it correctly. Parents start to feel frustrated and impatient, which makes the few practice sessions they do coerce their children into become fraught with tension and disappointment. This makes the children even more reluctant to practice, creating a vicious cycle!

For parents to inspire practice, not merely demand it or force it, they must break this negative cycle. The first step is to understand what type of practice is appropriate for their child's age and musical level. The younger the child, the shorter their attention span. It's unrealistic to expect a five year old to focus on one musical activity for longer than a few minutes. In my lessons, I frequently vary the musical activities to keep young children engaged. Here's list of fifteen different activities I might have a student do in a lesson:

1. Hold their violin while keeping their eyes focused on a sticker while I count to ten. If the child keeps their eyes on the sticker, they get to keep it! (You can use an M&M or a piece of skittles instead of a sticker).

2. Practice doing an "elevator" with the bow.

3. Use flashclass or another app on the iPad to practice reading our notes.

4. Watch a video of the music being played on youtube (or watch the DVD from a book like the Pascale Method).

5. Listen to a recording or listen to the teacher playing the music.

6. Sing through the music on the note names.

7. Play the music pizzicato

8. "Air bow" the music.

9. Practice the rhythm of the music on the open strings.

10. Play through the music slowly (very slowly!).

11. Talk about what the music sounds like, or means to the student.

12. Play the music while focusing on how the bow feels on the string.

13. Play the music while focusing on how the whole steps and half steps feel in the left hand.

14. Imagine what kind of story the music might tell us.

15. Try to play the music as though we are using it to tell a story or express its emotion.

16. Regularly review earlier music and exercises!

As you can see, there are lots of ways a student can practice, and some of these ways might be far easier to do at home than others. For example, having your student watch a youtube performance of their piece might be more approachable for a beginning violin student than playing a piece of music by memory without their teacher present. Starting with easier practice activities makes practice more approachable and keeps students from feeling overwhelmed and parents from getting frustrated. As students progress, they'll become more comfortable playing through pieces, but in the beginning it's perfectly fine to keep things simple.

So how do you deal with young students' short attention spans? Keep things simple at first, with activities like watching videos, listening practice, or singing. Beginner practice should have lots of different short activities, instead of laboring over one long or intense piece. Keep your expectations realistic--try to practice everyday, but for only a few minutes at a time. If something's too hard, or your child is getting overwhelmed, take a step back and review an earlier piece or exercise. For more ideas on inspiring practice, see my previous post.

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