Tips from the Teacher
So, your student comes home from lessons and says that he needs to practice with a metronome this week. "Oh boy," you think, "What's a metronome, how much does it cost, and what is he supposed to do with it?". Don't panic! I've got you covered!
What is a metronome?
A metronome is a tool that keeps a steady beat. Musicians practice with a metronome to help them keep their music at a steady tempo or work up to a certain tempo (more on that soon).
For a long time, they used to look like this:
Then they looked like this:
And now, they usually look like this:
Luckily for us, they now cost next-to-nothing and many of the apps are free!
My favorite metronome app is Tonal Energy. It costs $3.99 and its AMAZING!
How does one practice with a metronome?
If a musician wants to keep her music at a steady tempo, the process is very simple! All she has to do is choose at how many bpm (beats per minute) she wants to perform, set the metronome for that number, and then play it through several times with the sound of the metronome guiding her.
The process is also simple if a musician wants to get their music up to a faster tempo. Here are the steps:
1. Set the metronome to just a little bit slower than you can play it comfortably. For example, at 60 bpm. Play the passage through until you can play it 3x in a row without mistakes.
2. Now, increase the tempo on the metronome by 5 bpm, so in our example, set the metronome to 65 bpm. Once again at this tempo, practice the passage until you can do it 3x without mistakes.
3. Now repeat step 2 until you reach your desired tempo, for example 90 bpm, always increasing the bpm by 5 each time.
This may seem tedious, but it really isn't that tedious. And let me tell you- this method gets RESULTS! After all, the saying goes:
"Don't practice until you get something right; practice until you can't get something wrong."
So, busy parent, I hope this puts your mind at ease and informs how you help your student to practice. And here's my best tip: students shouldn't wait for their teacher to tell them to practice with a metronome. Students should get into the habit of practicing with the metronome regularly.
Aaaaand like all things regarding practicing, if you treat practicing with the metronome as something fun your student gets to do, chances are that your student will be excited to do so!
Lessons start! Mary is so excited to practice her violin and she loves to play "Hot Cross Buns" for everyone who comes over to the house. No kid has ever been this excited to play the violin, it seems. She's enthusiastic in her practicing and is always begging you to let her get out her violin to play.
A few months roll by. Mary still enjoys playing the violin, this you know, but somehow you can't seem to encourage her to practice anymore. She argues with you and would much rather do anything than practice.
Sound all too familiar?
Mary is just like most children. Once the novelty of the new lessons wears off, motivation wanes, even though you both know that she likes her lessons and performing music.
So, what can you do to help your child enjoy their practicing and realize their full musical potential?
The key is to help them LOVE to practice! I'll say it again: Kids can love to practice! Yes, it's true! This happens when kids are SELF-MOTIVATED to practice. There are lots of things that parents can do to help children develop self-motivation and love for practicing.
1) Don't treat practicing like a chore or punishment. Just don't. Please.
Try not to treat practicing as a chore or something the child “has to do”. When you speak about practicing to your student, speak of it positively as if it’s something exciting that they get to do rather than have to do. This makes a big difference in the way that your child perceives practicing.
2) Help them notice the natural (and good!) instant gratification that comes from practicing.
As they practice, praise them for the things they are doing well. When you notice improvement, point it out! Help them understand that by practicing, they are receiving rewards of being able to play certain passages better and of being a better musician. This is the good kind of instant gratification! As they practice, small things will improve. Help them love their small improvements.
3) Motivate them with performance opportunities.
Young students, especially, may be motivated by small performance opportunities at home. When Grandma comes over, ask your student if they would like to perform a song for her. Grandma will love it and your child will love performing for her. Some students have natural performance anxiety. If this is the case, do not force your child to perform, as this may link unpleasant feelings/memories with making music.
4) Help them to not feel overwhelmed by their practicing.
If twenty minutes of practice seems like too much in your kiddo's mind, break it up into segments. Instead of twenty minutes all in a row, try three segments of approximately six minutes, or two segments of ten minutes. Some kids will really get into the math and some will just be excited about the shorter, more manageable chunks of time. Remember that some practicing is always better than no practicing.
5) Help them to feel in charge of their practicing.
Allow your child to choose when he practices. Perhaps you give him three options: right after school, right before dinner, or right after dinner. When he feels that he is more in charge of his practicing, he will be more excited to do it.
6) Let them teach you.
Kids love reversing roles and getting to be the teacher. Ask your child why she is playing something a certain way or why the notes on the page look how they do. What's the meaning of that funny Italian word on the music? Make sure not to ask in a condescending tone, but in a way that allows her to teach you. Likely, she will love the opportunity to demonstrate her knowledge!
7) Be careful with reward systems.
Reward systems sometimes work well, though nothing too elaborate should be used. Maybe the student can bake cookies if they practiced for at least the minimum amount of time during a given week. Maybe the student gets a sticker each day they practice all of their songs. We really want to be careful that students don't get too fixated on artificial rewards and instead we want to help students see and be motivated by the natural rewards of practicing- becoming a better musician!
8) Switch up activities.
If your child seems bored with their current instrument after a few years, offer them the opportunity to switch instruments if they want to. Trying something new brings back the spark of excitement and helps students feel more in charge of their music education. Just make sure that your student has had a chance to really give their instrument a good try before trying something new.
Implement these strategies at home and your child will come to value music-making for its inherent rewards. I once was like Mary, never excited to practice even though I loved making music. Thankfully, my parents were patient and helped me see the rewards of practicing and making music. Eventually, I became self-motivated to practice. I promise there is hope and that your kid will find that spark, too.