A Spoonful of Sugar – Encouraging Young Students to Practice

Welcome to another Flute Friday.

Practice 2

We live in a world of instant gratification. Information that may have taken hours of research in a library 20 years ago can now be found quite literally in the palm of our hands by Siri in 30 seconds or less. Rapid fire advancements in technology have created an app-based society demanding expertise in 30 different subjects overnight through the click of a button or the queuing of a few YouTube web tutorials. Traditional disciplines requiring a more patient approach, such as music, are very difficult to understand by the younger generation whose idea of “time investment” has changed greatly over time from those held by Generation X, Y and even many of us pre-millenials. How do we encourage our younger students to practice when they are growing up in a society that wants everything NOW? I have struggled with this question in recent years as younger students have expressed frustration over the time required to learn new fingerings, notes, rhythms and breathing techniques before achieving their goal of playing a familiar song (anyone reading this who has been forced to teach “Let it Go” from Frozen knows the struggle of explaining the concept of syncopation to students who are still struggling with basic fingerings). After some research on the matter, I have come up with the following techniques that can be used to help students achieve daily practice goals and increase the amount of time they spend practicing their instruments. As Mary Poppins explained, “In every job that must be done there is an element of fun. You find the fun and SNAP – The job is a game.” Help students find the fun in their daily practice and they will want to practice more often to achieve smaller, more meaningful goals.

Practice 3

Practice Cards. How many of you remember the old school paper based practice cards of yester year? What used to be a weekly chore was actually a very good way of tracking progress. In the studio environment I use these paper based practice cards to help my students set goals and discuss ways to make their practice time more effective. For example, a beginning student may submit a practice card to me with 15 minutes of practice per day M-F and 0 minutes on the weekends. From here we may set a goal of 15 minutes, 7 days a week for the following week and increase to 20 minutes per day M-F the week after that. We may also investigate what the student spends the most time practicing. If they are struggling to memorize fingerings but devote a majority of their practice time to tone and breathing exercises, we may set a goal for the subsequent week to spend at least 10 minute per day working exclusively on new fingerings. For younger students, practice cards are intimidating because a poor practice card may result in another boring lecture from their teacher on the importance of practice. The objective of practice cards, however, is to serve as a report of where we are to help us reflect on where we would like to go. The problem I sometimes find with paper based practice cards is that my students conveniently “forget” to bring them to their lessons. This can be avoided by using a free, web-based practice card reporting system. Online Practice Record features a pretty decent online practice card https://www.onlinepracticerecord.com/opr/ that students may fill in online and email to their teachers at the end of the week. The online practice card allows students to track practice time, keep practice time stats such as weekly and daily averages, compare their practice time to other students across the country and upload videos to their practice card. This is a great way to create a weekly performance goal for students and serves as an excellent monitoring system for teachers.

Practice 4

Create a practice game. Do you remember those wonderful chocolate bars that the cheerleading team or volleyball squad used to sell in high school to earn money to travel to away games. The person who sold the most chocolate bars typically won a prize of some sort for their outstanding salesmanship. The same merit system can be applied to practice. We refer to this as a rewards system in pop psychology in which students are given tangible items for their investment of practice time (aside from the improvement in ability that will naturally occur during this process). There are numerous accessories that can be purchased from www.fluteworld.com as prizes to hand out for benchmarks such as 500, 1000 and 2000 total minutes of practice but you may also award gift card prizes for weekly, monthly or quarterly practice record setters. Students often enjoy the friendly competition offered by a practice rewards system and my even take their practicing a bit more seriously if they know there may be a tangible object awaiting them for their hard work. They might even discover that they enjoy practicing regardless of the pot of gold waiting at the end of the rainbow!

Give students one clear goal each week. I have already mentioned the importance of using practice cards to set practice goals but it is also quite helpful for student to have a clear idea of what their primary focus for their practice time is each week. This gives students a purpose for their time and clear expectations for what is required to improve their flute playing. Part of the reason that practice time may vary each day of the week is that students do not know exactly what to invest their energy learning besides “learn all of the notes.” Set weekly priorities and help your students devise performance wish lists. What is it that they want to learn about the flute? What do they want to learn to play? What techniques are they most interested in learning about this instrument? Create single weekly goals based on these objectives.

Practice 1

Mix in recognizable pieces with more challenging etudes and repertoire. Younger students are not as excited to learn how to play Schumman as they are to finally learn the notes to the theme from Lord of the Rings. When I was young, my mother would often pick up lead books and sheet music to many popular tunes of the day that I would mix into my weekly Band assignments from the Yamaha Practice Book #1. I loved learning how to play melodies to many recognizable Disney songs and other tunes I could listen to on the radio (For example, I performed the melody from Bryan Adams’ “Everything I do I do it for You” for my 6th grade band class at our first Show and Tell Friday). Many of these songs contain excellent lessons on rhythm, new fingerings, breathing, phrasing and tone development. Mix in a few fun pieces into the standard Mozart and Bach repertoire to make playing the flute more relevant to the lives of younger students.

Know when to pull the plug. Not every student that comes through your studio doors will continuing performing on the flute. Sometimes young students are just not that into learning a new instrument as their parents want them to be. If they do not practice, do not submit practice cards, and do not enjoy learning new lessons each week, playing the flute may just not be for them. Do your best to expose students to the fundamentals of flute playing, fun and interesting repertoire, practice plans and musical goal setting and at the end of the school year reassess their progress and general interest in the instrument. Sometimes it is an uphill struggle and as difficult as it is to have the conversation with parents that their child may not share your love of the flute, it is a conversation that must be had. Years spent doing something that has little to no value to the student is not a wise investment of the precious years of childhood. Be honest with parents and be patient with students. Show them why you love the flute and what the instrument is capable of achieving but know that they must discover their love of music in their own time.

Practice 5

Practice makes perfect but often is not a perfect process. Encourage younger students to find the fun in practicing using the techniques above and they will look forward to completing their weekly practice cards. Help them find new, interesting music that is relevant to their lives to perform for other students, parents and audiences of all types. Incorporate technology such as online practice cards and weekly video recordings to help keep practicing fresh, new and on track. Practicing does not have to be a chore or a punishment but a pathway to skill development and enjoyment of the flute.

How do you encourage younger students to practice? Do you use a rewards system? Do you assign practice cards? What do your students love about their practice time? Please comment below!


Happy Fluting!


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