As I’ve thought about this principle this week, it’s struck me as being the first that we’ve covered that requires nuance and sensitivity in its application to each individual student. The principles behind daily practice, intelligent, focused practice, striving for beautiful tone, and being careful to pay attention to good posture can be more or less universally applied. However, each and every child – indeed each and every student of a stringed instrument, no matter how young or how hold – is so unique in their temperament and tendencies that that each student’s daily practice schedule and time spent practicing will be similarly unique.
Some students may thrive on practicing first thing in the morning. Others might do their best work late at night.
Some students might practice most effectively in one single, long practice session a day. Others may do better with several shorter practice sessions spread throughout the day.
Some students may prefer to follow their practice chart from top to bottom in the same order every day. Others might like to mix up the order that they practice the elements of their assignment from day to day.
Some students might like to practice in the same place in the house at the same time of day every day. Others may prefer to practice somewhere different every day, and at a different time of day every day.
On Setting A Daily Schedule
I think students thrive as we increasingly discover how they uniquely learn best. So, how then do we apply Dr. Suzuki’s principle, “Practice according to a daily schedule…”?
I think the best answer is finding out what kind of schedule works well for each individual child (from the parent’s perspective) or each student (from the teacher’s perspective), and then being consistent in implementing that particular schedule. Clearly and consistently communicated expectations – and follow-through on those expectations – is the key. This isn’t as simple as throwing out a blanket statement like, “Each student should practice an hour a day after school.” It requires more intentionality and effort from parents, teachers, and in some ways even the student, but in the end the result is something attuned to each particular individual, that works best for them.
One other thing that I believe is true is that parents and teachers must work with the student to actually look at how their practice schedule fits into the overall schedule of their life, so that they can be successful in carrying it out. Between school, extracurriculars, homework, meals, and enough free time to stay sane, students’ days can fill up extremely quickly, and if practice time isn’t actually accounted for in the schedule, it can easily slip through the cracks. Sitting down with iCal, Google Calendar, or a good old-fashioned pen and paper calendar and scheduling practice into children’s lives is something that parents should help with at home, and teachers can help with in lessons.
On Gradually Increasing Practice Time
If you asked me to run a marathon tomorrow, I’d have to laugh, shake my head, and admit that I’m not up to that task. But give me 5 years to prepare for it, and I might be able to cross that finish line, albeit not in record time. I’d have to slowly, incrementally build up my physical and mental endurance and work capacity, following a linear, logical plan that ensured that I didn’t overtrain or injured myself, while still reaching my goal on time.
It’s not all too different when it comes to practicing a stringed instrument. We can’t expect a student to go from next to no consistent practice to practicing 3 hours a day. They won’t have the mental “muscle” to make good, focused use of that time, and they likely won’t have the physical, postural muscle to practice for that long without getting hurt. On the other hand, we can’t expect a student to be able to progress from Twinkle to the Mozart A Major Concerto while still practicing 20 minutes a day.
In between these two extremes of stagnation on the one hand and overzealous ambition on the other lies the more reasonable approach of gradually increasing practice time as students grow older, develop more mental acuity, and as the length and complexity of their repertoire demands it. But again, we can not simply expect this to magically happen, rather we do better to clearly and consistently communicate the expectation for the increase of 5, or 10, or 15 minutes a day of practice until that has been grown accustomed to, and then we can raise the standard again.
Putting It All Together
It’s important that each and every student has a daily practice schedule, one that’s expectations are clearly and consistently communicated and upheld, and that their parents and families help them plan that practice schedule into the larger, overacting schedule of their life. But just as each student is unique and individual, so must their schedules be uniquely individualized to best suit their learning styles, strengths, and weaknesses.
It’s also necessary that students practice schedules slowly and steadily expand to incorporate more focused, quality practice time each day, so that students can continue to keep up with the length and complexity of the music that their advancing ability allows them to study. But again, the key here is that these additions are made slowly and steadily, not overnight, and that the raised expectations are communicated clearly and consistently and then that students are given the support at home to meet these expectations.
None of this is an easy undertaking, to be sure, but it not only helps students become better practicers of their stringed instrument, but also equips them with the discipline and experiential knowledge necessary to tackle the many other types of challenges they will meet in their academic lives, work lives, and lives in general.