Tag Archives: practice

Committing to Fill our “Ability Buckets”

A few years ago, the one of the faucets in our house developed what I would have described as a “little drip.” Nothing particularly serious. A little drip every few seconds. Certainly not worth putting right at the top of my to-do list. I’d get around to fixing it when I had the time, I thought.

And then the water bill for that month came in. I don’t recall exactly what it was, but I do remember that it was over ten times our normal monthly bill! I won’t soon forget that part.

So, I went straight to Home Depot, picked up the part needed to fix the leaking seal for, and with about 15 minutes of work, I had the problem solved. Next month, the water bill was back to its normal range.

My point? Even a little drip can add up to a whole lot of water when it drips steadily over time. In this case, the result was not so positive. But let’s turn it around and apply it to something productive.

I hesitate to refer to anything from the ’20-’21 school year as a “silver lining,” because it was such a difficult year for so many people. One of the realities for us at West County Strings, though, was that violin or viola lessons was in many cases the only activity that students were able to stay involved in, as sports and other extracurriculars had to take a break until they could be done safely again.

The result? Students had a lot fewer things vying for their time and attention, and a lot more time to practice! I dare say that a lot of the exceptional results we saw from students during the ’20-’21 school year were due to this reality.

And now, as things increasingly return to “normal,” we are also seeing students and families returning to balancing more and more activities and events, and practicing sometimes getting lost in the mix.

So why did I begin by mentioning our leaky shower and the water bill that ensued?

Because just as even little drip can add up to a whole lot of water, so too can a little bit of careful, consistent, thoughtful, focused practice add up to a whole lot of ability.

I’ve been thinking about it like this:

We’re all trying to fill up what we’ll call our “buckets of ability.” We try to fill them up before coming to each lesson. We try to fill them up on a larger scale over the course of a semester before recitals. And we try to fill them up on an even larger scale over the course of a whole school year, and over the course of many years of practice.

The problem is that all too often – and especially this year as we all get back to more and more different types of activities and events – we try to turn that metaphorical “faucet” on all the way and fill up our bucket in one or two big efforts over the course of the week.

And I suppose that would be okay, if our bodies and brains worked that way. But for better or worse, they don’t. Our bodies and brains work best, learn best, and develop best with high-frequency, moderate-intensity efforts.

Dr. Suzuki didn’t have all the science that we have today to back this fact up when he started teaching, but he knew it from observing life. And he wrote about it a lot. In the preface to Suzuki Violin Book 1 (Revised Edition, pg. 5), he says:

“It is the daily practice at home that leads to ability development. The key is how much and how well the student practices the teachers’ instructions.” (emphasis mine)

So, as we find ourselves roughly a quarter of the way into the Fall ’21 Semester, I’d like to encourage each of our students, and each of their families, to commit to this idea of a steady, daily filling of our “buckets of ability” through practice.

Ideally, this would mean focusing on the materials assigned in each students’ private lesson. It may be necessary to practice music for school or community orchestras, as well, but these should not be considered replacements for developing individual skill on lesson assignments.

Given that we are only human, not all days will be of the same length or quality, and some days it may feel utterly impossible to practice (Dr. Suzuki would remind you, “Only practice on the days you eat!”). On the most difficult days, it may be a good idea to simply practice a scale or review piece and relax with the Suzuki CD or recording of another work you are learning.

There is more we can all talk about individually in lessons as the school year goes on, but I’d like to think of West County Strings as a place where each and every student is slowly, steadily filling their “bucket of ability,” and will eventually find it overflowing!

Creating a Productive Practice Routine

It often takes losing something to realize how valuable and important it was to you.  These days, I’m realizing just how valuable and important the daily structure and rhythm of school was and is for many students – and parents!  Some of us gladly accept routine, others of us “buck” against it a bit, but whichever type of person we – and our children – are, we all benefit in profound ways from the predictability and security of having a daily routine.  These days, with many schools sending assignments for students to do on their own time, creating our own structure and our own routines is all the more vital.

Here are a few ideas for creating your own practice structure and routine, so that these days of “social distancing” can be more productive, not less!

  1. Set a time of day to practice.  Students might look at their day and see 12 “free” hours, and think that it’ll be easy to fit in plenty of practice somewhere in there.  The reality is, though, that if we approach the day this way, the whole day will slip by without ever doing any really productive practice.  So, sit down with your children and a calendar and schedule their practice times like you would any other activity.  And then (here comes the hard part) stick to it!


  2. Map out your daily practice sessions.  What order will you practice the elements of your teacher’s assignment in?  Warm ups, then scales, then etudes and exercises, then review, then working piece, then polish piece, then sight reading?  Or will you mix it up?  Warm up, then working piece, then a review piece, then some more working piece, then some scale work, then your polish piece, then some more review, and finally some sight reading?  The sky’s the limit, but it’s important that you think through your daily plan, write it out, and think about how much time you’re going to devote to each element.
  3. Create a practice space in your home.  A public space is best.  Students may like to practice in their bedrooms, but in these days of technology in the palms of our hands, it is all too easy to get distracted without the watching eyes and listening ears of parents to help stay on task.  Set aside a corner of a living room or family room that is the designated practice space, and keep it free from clutter and other activity so that it can really become the “music space” in everyone’s minds.
  4. Pick a place with good natural lighting, if at all possible.  The beneficial effects of natural lighting and being outside in nature are incredible.  We think more clearly and more deeply, and are more connected to ourselves and our emotions when we are able to take in nature.  Putting your practice space in a place where the natural light streams in and the outdoors can be taken in will creative a more positive, productive practice experience.


  5. Keep your instrument, music, and supplies out, day-to-day, if at all possible.  The biggest hurdle to actually putting in some good practice is often simply getting started.  If your instrument, music, metronome, and pencil are out and ready to go, you’ll see them throughout the day, keeping your upcoming practice session in mind, and you won’t be hindered by the hurdle of getting everything out and ready every day.  I know that may seem like a little thing, but seeing your instrument and being able to simple walk over, pick it up,  and get started can lead to many more productive practice sessions.
  6. Listen to your Suzuki CDs or other recordings throughout the day.  With “social distancing” in effect, there’s never been an easier time to listen to your Suzuki CDs for hours a day while you go about your other tasks.  If you can sing a tune (or hum it), you’ve taken a major step towards being able to play it.  I think we could see the whole studio take leaps forward in their repertoire if we use this at-home time to listen to our CDs more!

So, there you have 6 tips for making this de-structured time in our lives a little more structured, and a lot more productive.  Happy practicing, everyone!