Eliza Bourgault - Musician

Music to transform the world 


How long should my child practise for?

Posted by Eliza Bourgault du Coudray on March 6, 2019 at 1:25 AM

Some kids willingly go to their instruments and take their own initiative regarding their music practice. For others, practice seems to be a chore, and it is not always easy to get them to play their instrument. As a teacher, I can easily see which students have put in the work over the week, and I can just as easily see when no progress has been made. In this article, I will outline the importance of music practice, provide some general guidelines regarding how long a child should practise their instrument, and finally offer some tips for parents.

First, let me give you an overview of what I mean when I write about practice.

  • Playing their set pieces and exercises at their instrument. Each lesson I write goals for the following lesson to do with a piece/pieces and technical exercises. I do expect students to sit at their instrument and work their way towards achieving those goals.
  • Practising away from the instrument. A lot can be achieved away from the instrument! Visualising movements; studying the written music (and writing letter names or fingerings), “air-practice” or practising on a table; completing theory homework; doing research about the pieces being played; listening to music … the list goes on!

So why is practising important anyway?

  • Fairly obviously, progress can only happen with practice. It is through regular practice that the notes and sounds of a piece of music become more ingrained in our ears; that our muscles begin to know what to do without us having to think too hard about them. Practising exercises and technical work improves playing technique and enables us to learn increasingly difficult repertoire.
  • Practising shows us our weaknesses – and our strengths. Where does your child get stuck in a piece of music, and most importantly, why? Is it reading the note that is the issue, or something about playing the note? Is it making sense of the rhythm? There will always be challenges when practising; otherwise nothing new will ever be learnt. My job as a teacher is to guide the student through the challenging parts of learning how to read and play music.
  • Practising can promote creativity. Just sitting at the instrument, playing a few notes, maybe an exercise, and using a little musical motive to create own compositions.
  • Developing the life skill of discipline. Music practice can show the benefits of being disciplined with a task and a goal. When the effort has been put in and an objective has been reached, it should feel good, and be celebrated.

As for how long a child should practise, it is unrealistic to expect a definitive answer as it depends on a number of factors, such as the energy levels of the child at the time of practice, when practice is being done, the attention-span of the child, their age, their knowledge of music … when I was teaching at MLC, the music department recommended to parents that in their first year of learning, kids should practise 10mins a day; in their 2nd year, 20mins; in their 3rd, 30-40mins. I would add that these are minimum guidelines, and children should always be encouraged to practise for longer. Furthermore, any upcoming performances, auditions or exams are likely to require more work.

In my experience of learning two instruments and teaching a number of students, I would advise that shorter but regular practice yields better results than the occasional very long practice. Furthermore, I would recommend dividing practice time into segments spread throughout the day. In the case of children, perhaps 5-10mins in the morning before school, and 5-10mins after school.

Lastly, it is not so much the time that counts but the quality of the practice. Mindlessly repeating a piece or an exercise just for the sake of it is not going to be as effective as being fully engaged in the listening of the music being made. Making sure the correct fingering is being used, that the right note is being played, that it's at the right dynamic and speed, and that our fingers and hands and posture are appropriate, are all elements of what constitutes engaged practice.

As a parent, I highly encourage you to be as involved as you can with your child's musical practice, although less so for the more mature students. Here are some things to watch out for, and some tips for helping your kid fill your home with their music:

  • Help them plan their practice session. Before they even start playing, look through their lesson notebook and ask them what they want to work on for the next couple of minutes. Hold them accountable. When they are done with their practice, ask them how they went. Maybe even ask them to play the piece or exercise for you.
  • If you notice they are struggling, ask them questions about the issue and encourage them to find the answer. If the issue persists, simply get them to write it down in the book for me to read at the lesson and go over it with them.
  • Learn the title of their pieces and occasionally ask them to play it for you.
  • Record their playing over a few days to track their progress (but do it only if they want to!)
  • Remind them of the importance of persistence. It takes time and work to get things right!
  • If you notice they are not particularly focused, suggest they take a break and come back later when they are feeling more refreshed and energised.
  • Ask them to explain to you musical concepts about their pieces or theory. Ask them to teach you the song they are learning. It is said that if you cannot teach something, it means you do not understand it!
  • Have a rewards system for their musical practice, but avoid negative reinforcement. This could be having play time or free time after playing for 5 or 10mins.
  • Pay attention to what they enjoy playing and what they don't. As a teacher I do try to balance my own goals as a teacher with the student's ambitions and the parents' expectations, which is not always easy. Feel free to discuss with me if you notice anything about your child's practice which may help me in my teaching.
  • The 2-minute rule: if they really don't feel like playing today, try convincing them by saying that they only need to play for two minutes. Set a timer if necessary. Two minutes can sometimes evolve into 5, and 10!
  • Have a clean and quiet practicing environment. If there are a lot of distractions around, is it realistic to expect your child to concentrate and engage with their music? Turn off tvs and devices, make sure there is space and that all music and books required are easily in reach.
  • Provide structure by having a set time each day for musical practice.

I hope this article helps in promoting healthy and productive practice sessions at your home with your child.

Categories: Teaching & music education

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