Getting Practice Started

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The hardest part of starting practice is getting the instrument out and getting started.  I have heard many professional musicians agree with this statement & it is certainly true for me.  I love playing violin and viola, but I don’t always like stopping something else to get started.   For me, it is a lot like exercise.   Usually, once I’ve started, it feels great and I always feel great once I’m done – but getting changed and out the door for a run can sometimes get in the way.

The first thing to know is that if you, or your child, are having trouble getting started this is totally normal!  Here are a few tips for making the start to practice go smoothly:

1.  Keep the instrument where you can see it:

The great thing about playing piano is having the instrument right out in the open.  You can walk by it, sit down and play a bit without any hassle.   Violinists have to get out a case, tighten and rosin the bow, put on the shoulder rest and on and on.   If you keep the violin set up and on a shelf where it can’t fall or be bumped into (or gotten down without assistance for very young students) it is easy to walk by, see the violin and pick it up play.   This simple solution has really helped some of my students to get started on their practice when it has been a battle.

2.  Have a routine for the start of practice:

The younger the student, the more important this one is, but anyone can benefit from it.  When there is a set routine around practice we all tend to resist it less.  If I know I practice first thing in the morning and I follow through, doing it daily, it will become second nature to head into the practice room.  Find a time that you can stick to daily or piggyback practice with some other activity.  If your child comes to expect that every night right after dinner it is time to practice, they will come to expect it and there will be less resistance.  Much like brushing teeth, if you do something everyday it becomes less of a chore that happens once in a while and more like an expected part of the daily routine.   Try to avoid suddenly announcing that it is time to practice without warning – that is sure to meet resistance.

3.  Have a reward for when practice has been finished:

You can have a small reward for daily practice, so many practices each week, or a long-term goal.  You know yourself (or your child) and can find with a little trial and error what works for you.   For adults and older students you may have a favorite tv show, websites you like to visit for fun, or a book to read.  Settling in to do something relaxing can be a great reward.  For young students, this can be something as simple as one-on-one attention doing something like playing a game or reading a book once practice is over.  In some families dessert happens at night only when practice  is done, or TV watching is off-limits until practice time is over.   You will have to figure out what works with your family or for yourself.

The benefits of learning a musical instrument are many – but most of them come from the daily practice time we spend – not from the once a week lesson.   How do you motivate yourself to get started practicing?  How do you motivate your child?

Music Tip Monday

Music Tip Monday:

Pick 3 goals for the school year

Personal achievement experts emphasise the importance of writing down your goals.   At the beginning of each school year, I write down my top 3 goals for each student I teach.  I would highly recommend trying this if you are a teacher or a student.  If you have clear goals that you are working toward, there is more purpose to your practice.  Instead of just putting in the time, you are working to meet specific goals and that will help you improve by leaps and bounds over the coming year.   For example, your goals could include: learning vibrato, graduating from your current Suzuki book, improving your posture while playing, or being ready to audition for the local youth orchestra by the end of the school year.

Try writing down your goals (or your goals for your students) and then check in with them once a week or once a month to see how you are doing.   I think you will be surprised at the results!

This week’s listening recommendation:

The Hot Canary Performed by Brian Lewis (former Suzuki student and graduate of Juilliard)

5 Ways to Keep Practice Interesting

There are many rewards that come with practicing at home with your child.   You have the opportunity to find out how your child learns new concepts, you have daily one on one time with your child, and you both get to experience music together which can be a great bonding experience.   There can also be challenges with daily practice sessions and sometimes getting the instrument out and getting started is the hardest part of all.

Young children (I’m mostly talking about preschool and younger elementary school students) like to play.   Often the problem with starting to practice is that we are asking students to stop (or postpone) something fun they want to do.  It is a good idea to add in some fun and interesting activities to practice, a few times a week, to help keep it interesting and fun.

Here are a few ideas to get you started. . .

1.  Pull out a game spinner or pair of dice:   Rather than telling your child to play a difficult measure over and over, have them spin a game spinner or roll 2 dice to see how many times they should play it.  It is amazing the attitude shift that happens when the dice tell them to play it 1o times vs. me as the mother.   There are no power struggles involved which is great and the practice ends up feeling like a game.   My rule is that the number has to be bigger than 2 or we spin again!

2.  Line up favorite stuffed animals or dolls:  If your house is anything like mine, there are bins full of stuffed animals and action figures – let your child bring some of them into the practice room.  Have your child line them up and play to each one.  A fun idea is to have them play one review song to each different stuffed animal.

3.  Play somewhere fun and unusual: If the weather is nice (and you have a portable instrument) have your child take their instrument outside and play on the back porch or under a tree. Many students also love the sound when playing in a kitchen or bathroom.   Sometimes the change in scenery is just what a student needs to enjoy playing that day.

4.  Play Fishbowl:  Write down each practice assignment (scale, review pieces, new piece etc.) on slips of paper and fold them up.  Place them inside a bowl or shoe box and have the student pick them out one by one.  Everything on the practice list will get accomplished but it will feel like a game.

5.  Hold a Family Concert: Gather the family together and put on an informal concert for them in the living room.  Students can play one piece or a number of them.  Encourage them with enthusiastic applause 🙂

This gives you a few ideas to get started.   Leave a comment and let us know what you do to keep practice fun and interesting!

Music Tip Monday

Music Tip Monday:

Keep a Practice Log

Keep a log of each day that you practice.  Intermediate and advanced students may want to log how many minutes they practiced as well.  It can be really helpful for your teacher to be able to see if you need more help learning a concept or if you just need to put in more time making it easy for yourself with practice.

A practice log will also help YOU during the week.  If you are halfway through the week and only see a couple of boxes checked off it will remind you to get out your instrument and practice today.

Many people use a log like this to make sure they get in enough exercise each week – it works great for musicians too!

Listening Recommendation:

Meditation from Thais (composed by Massenet)    performed by Sarah Chang

Weekly Listening for Musicians young and Old

I cannot emphasise the importance of listening to the Suzuki recordings enough for every Suzuki student.   In my experience,  students who listen regularly learn their pieces much more easily, and can spend more time on developing dynamics and musicality (among other skills)  rather than having to focus solely on learning the notes.

Another thing I have noticed over the years, is that students who are exposed to music regularly outside scheduled lessons and practice routines have a great advantage in their development as a musician.   Hearing and seeing quality musical performances opens up a whole world to students of music.  Not only do they get to see high quality, expressive performances, they also see that there is more to what they are doing than practicing for the next lesson.  They are part of something bigger.

Exposing children different styles of music or even different composers within one style helps them to develop their own sense of what they like and what they hope to play themselves one day.  As parents and teachers this is so helpful because we all want them to take off one day with their own motivation and drive to make music with less pushing or prodding from us.

Anyone, on any budget, can accomplish this and here are some ideas to get you started:

1.   Check out CD’s or live recordings from your local library

2.  Look for local concerts you can attend. Your local symphony may have a children’s concert series and many cities have concerts in the park as well as other smaller events.  If you have a local community music center check out the performances they have on their schedule.   In Portland the Community Music Center has a full schedule of events that can be attended often for a very low fee (if not free).

3.  Ask your music teacher for recommendations

4. has many videos of professional musicians and orchestras playing great music.

I will post listening suggestions from time to time here on the blog as well.  I would love to hear other ways you are exposing your children and students to great music to enrich what they are  already listening to as Suzuki students.   Please leave your suggestions for others to read in the comments section!

Music Tip Monday

Here in Oregon it is looking a lot like fall already.  The rain is coming down and students have a week left before the school year begins.   Many of us are gearing up to restart busy schedules as teachers, parents and students.   Starting this week I will be posting tips for musicians (and their parents or teachers) each Monday.   You can subscribe to the blog through email (the tab on the right hand side of the blog should get you started) and that way you’re sure not to miss any updates.    If you have topics you’d like to see discussed on the blog this fall please send me an email and let me know at!

Music Monday Tip – Monday August 30th, 2010

~  As you are putting together your schedule for the coming school year, make time in each day’s schedule for practice.  Often we schedule our lessons to fit into our busy schedule from the start and then have trouble later getting in enough practice time.  Be sure to add practice to each day’s schedule when deciding how many activities to be involved in.  Playing an instrument is so much more fun when there is enough time to devote to it!

~ Christine

Back to School List for String Players

It’s that time of year when the back to school lists come out and people are buying up #2 pencils, ball point pens, and index cards for the return to school.   Many music students are gearing up to go back to weekly lessons after a summer of traveling and other summer activities and it’s a great time to go over a back to school list for string players.   I would recommend going over this list with your teacher and then spending the last few weeks of summer getting everything together that you need for a successful year.

  • Properly Sized Instrument: This is a great time to have your teacher measure  you to see that your current size violin or viola is still the right fit for you.    In many instrument rental programs you can swap out your instrument for a bigger size, only paying a fee to re-string the instrument for the next person who plays it.   If you own your own instrument, now is a great time to advertise and sell it to someone who is moving up in size as well, or just starting lessons in the fall.   (Always get your teacher’s opinion before getting your new instrument – I have had a number of students bring in great “deals” from e-bay or a garage sale that are not playable and end up as an expensive piece of wall art . . . don’t let that happen to you!)
  • New Strings: The general rule of thumb is to change your instrument’s strings after 120 hours of playing.  You will hear many different opinions about the subject, but this is the most common that I have seen.  For many beginning students  this means changing out your strings about once a year.   If you make a habit out of changing strings at the start of each school year it is easy to remember.

  • Bow Re-hair: If you are playing a full size instrument, it is also a good idea to get your bow re-haired from time to time.   It is especially important to do so if your bow has lost a lot of hairs over time and is getting thin.  The general guideline is to re-hair a bow once a year.  If you are a student please ask your teacher if your bow is in need of re-hairing.
  • Music Bag: By the time students have been playing a year or two on their instrument, there can be quite a collection of books to bring to each lesson.  If your case doesn’t have a compartment to carry all the music to the lesson in, it would be a good idea to find a bag that is used just for your music.  There are cute music bags designed for music students, but any cloth bag will do the trick.
  • Notebook: Having a practice notebook to write down practice assignments and keep track of practice during the week is a must for the students that I teach.  Even a simple spiral notebook works well and helps everyone stay organized.  Picking one up while getting your other school supplies is a great idea.

This list should give you a start to get ready for the new school year.   If there is something else you can think of that I missed, please add it to the comments below.  Everyone can learn from one another and we would all love your imput!

Thanks for reading


Goal Setting: Student, Teacher, Parent

Tomorrow is the first of February and many people have already abandoned the new year’s resolutions they made only a month ago.   I tend to avoid new year’s resolutions for this reason.  Instead, I usually make a few long-term goals for each area of my life and I urge you to do the same for your music goals this year.   Whatever side of the Suzuki Triangle you are (the student, parent or teacher) it can help to keep things moving in the right direction if you have some tangible goals to achieve over the next few weeks, months or year.   Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Possible Student Goals:

  • Pick a goal piece you’d like to learn by the end of the school year (make sure your teacher agrees that it is a realistic goal so you don’t get frustrated)
  • Pick a technique you need to fix or would like to learn (like vibrato)
  • Joining the local youth symphony
  • Attending a summer music camp or Suzuki Institute
  • Make a practice goal (100 days in a row is a popular one) or practicing more often during each week

Possible Parent Goals:

  • Help your child set up their musical goals and remind them of the goal if they lose motivation (long-term goal setting and working to achieve those goals is a great life skill that extends beyond music – I know I hope to help my own children learn to do this!)
  • If you practice with your child : work on finding the time of day when you and your child are at your best and can work together well during practice
  • Commit to reading a book about Suzuki parenting or parenting the specific age of your child
  • Commit to taking careful notes during lessons and/or videotaping the lesson
  • If your child is older and practices independently help them make a practice schedule and find time each day to get practice in, even with a busy schedule

Teacher Goals:

  • Commit to joining or becoming more active in a professional organization
  • Attend a workshop this year or the Suzuki Conference
  • Work on your work/life balance and make sure you are at your best personally and as a teacher by taking time to make time for yourself as well as your students
  • Find one thing you always wish you focused more on in lessons and commit to including it in each student’s lesson – I am working on adding in more music theory to my lessons this year

What musical goals have you made this year?

~ Christine

Book Recommendation: The Young Musician’s Survival Guide

The Young Musician’s Survival Guide: Tips From Teens and Pros

by Amy Nathan

This is a great book for teachers, parents, and teen/preteen  musicians. The Young Musician’s Survival Guide does a good job of addressing like practicing, staying motivated and playing in a musical group – all at the student’s level.   I picked up my copy this summer at Powell’s and found some good ideas to pass along to my own students.   Some of the chapters include:  “The Time Squeeze”, “Boring – Practice Blues”  and “The Jitters.”  Other teens and professional musicians share their tips for getting through the harder parts of being a musician.

One of my favorite parts of the book was the interviews with performers.  Many of them shared their experiences learning their instrument (ranging from violin to solo percussionist) and what they wished they knew as teens or had done a better job of.  Many of these points teachers make to our own students over and over but hearing it from a successful performer may help it sink in . . . we can always hope 🙂

One interview that caught my eye was with Joshua Bell (if you are not familiar with him as a performer here are two links to him performing on youtube) :

Here is an excerpt:  ” My mother insisted I practice violin every day, even if only for half an hour.  Then I could do other things,” he reports.  “I had plenty of fights about not wanting to practice.  I liked practicing much of the time, just not always.”

This is a great reminder for students and for their parents – who are on the other end of the “fights about not wanting to practice.”   It’s ok to insist on practice and most students (even Joshua Bell) are going to have days when they don’t feel like practicing and will need you to help them make it happen.

Has anyone else read this book?  What did you think?

Getting the most out of practice

“It’s not necessarily the amount of time you spend at practice that counts, its what you put into the practice”    Eric Lindros (Hockey Player)

As a violin teacher I absolutely love this quote.   Often as teachers we are asked “How long should I practice?”  or “How long should my child be practicing everyday?”   While teachers often have a rule of thumb they would like their students to follow, it is more complicated than that.   It is not just the time spent practicing but what is accomplished during that time that matters the most.

Here are 3 ways to get the most out of your practice time:

1.  ATTENTION:   Find a time of day when your child’s attention level is at it’s best.   For some students this is in the morning before school, for others it is after school, and still others will prefer to practice later in the evening.   Find out what works for your family.   I have learned from experience as a parent, and from many parents of my own students, that practicing right before bed can often be a recipe for disaster.

2.  HAVE A PLAN:  If your teacher doesn’t already help you come up with a detailed plan for practice – ask.  Most teachers are happy to help you break down your practice time and plan out how to use it to be well prepared for your next lesson.  I consider it one of my main jobs as a teacher to teach students how to practice.  Without a plan practicing can be like trying to drive somewhere without a map or GPS system.   Know where you are going and how to get there!

3.   ONCE YOU CAN PLAY IT CORRECTLY THE REAL PRACTICE STARTS:  Often I see students play a practice spot over and over until they get it correct ONCE and then stop.    The problem with this is that the passage has been played many more times incorrectly, than correctly.   I often tell my students “don’t play it until you get it right, play it until you can’t get it wrong.”   If you can make it your goal to play a small section many times without making a mistake then you have made real progress in your practice time.

Try adding these tips to your practice time this week.  Be patient. . . it may take a while to figure out what time of day to practice and to put together a practice plan with your teacher that works well for you.   It is worth the time and effort though!

What helps you and your students get the most out of practice?  I’d love to hear thoughts from parents, teachers and students!

~ Christine