On Practising

by Jenny Macmillan

Ability Development, Spring 1996

I am a Suzuki mother with three children aged eleven, nine and seven learning piano with Kevin Smith. I am also on the Suzuki piano teacher training course. Like all Suzuki mothers, I am constantly trying to devise better, more effective ways of organising the children’s practice. In some ways it gets easier as they get older (or perhaps as I get more experienced). We now have a fairly regular routine for every day of the year except Christmas Day or when we are actually away from home on holiday.

First and foremost, for us, practice must be done in the morning before any other activities take our attention. From personal experience, I find that if I do my own practice after shopping, making telephone calls, doing housework, or anything else, my mind is not on the practice - I do not listen so attentively, and have less patience for careful repetition. However early your children have to leave for school, calculate how long it takes to get dressed and have breakfast plus 40 minutes for each child’s Suzuki (allow 40 minutes for 30 minutes constructive practice), and set the alarm clock accordingly. (This may mean going to bed earlier in the evening!). Make sure you allow yourself plenty of time so you are not rushed and can enjoy giving your full attention to your child. We also do about 15 minutes practice in the evening - not so intensive - no new work and no reading - but useful for ‘fun’ items such as duets and trios.

Our daily schedule runs something like this:
Morning 5 mins reading
10 mins newest piece
10 mins next newest piece
5 mins review
If we are preparing for a conert, there will be less work on a new piece and more polishing of the concert piece.

Evening 5 mins scales and
5 mins duet or trio
5 mins once straight through what
can be played of newest piece,
straight through
concert piece, some review

You may wonder where we do the bulk of our review. I find the children are not concentrating so well at the end of each practice to do much review, and I generally prefer not to start with review, so we devote one morning practice a week, on Saturday, to playing each child’s complete repertoire. I make a note of any piece that is not up to standard and we work on it during the following week. I have never heard of anyone elso who has this system - most people seem to prefer to play several review pieces daily. You have to work out what is best for you and your child.

To try to create variety in our practising, I might give the children a week off scales and arpeggios at half term, and instead include more review in their evening practice. Review pieces have a habit of getting untidy, so during the longer school holidays we often work through special practice charts which list all the pieces each child can play. During the course of the holiday, each piece has to be played perfectly hands separately and then together in order to earn a sticker.

I do not believe in bribing children with presents or sweets, but I do offer stickers as rewards - for a good practice or for repetition of a particular practice point. The children do get a small present on completion of each repertoire book.

Before my children had started school, we practised 3 or 4 times a day. It often took 20 minutes to fit in a 5 minute practice, along the lines of - I play with model cars on the floor with my son, we do 5 minutes piano together, then I read him (and his siblings) a story.

My children (like most others) never liked to repeat a short section several times. Our first teacher, Anne Turner, recommended a game which often worked well. After my son’s lesson, I would make a lucky dip of the practice points covered in the lesson. One piece of paper might say Cuckoo bar 1 RH 5x, another Lightly Row line 3 tog 6x. Also in the lucky dip were papers which said things like Do a somersault or Give mummy a kiss. Another way of getting in lots of repetitions is to take apart a wooden toy or jigsaw and gradually build it up with each single repetition or 10 repetitions.

I often find it is awkward to get the children to the piano - they are too busy doing other things - but they are almost always fine once at the piano. I try not to ask them to practise just as their favorite television programme is beginning, or when they are in the middle of a good game (almost impossible), or during a ‘low spell’. Some children are fresher straight after school; some are more tired then but better after tea and a bath. I try to put them in a positive frame of mind by talking enthusiastically about something - visiting friends, a birthday party, an outing, a concert, new clothes ... I felt real progress had been made when my eldest son started to book his practice time in advance - “I’ll do my piano at 4 o’clock this afternoon so I can get it done before playing tennis”.

My three children are hardly ‘model’ pupils - eager and willing to do their practice every day - but in some ways I don’t think it would be healthy if they were. They have many interests. They have wills of their own, which is as it should be, and it is up to me to direct their wills to music making.