Every now and again a worried parent will ask me this question:
“We are doing a 100 Day Practice Challenge, but we are going on holiday. What should we do if my child can’t practise for several days? Will we have to start again?”
There’s absolutely no need to worry! If you really can’t get to an instrument, try some of ideas below. As well as being fun, they’ll improve playing skills.
We practice in order to make it easier and this applies to anything that we do to improve our playing skills. With this in mind, here are some powerful learning strategies, that we can use, away from our instruments.
Did you know that our ears can get in the way when practising? Working towards a beautiful singing tone is, naturally, of paramount importance to all musicians, but not many of us realise that the sound that we make when practising on our instruments can actually make us tense and self conscious. I welcome the opportunity to practise away from my instrument, as is easier to focus on the basic mechanics of playing, without the complications of how it sounds.
Substitute Instrument: One of my students recently told me about his grandmother’s experience of learning to play the piano, during the Second World War.
She and her mother were sailing from England, to join her father, who had recently landed a job, in a Singapore orchestra. She was very excited about starting her first violin lessons with him, when they arrived. Unfortunately, while they were still at sea, Singapore fell to the Japanese and their convoy was diverted to New Zealand.
The little girl was upset, that not only was she not going to see her father, but that there would be no violin lessons. Well, there they were, marooned in New Zealand with no money and nowhere to live. While her mother found a job and put a roof over their heads, there was certainly nothing left over for music lessons. Mum was a pianist and decided to teach her daughter, herself. As they couldn’t afford a piano, they decided to use the kitchen table top. For the duration of the war, the little girl practised away on the kitchen table and successfully graduated to a real piano on her return to England, where she is not only a fine musician, but is also her grandson’s piano teacher.
You just need a little imagination to find a substitute for an instrument. Violinists can practise basic bow holds, violin holds and straight bowing, with a stick and a box violin.
Study Listening: Did you know the major reason that you can talk so brilliantly, is because you have been listening to the spoken word since birth. Every now and again, we all need extra help with a difficult word, or complicated pronunciation. If we are lucky, someone will repeat the word for us and show us what it looks like written down, till we ‘get it.’ This is a powerful tactic to use, when you are practising a tricky piece of music. Just listen intently to the trouble spot, slowed down to practice tempo, while pointing to the notes in the score. I have seen children improve their playing overnight, when they use this technique.
My students are expected to “unlock” their practice assignment every day, by Study Listening. I also ask them to clap or ghost the rhythms, or to say or pattern the fingering. Recently one of my students surprised me with a performance of a new piece that he had learnt away from his viola, whilst on holiday. This was quite remarkable, because he usually takes for ever to learn music on the instrument.
Visualisation: We have the ability to use our senses, coupled with our imagination, to practise away from the instrument.
A few years ago, I read about an experiment which proved that you actually develop muscles, when thinking about performing an exercise. Participants were divided into 3 groups. Group 1 practised moving a finger. Group 2 didn’t move, but imagined moving the finger. Group 3 just sat and didn’t do anything. When all 3 groups had completed the exercise program, Group 1 was found to have gained some muscle mass in the finger. Group 3 had stayed the same. The big surprise was that Group 2 also developed a small but significant amount of muscle.
With this in mind, we can run through tricky spots while visualising the fingers playing the notes. It is really important to slow down to a speed where it is possible pay close attention to the feeling of getting each note right. We can also physically ghost play or talk yourself through each repetition. This technique is well known in the ballet world, where, to save energy, a dancer would learn the steps while “walking through” the sequence.
Toning and Fitness: Musicians are micro athletes. There are many things that we can do to improve our fitness to play an instrument. Games which improve flexibility and strength, can remind us to use our bodies holistically. Anything that improves core strength, will help with stamina and posture when we can get back to practicing with the instrument. This is one reason why I include lucky dip activity cards, in a practice session. You will find plenty of suggestions, in our Practice Games.
Aural and theory: No-one is too young to sing and to clap rhythms. Children generally enjoy the challenge of imitating rhythms and melodies. Beginners enjoy learning how to march in time and to notice the difference in pitch between two notes played consecutively.
My students also use a strategy which I call “Music Mapping.” We underline each phrase in the score with a different colour pencil. Each repetition of a phrase uses the same colour, but each different, new phrase has a different, new colour. We also colour code endings. This is a super memory aid for playing without the score. Children are always surprised (and delighted) when thy see large numbers of repeated phrases.
There is never a need to feel frustrated when you absolutely can’t get to your practice room. I like to think of it, as a golden opportunity to strengthen a child’s foundation skills and powers of visualisation, which always helps to create a fine ability to play an instrument.
Return to Music in Practice Home Page