I have been away for a while (trips to China and Italy). Now I’m back and in the midst of summer camps. I have fit a few of my studio lesson students into my schedule as I could. I found that most of them, if not just about all of them, took a break when I was not around. This put an enormous burden of responsibility on my shoulders, because the clear message that I got from this realization was that if I did not offer lessons every week, then my students or their parents did not take on the responsibility of maintaining a practice schedule on their own. In other words, if I am not here to monitor them or provide a reason to practice, then the practice did not happen because my students and their practicing partners could not do this for themselves.
Well, that is no fun for me! I had other thoughts about this phenomenon as well. How come there is such a mismatch of expectations? Why are our belief systems about lessons and music education so different? Are everyone’s lives so very busy that a simple practice schedule cannot be followed? But, this is probably a different article than the one I wanted to write here.
I understand completely the need to “take a break.” I have those same thoughts myself. Mostly I have discovered that when I have that feeling, I may merely need to make a change in what I do. I find that a change is a better plan than stopping what I do completely. For example, if I am complacent (a much better word than tired or bored!) about a particular healthy breakfast that I eat every day, I find it serves me better not to stop eating a healthy breakfast but to substitute another healthy meal in its place. If I want to maintain a writing habit, then I change up what I write about.
If I am complacent about my practicing or schedule, then I will keep up the practicing (and maybe the schedule) but change the makeup of what I do. I will substitute in some different style of music for my usual fare. Rather than a dry diet of etudes, I might add in some popular music or some fiddle tunes. I might practice my reading skills by playing new music or playing chamber music with some friends.
There are other things to try as well, such as inviting other musical friends over for a music party. Have a pool party and play-in or a friendly barbecue with other families. One of my students set up a special recital and made plans to perform many pieces that required her to practice quite a bit. Another student signed up to attend the local institute, and she has been busy practicing her orchestra music and reviewing her list of institute pieces. Other students attended summer strings camps and practiced for the orchestra placement auditions. Other students have signed up to perform for school events that happen at the beginning of the fall semester. Others have practiced to play for special performances at nursing homes or charity events. There are many possibilities rather than taking a break.
Of course, there are the unavoidable life events. The family might take a trip that may be too dangerous to take a violin along. One family wisely left the instrument at home, and later suffered a wild horse stampede through their campsite. Good thing the violin was safely at home. Even in circumstances like this, there may still be some other options to consider. When there is a passing of a relative or close friend in the family, the student might be willing to participate in the memorial services. Sometimes the act of maintaining a practice schedule helps the family to “hold it together.” I still remember vividly the day of 9/11 when one by one my students arrived at the studio throughout the day (I had been teaching the morning of the tragic event). As each parent poked his or her head in the studio door to ask if I was teaching that day, the parents and I would look at each other with that sad knowledge that the world had changed in a big way, while the act of teaching and learning continued its regular course in the perspective of the students. This was the best gift that my parents and I could give the students (and ourselves) at the time.
So how does one recover from a practice “break”? This seems like a silly question, except that the summer is half over, more so for some of us since school resumes in a few weeks here in the South. Whatever we have not accomplished by this point needs to be addressed now. I have written about this subject before (Getting Started After a Break, The Summer Challenge). Here are a few suggestions:
Listen to repertoire pieces daily, old and new. Nothing works quicker to bring back the spark in your student’s playing than hearing the songs that the student is learning. If you are going to take a trip that involves leaving the violin at home for a brief time, make plans to do some daily listening.
Daily practice. Even a short period of time or perhaps a few small daily practice sessions will be easy. The first few days will be the hardest because you will be working to overcome what I call "practice inertia" -- the tendency to continue moving (or not moving in this example) in the direction you have been moving. Merely set yourself a small time goal (5 minutes might be the starting point) and allow yourself and your student to expand that time period as the going gets easier. When you know that you are permitted to quit after 5 minutes, it becomes easier to stay the course and play for 10 or 15 minutes. From that point, you will find it easier to start focusing on a practice session to achieve particular goals rather than time.
Focus on posture. When we take a break, we may find it easy to fall into bad habits. We forget the correct way to do things, and we begin to do “easy” things, which are basically posture issues gone way wrong. Take the time to focus on correct posture all the time. I like to remind my students that it is as easy to perform a habit correctly as it is to perform it incorrectly. The bad habit merely feels easy when in fact it is not because it will involve major problems later.
Do lots of review. Review is a great way to ease back into a regular routine because it focuses on things that are already familiar. If your student has forgotten material learned earlier, then your student will become frustrated with new material for sure. Focus on reviewing earlier songs until your student remembers the correct posture and the earlier material. Then moving onto new material will be easier.
Set a schedule and follow it no matter what. Part of forming a good habit is to set a schedule for it and set up reminders so that you maintain the schedule. If you set up a schedule, then follow it. Make the schedule be a daily thing so that it remains easy to follow. I call this scheduling for the inertia factor. If you are already following a daily schedule, it is easier to keep following the schedule and harder to skip. See one of my earlier articles about the power of routine.
Keep it simple. Whatever you decide to do, keep your plans simple at first. It is easier to begin small and build a good routine and then later expand the routine than it is to be too ambitious and then become too overwhelmed to follow your plan. Start small and simple and grow from there.
Sometimes it is nice to enjoy the good weather and the summer activities. While you are enjoying your summer activities, keep in mind that one purpose of music education is to teach students life lessons such as discipline, perseverance, and skill development. Coming back from a vacation break can be a good time to reinforce these life lessons as you and your child get back on track. Give a nod to summer by keeping practices short and sweet, but also show your child how to get back on track with the rhythm of practice and learning.
Enjoy the rest of your summer break!