The importance of independent practice time

Want to raise self motivated, passionate, intelligent prodigies? Of course you do. After all, you are at least somewhat interested in your child's musical education if you are reading a boring blog post written by a musical nerd on 

So confession time. I am a huge believer in independent practicing for young musicians....HUGE! Go ahead; sigh, gasp, be sick to your stomach, have your little reaction, then please hear me out. 

For those of you who don't know what independent practicing is let me define it for you: independent practicing is any given amount of time, large or small, that your child spends practicing completely on their own without your correction, input, direction, or nagging. Cheering and clapping is appropriate.

Don't get me wrong, I love how involved parents of musicians can become in their child's musical education. That's awesome, good job, keep it up, three cheers for your enthusiasm. BUT, there should be times during your child's practice sessions when you become the only kind of backseat driver other's want in their car while driving...the silent one! 

Kids learn by guidance, teaching, and showing them exactly how to do it, certainly. Believe it or not kids also learn by figuring things out on their own, using their memory, making mistakes, practicing it wrong, fixing it to be right, painting their own musical canvas in their minds and then making it happen with their hands. Here are some of the reasons why parents should let their kids spend at least a little (or in my own children's case a lot) of time practicing on their own without you. 

Help your children take ownership. We all have seen children who are forced to practice and never learn to love it or own it themselves. The minute they become old enough (a.k.a teenagers) to win the battle they yell out the two most dreaded words, "I quit!". Kids will own up to their practicing, performance, and progress better if you aren't doing it for them. They will feel trusted and in turn more responsible for how well they play, which common sense tells us leads to increased SELF MOTIVATION and SELF CONFIDENCE. They start practicing and loving their instrument more because it is THEIR instrument, not yours! I'm not saying that kids don't need nudges or encouragement to practice daily. Most kids will, and that is fine. Get them to practice! That's your part, but once they start practicing, give them some space. 

Increase your child's individual focus and independent attention span. Have you ever had the practice session that was constant battling? You begging them to play it just one more time as they are sprawled out on the floor? Maybe you've even began to yell like I have at times, "Hurry up I want you to do this because I have other things to do" (picture me cringing as I admit those words have come out of my mouth).  What would happen if you gave them a checklist or an assignment and then walked out the door? Would they lay there on the ground? Probably. Would they cry?  Maybe a little, but since they are all alone and now feel like the choice is theirs I am willing to bet that they would eventually get off the floor and go practice it just one more time. If you do this daily, I think you would also find that you could increase the amount of time that they willingly practiced a technique, a measure, a line, even a song all on their own. Instead of you hovering there telling them to practice it again, one more time, 2 more minutes, etc., they could self talk their own way through it, and push themselves to play through it just one more time. How wonderful would it be (and I believe this is how it works) to have it translate into other areas of their lives as well. Finishing homework on their own, putting their own laundry away, reading during quiet reading time at school without bothering others, running through their spelling words just one more, or remembering to brush their teeth without being asked. It might not seem like it is working at first, but if you leave your child alone to accomplish a practice goal or task they will be able to do it eventually (maybe not perfectly and that's alright), and then you can add on the amount they are able to handle. 

Independent practicing will motivate your kids to become problem solvers. I did most of my practicing on my own growing up. That's not to say my parents weren't involved. I knew they supported and encouraged me by the compliments they gave me. My dad would sit and play with me on the piano whenever I asked. Looking back, I am so grateful that I had as much independent practice time as I did. I feel like I better understand music because of it. If I didn't know where a finger went I had to listen, concentrate, try it wrong and make it right. If I didn't know which finger was a C# for example I had to count out my staff lines, step up the finger board and figure it out (learning all the rest of the notes at the same time, bonus!). Sure it would've been so much faster for someone to tell me where to put my fingers everyday, or what notes were out of tune every day, but they would've had to keep telling me because unless you figure out something on your own it doesn't really stick or sink deep.

Bottom line, let your children have some independent practice time! Don't get me wrong, I think ideally a healthy balance between you guiding their every move and never helping them at all should be struck. If truth must be told, I help my kids out in some small way with their practicing everyday. Sometimes that is as simple as letting them perform a song for me and applauding loudly and enthusiastically.  Sometimes that is running technique drills with my daughters or playing the left hand of the piano with my son while he plays the right.  Reminding (okay nagging) them to get their practicing done is a feat in and of itself. Be involved but also learn to let them be. 

In case you feel like I don't empathize with your parental perfection button, let me tell you how it is for me. Even though I am a passionate believer in letting kids have some time to practice on their own, it hasn't been easy for me. I am not only a parent of musicians but a musician myself which means, that I can hear every little note that is wrong. I have had to train myself to not correct them with every intonation problem or out-of-sync rhythm in a passage. Some days I have to put a fist in my mouth from the other room to keep myself from yelling out corrections as I listen to all the things they are playing wrong. I have had to learn to walk out of the room while they are practicing, then poke my head in long enough to say, "Wow, sounds great! I loved how you played the ending!" But I have found that when I do this not only do I smile more but so do my little musician darlings. And really, what's more important than perfect scales and flawless dynamics?...A kid who loves music!