As your child advances in the repertoire and in their ability, their pieces quickly get more and more complicated. Your role as a practice partner changes from a hands on helper to that of an advisor. Understanding practice as an exercise in problem solving and being able to offer your child some ideas on how to solve their challenges will help you increase the productivity of each practice session.
The key to productive and efficient practice is Unit Practice. Suzuki students begin their studies with unit practice—the rhythms that each student practices on single notes and open strings, “I like Chocolate Ice Cream”, etc., are “units” that are practiced separately for months, even after they have been strung together to build a student’s first Twinkle.
All pieces, no matter their length or level, are made up of such building blocks, and it is up to the advancing student (with help from the parent) to find the relevant units, take them out of the context of the piece, and practice them in a variety of creative ways to build ability and ease. Below are just a few ways that good practicers manipulate units. Your teachers are always happy to offer you more!
- Building backwards
- Most sections of a piece that your teacher assigns can be broken down even further when practicing. After finding the units that make up a section, pick the last one and master that, then attach the second to last unit, third to last, etc., so that as the student practices, they are constantly going from less familiar to more familiar and reinforcing the material they just learned.
- e.g., take the triplets in the last line of Witches’ Dance and practice only the last three notes of the piece, then the last six, last nine, etc. (Word of warning to string players–make sure you whether you are on an up or down bow when you start in the middle of a passage!)
- Using Rhythms to Promote Dexterity
- Our fingers are not equal in strength and dexterity which can make playing fast passages evenly a struggle. One way to fix this is to play the passage with different rhythms in order to build speed and strength in to the fingers. Just make sure to always play the passage evenly right after!
- e.g., for a group of four sixteenth notes, play long-short-long-short, then short-long-short-long, then evenly. This is “rhythm + opposite + straight”. The student can play an entire passage of sixteenth notes (maybe 2 or 3 lines) in this way.
- Separate the hands
- For string players, difficult passages often consist of a particularly tricky right hand technique, or left hand technique, or in very tricky passages, both at the same time! Practicing a difficult right hand technique on open strings, or a difficult left hand technique with slow, separate bows, is a great way to isolate and address challenges.
- Pianists will also benefit from separating the hands to isolate and address the different challenges between right and left.
Undoubtedly your teachers have instructed you in these practice techniques for various passages, but as the pieces grow in length and difficulty, you and your child will benefit enormously from taking ownership of the process of devising practice strategies and putting them into effect. Besides from increasing your child’s ability, turning practicing into a critical thinking exercise may even give you the added benefit of a more engaged and enthusiastic practicer! Let us know how it goes, and we’d love to hear any other unit practicing tips that work well for your child.