Posted: 21st May 2020

It is a tricky time for Music and the Performing Arts.  Theatres are shut, concerts have been cancelled, and Leweston’s own beloved Sister Act didn’t get beyond a dress rehearsal.  However, it has also been a time for artistic innovation.  People have been engaging with music from the comfort of their own homes, tuning into the numerous online streamed performances, and joining the various virtual choirs that are on offer.  It is a time for personal music-making and engagement to flourish.

It is also a time when learning to play an instrument has become infinitely more difficult.  Even though platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom have come to the rescue to a certain extent, they are still not able to recreate the interaction of a ‘normal’ teaching environment.  At a time when pupils are not able to see their instrumental teachers in person, it is so important for them to keep practising.  The music exam board, ABRSM, have recently released advice for parents and pupils as to how best to practise at home.  The author of the online article, Paul Harris, suggests that practice should not be seen as a chore but as a ‘place to go’.  A place where learners can explore and experiment and ultimately ‘have fun’.  This is all very well but, if your children are anything like mine, the further we are into lockdown, the more feral they have become.  The lure of Minecraft or the trampoline is far greater than the lure of practising their instrument.  However, in an attempt to overcome that inevitability, here are my four Pertinent Parental Pointers for Pupil Practice:

1.     Little and often – obviously this is dependent on the age of the child, but 10 minutes is better than no minutes at all.  This applies to the piece too.  Maybe focus on 8 bars at a time, rather than trying to play through the whole piece.

2.     They choose the repertoire – exam and other teacher-set pieces are of course important, but if a Disney book, or Ed Sheeran’s Greatest Hits is going to get them playing then go for it!

3.     Bribery – I have found the ‘if you do some practice you can have a bowl of ice cream’ approach is a winner.  My child might be 10 stone by the time he comes out of lockdown, but at least he can still play the piano… and that is where the PE department come in…

4.     Praise and rewards – there might be a very unpleasant noise coming out of your child’s instrument but we all started somewhere.  They have to feel that they are making progress and that you love what they are doing.  Many instrumental teachers use a rewards-based system with their pupils – e.g. 3 good lessons lead to a star, 3 stars lead to a prize.  Perhaps have a practice chart for the week which leads to a treat on Friday.  Ok, we are back to bribery again…

Also remember that you are not alone.  As a School we are offering a number of ways to support pupils in their instrumental learning at this time.  Both the Prep and Senior schools have a daily ‘drop-in’ session, where pupils of different age groups and Grade levels can speak to and play for a member of the Music staff, who will give them feedback and advice on how to progress.  In addition, Senior pupils are able to attend the Music Theory Club and the Composition Club as part of the activities programme.  A number of pupils are engaging with Gareth Malone’s ‘Great British Chorus’ and Eric Whitacre’s ‘Virtual Choir 6’, as well as the BBC’s ‘Lockdown Orchestra’ as a way of continuing to engage with ensemble music-making, which is such a valuable part of learning an instrument.

So, yes, this is a difficult time for music-making, but lockdown is also a great opportunity to do some quality practice, to relish getting to know the instrument, and to engage in some exciting musical challenges.  Enjoy making music, enjoy experimenting with music, and celebrate every small achievement.  In the words of Henry Van Dyke: ‘Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best’.

Dr R. Milestone, Director of Music 

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