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Go practice: Six tips for kids in the performing arts

I started playing piano at a young age. Much of my experience with practice was positive, and I enjoyed the sense of accomplishment that came with developing new skills. But I remember when I was in college and was practicing more intensely and for longer periods of time. I developed significant pain in my wrist and hand. For a time, this became a real barrier to participating in something I loved.  

When children begin exploring music or dance performance, they are often excited about their involvement in the arts. They enjoy building friendships with those who have similar interests. They experience the thrill of artistic expression.  Sometimes, however, children become frustrated over the slow pace of developing new skills.  Artistic growth can come at a cost. 

Parents often wonder how much time a child should practice. The answer varies, but it may help to keep the overall goals of practice in mind. As parents and educators, we hope to impart a love for music and dance. We also want our children to develop the skills necessary to be engaged in these pursuits. This requires practice. Lots of practice!  Anyone who has learned to play an instrument or spent time in dance knows there are no shortcuts. The trick is learning how to structure practice time in such a way as to make it productive without increasing the risk for pain or injury. I have a few suggestions:

  1. Maintain a positive and enthusiastic attitude about practice. Praise achievements, no matter how small. Help children to recognize that some amount of frustration is inevitable and that all performing artists experience it. Give your child opportunities to hear or watch accomplished performers. They can become inspirations for your child's artistic development.
  2. Work on repertoire or skills that are achievable and realistic. Building skills one step at a time is a fundamental part of artistic development. Trying to tackle projects that are beyond a child's skill set can be frustrating and may increase the risk for injury. On the other hand, children do need to be challenged to stay interested and to feel a sense of accomplishment. Finding the right balance between the two can be difficult, and a good music or dance teacher becomes indispensable in this regard (see the next point!).
  3. Choose music or dance teachers carefully! There is no substitute for an experienced teacher who understands how to inspire children and develop their skills in the arts. Avoid the common pitfall of choosing teachers solely based on their reputations as performers. It is more important to find teachers with solid performance skills who love to teach and who understand important principles of education in the arts. They should also be able to tailor their teaching to your child's individual needs and characteristics. In my experience, these kinds of teachers are hard to find.
  4. Provide regular breaks from practice, every 30-45 minutes. Children's bodies grow until about age 18-20. Their bones, muscles, emotional maturity, thinking skills, and overall coordination develop at widely different rates.  As a result, children's bodies sometimes struggle to keep up with the demands placed on them. Dividing practice time into manageable chunks of time reduces the risk of overuse injuries and helps to manage mental and physical fatigue.
  5. Develop efficient practice habits. Help children get the most out of their practice time. Encourage them to spend less time on musical passages or dance techniques that have already been mastered, and focus on specific areas that are more challenging. A good teacher can help with developing good practice habits.
  6. Be alert to complaints about physical pain. Occasionally feeling sore or stiff after a practice may be OK, but pain that lingers or becomes worse over time needs to be investigated. Begin with a discussion with your child's teacher. If adjustments to repertoire or practice habits are not helpful, then seek out the advice of a medical professional with interest and training in the care of performing artists. 


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