I recently received an excellent question from a reader that I'd like to share with everyone.
When & how do you start teaching students a structured practice schedule that includes the 'professional patterns' of spending lots of time on scales/tone and then smaller time on etudes & repertoire? Do you have any tips for visual organizers for this practice time?
The key to making the shift into the "professional patterns" that you mention is in the maturity level of your student. Whatever age they are, they have to be able to understand why scales and tone are important or they won't have much desire to work on them. I touched on this in my recent guest blog post for My Town Tutors; if you can help your students understand that learning scales is a shortcut to learning pieces quickly, they will be more willing to devote time to practicing them. Most of the time, this ability to understand that most pieces are made up of scales and scale patterns develops during middle school. Take a piece your student is working on and point out all the stepwise motion in it; explain that those passages are smaller chunks of scales, and that once you know a particular scale, any piece that uses it will be much easier right off the bat. I tell my younger students who are just learning about this concept that it's like a "cheat code" for their music.
When it comes to tone, I find that it depends less on the age of the student than on the number of years they have been playing their instrument. I work with a 7th grader who has been playing for nearly five years who has an amazing grasp of timbre, but someone older with less experience might not have that same command because they haven't spent as much time building that level of control over the instrument. In the case of flute in particular, it depends on how developed the student's awareness of their facial muscles is; the adjustments needed to change the tone color happen in the muscles surrounding the lips, cheeks, and jaw, and the movements needed are incredibly small.
The ability to do detailed work on tone is also affected by the quality of a student's instrument. If they are struggling to get a good sound on a beginner model that is built to survive rather than to sound beautiful, your students will always chafe against tone work because they won't be able to hear any progress.
I start tone development simply; we ease into it by gaining a good spectrum of dynamics first. This helps the student understand that there is more than one way to play a particular pitch, but it's still fairly basic and easy to comprehend. Only when a student has a good command of dynamics would I move on to examine tone, because most of the time if someone cannot control how loud or soft they play, their ear will not be developed enough to notice what is happening with timbre and intonation anyway.
Once your student understands the value of scales and tone work in their practice, keeping a written log is a good way to make sure the distribution of time is appropriate. I would encourage both daily and weekly practice note-taking in your students. You can find a printable daily practice log here, and the sample chapter of my workbook includes a weekly practice sheet example. Daily notes are good for recording the specific ideas and areas your students practice, while weekly logs are more suited for making sure they cover everything on their to-do list over the course of the week.
Thanks for your question, Rebecca!