What Walt Disney Can Teach You About Practicing the Violin

Here’s how the young father of a beginning violin student posed his parenting theory to me the other day: “I like my kids to stay busy. I want them to do a lot of things. In fact, my daughter has only enough time to practice for a lesson every other week.”

Beg your pardon, if I don’t agree. “I don’t teach students that way,” I replied, though my real thoughts on the subject ran far deeper. In my view, this parent is a variant of the now famous “Tiger Mom.” In this this case the student is given a quick weekly tour of a half dozen activities. Plus work, plus school. No time to explore anything, no chance to deeply master any one thing.

Are you swatting mosquitoes in mid air?
If you’ve ever tried to knock down a flying mosquito, you’ve discovered that it’s almost impossible. Now that’s how a lot of kids live today. They’re giving a scourge of mosquitoes deal with, and no possible option to pin anything down for even a second.

What Tiger Mom got right
Your kids won’t get any better at music (or anything else) left to their own devices. They need your guidance and support. You and your kids do need to spend a serious amount of time working on the violin to make a serious amount of progress. That’s true for kids that are old enough to practice alone as well as the under 12 crowd that needs your help during practice.

How to “Imagineer” Your Next Practice Session
By nature, both adults and kids tend to pratice using the “swatting mosquitoes” method: you keep swinging until the job is done. But that pesky mosquito always seems to reappear.

It’s a huge mistake to treat practice as a mundane chore, like filling out a sheet of math problems, or mopping the floor. What if it was more like inventing a theme park, or a thrill ride? Actually, it is.

Great practicing, (what most people mistake for “talent”) is the ability to innovate, imagine and create on an ongoing basis. It’s much like the work of Disney and Pixar Imagineers who recently created Cars Land; their active minds transformed a corner of Anaheim into something entirely new, novel and useful.

What a great practice session looks like
Does you child share that frenzied look and feel of a mosquito swatter while he practices? Then he’s not really practicing at all. In fact, he is probably making things worse. In fact, if your kids lack a systematic, thoughtful approach to practicing, you can pretty well bet that their practice is mindless and unhelpful.

Pratice differs for different people. It’s not “paint by the numbers game.” Still these three things will always hold true:

1. There is a “spacious” feeling around the practice session. This is where the real work of practice gets done. It’s where you identify the specific problems and opportunities. It’s where you start to form strategies to make progress. Brainwork must proceed before hand work. You never feel rushed, under pressure, or bored.

2. Great practice is strategic. Tools and tactics are used to streamline work. For example, I teach a “simplification” method that enables you to always achieve meaningful progress, even in a single session.

3. Practice motivation is intrinsic. The work of practice isn’t constantly directed at a particular result, such as an audition or upcoming talent show. Instead the practicer learns to appreciate the value and enjoyment of the practice process. The process feeds upon itself as enjoyment and mastery both continue to increase over time.

More is not better

Tiger parents of any stripe often put their kids at a great disadvantage. While progress can (in the short term) be forced by sheer effort, the quality of resulting work is not high. Basically, great music can’t be “beat” into your mind. It is nurtured over time.

Kids that get shuttled endlessly from one activity to the next never get to enjoy the luxury of a beautiful, creative approach. There’s nothing “spacious” about their practice, or their lives in general. They often grow to hate their music practice.

Invention is the key that unlocks rapid progress, sustained motivation, and excellence

Remember: An Invincible Family jealously protects the practice space. Invincible Parents keep their kids involved in creative, meaningful work, without compulsively pushing ahead at unreachable goals.

Last, but not least, sometimes we forget the value of unstructured down time, with no TV, no computers, no texting. Kids need this, perhaps even more than their parents. Remember the creative power of a walk in the park, a bike ride, or eight hours of sleep!

Novice musicians almost always underestimate the value of creativity and invention in practice. It’s truly the key that unlocks rapid progress, sustained motivation, and excellence in life as well as in music.  Ready to get started? OK, put your mouse ears on!

Extra credit: Famous violinist Nathan Milstein’s creative approach is highlighted in this video. Enjoy!

Bill Alpert

About the Author

Bill Alpert

Bill Alpert is a performer, teacher and author with a unique focus on personal development and mindfulness viewed through the lens of violin study. Mr. Alpert's resume includes recordings, performances and film scores with artists such as The Moody Blues, Pepe Romero, Tina Turner and Johnny Mathis. The co-founder of the award winning Alpert Studio of Voice and Violin in California, he is professionally active in the American String Teachers Association and the Suzuki Association of America.