As a public school music supervisor, I saw firsthand the shift in our education system toward an emphasis on “constant student engagement” in the classroom. To this day, there still is this push to keep students busy from the moment class begins to the dismissal bell. Teachers are worried about the possibility of moments where students don’t have something specific to “do” and aren’t producing something concrete — especially when a supervisor walks in.
Ultimately, there is a huge problem with this education model. Schools have become too concerned with the business of keeping students busy and labeling it “engagement.” In a culture of immediate gratification, smartphones, social media, and streaming everything, I believe we are perpetuating a fast pace of life that will prevent our children from thinking slowly and critically, and hinder their ability to think and reflect independently on any topic. Students expect to be put to work at every moment, and don’t get used to what it really takes to learn something challenging. Even homework is an exercise in multi-tasking alongside listening to music, watching TV, and streaming shows.
Often it takes silent effort, reflection and mindful thought to truly learn something — habits of mind that are difficult to qualify as “engagement” on an observation report or a report card.
Luckily for schools and the communities they serve, musical instrument instruction provides students the time and space to devote themselves completely to the study and understanding of one specific thing. In order to improve on an instrument, students (and parents) must carve out time each day for solitude —something that is definitely becoming a lost art in our culture.
The constant connection that technology provides makes it even harder for children (and their parents) to spend time completely alone. The thought of going into a room all by themselves is enough to prevent a child from practicing altogether, yet the importance of overcoming distractions through concentration and even separation may be the most important skill they can learn in school.
Here are a few ways parents and teachers can build their students’ tolerance for solitude through music instruction:
Make sure students have a clear goal for each practice session. Solitude without a purpose slowly kills creativity, especially in young people. No one wants to sit alone and work all by themselves without a reason to deal with the initial discomfort that comes with it. Students should start with one goal and put a timestamp on it — and teachers should be clear with their goals for each student. For instance, a teacher can assign 4 measures of an etude at a specific tempo for the week; each evening the child’s goal could be to work it up to X tempo in X number of minutes.
Slowly build up tolerance for solitude. Depending on the person, one minute may be the threshold for sitting alone on the first day they try it. But they can work up to two minutes the next day, then three, and so on. Anyone can handle one minute of alone time — an instrument can be put together and cleaned; music can be perused and listened to, etc. Children should work up to ten minutes a day of practicing in solitude, then extend it to a new comfortable time. Ten minutes a day of solitude and mindful practice of an instrument will yield amazing results over an extended period of time.
Explain the importance of solitude. Whether you have a child who really is driven at a young age to be great at something or a child who is just starting their musical journey, it’s important to explain that solitude and deliberate practice are absolutely necessary to becoming great at any craft. Solitude is not about being a hermit and avoiding other people — at least not for great lengths of time. But the solitude and concentration applied in music practice is key for musicians to develop their skills and become mindful learners in general. There is no substitute for solitude and spending time alone with things; mindful time spent thinking about concepts and working on a craft with clear and specific goals in mind is the only way to become great at anything.
Interestingly, it is a decrease in external stimuli and an increase in solitude that can facilitate creative play. What initially may seem like “boredom” soon can become a beautiful leap into a child’s inner creative space. When a child can’t watch TV or play video games and isn’t over scheduled by their parents, imagination and creativity takes over — they are capable of dealing with the alone time that it takes to become great. Instrumental music practice creates a bit of this space in every child’s day with help from schools and families.
It is rare to find ourselves alone in this world of constant interconnectedness. Children need more solitude and less external, electronic, and structured adult-world stimulation. That said, solitude should not be confused for being completely alone — we are never lonely when our mind is engaged, and there is much strength that is derived from relying on our own mental resources. Making music instrument practice in solitude a daily part of childrens’ lives will help build strong musical skills, cultivate creativity, and build self-reliance — three priceless gifts that they will treasure forever, whatever field they choose to pursue in life.