Motivating children to practice is a task that likely ranks just a few notches above completing your taxes or sitting through a root-canal. Similar to a new puppy, there is much excitement when your child picks up a new instrument for the first few moments. There might even be excitement after their first lesson, or even weeks of lessons. But then there comes that moment when there is a realization that there is very real work that is potentially repetitious and sometimes about as fun as walking your dog in the rain.
As a music teacher and parent, I really appreciate the challenges that are a part of helping kids establish, maintain a practice schedule along with multiple demands, activities, and distractions. I wish there were simple answers to the issue of practicing. I also wish I could tell you that I was a perfect music parent. But that was not the case. There were many instances where my kid’s found effective ways to stonewall their practicing responsibilities and had an uncanny sense to know my breaking point and successfully avoid their work. Thankfully, several of my adult kids have cultivated some real skills on their chosen instruments. How did this come about? Well, while I can take a little bit of credit for my role as a parent. I still attribute a large segment of their success to the tireless efforts of their school music educators, private teachers, and my kid’s band-mates and even other band parents. It was a group effort so much so that it’s a bit of a mystery to how it all came about. As a result of my own experiences I tend to view music practice and children not as a problem that requires neat, concise solutions. Instead, I view music practice as a process and journey that is, at baseline, a little messy, bumpy, imperfect, and likely to invite conflict between the child and the village of people that care for and educate them. The discipline of practice will get better for kids if their parents are willing to embrace the thankless journey and commit for the long-term as their kids slowly buy into the benefits as they see small improvements in their abilities. My intent is not to offer air-tight answers but rather point you to 5 words related to big-picture concepts that support my thinking about practice. I also will do my best to provide practical ways you can apply these concepts and adapt them so they best suit the unique characteristics and capabilities of your child.
It’s my belief that parents are the best qualified experts when it comes to knowing their child and knowing what might motivate them to engage with practicing. So, feel free to pick and choose from these ideas and simply use what seems to fit your particular child’s temperament, motivation, and learning style.
Consider the big picture. One of the first things parent’s can do is to develop their own wide-angled perspective on their child’s music activities that is integrated with their values and approach to parenting. Why is this important? It is my opinion that your child’s success and motivation with practice is largely tied to how you think about and value their participation in music.
From my 30+ years teaching I have had many opportunities to observe parent’s efforts to manage their student’s practice between lessons. My first takeaway is that most students pay close attention to their parent’s thoughts, values, and approach towards learning a new topic. This transference happens directly through direct parental communication and indirectly through the feelings, choices, and expected actions and non-action students observe of their parents. In short, most of my students (with exceptions) tend to only value practicing only as much as their parents do. My second takeaway is that the more effective efforts to motivate and manage practice are generally always fine-tuned and modified to the unique qualities, temperament, and unique interests of the student. Since parents are the foremost expert on their kids, they can have a sizable impact on their kid’s practice by taking in generalized thoughts on effective practice and modifying them so they can be applied to the needs and interests of their child. So parents, be encouraged! You have an opportunity to be an influencer and set the tone for how you would like your child to think about and follow through on practicing between lessons.
The first place you can start is to formulate a rough idea of what outcomes you would like to see as a direct result of your investment in music lessons. What types of experiences or accomplishments do you want for your child as they participate in music through their primary school years? I also would encourage you to take time to personally determine how much value you place on your child’s music pursuits in relation to their other academic and extra-curricular activities.
How does music fit into the hierarchy of tasks and learning subjects that constitutes your child’s weekly “workload”? Or is music something that is an activity that is an enjoyable hobby that gives your child a break from more demanding activities?
Do you view your child’s music practice in the same light as their other school subjects or sports activities? Knowing this will allow you to put your child’s music activities in a proper context in relation to the fabric of their weekly routines. Your child will definitely be looking to you for guidance and will definitely pick up on how you view and value music.
Here are a few more sub-topics to think about when crafting a medium-range vision for how you want your kids to engage with practicing music:
Set your expectations by conducting your own internal cost vs. benefit analysis. Determine your own expectations for your child’s practice and how your child’s willingness or resistance to them will impact your willingness to finance lessons. If appropriate, voice those to your child. I have found that children seem to respond very well to very concrete and precise practice responsibilities. Also, I do feel that these expectations need to be realistic and based upon how long they can realistically focus on an activity. I tend to favor quality over quantity with practicing. I have seen great results from students who were able to pick up their instruments for 10 minutes a day.
What is more important to you?
Ask yourself if you’re willing to support lessons to simply provide an enrichment experience for your child or if you also have progress benchmarks that you’re expecting for your child to work towards. Knowing this will help you and your child set the tone for how you choose to enforce the expectations on your child regarding their practice. Student Responsibility Define and think about your role and responsibility with managing your child’s music efforts. Do your best to determine what responsibilities your child should begin to carry as they study music. Quite literally, the first thing they should be carrying is their own instrument to and from lessons. Keep your eyes open for opportunities to hand more responsibilities to them as appropriate for their age and abilities.
Trust your parenting instincts and what you best understand about your child when it comes to having them engage with a new learning subject. See if you can extrapolate those experiences and apply any of their successes to practicing. Your child’s music teacher may know a great deal about music and being an educator but they still do not know your child as well as you do. I feel that music educators who remain open to parental insights will have a much chance of “reaching” your child and help them cultivate an intrinsic interest in practicing and playing music.
I think it’s very helpful for parent’s to view themselves more as mid-level managers who hire professionals to complete a specific project. The manager is completely invested in the project but only indirectly and likely as part of a team. When my own children started taking lessons I felt a great deal of pressure to micro-manage my child’s music practice efforts. This didn’t last too long because my kids pushed back a bit. What I came to realize was even though I taught music, my own kids still regarded their music teachers as the authority on their particular instrument of study. I eventually realized that my kid’s success wasn’t entirely carried by me but I was working in tandem with their teacher. This took a great deal of pressure off of me. It also allowed me to ask the question, “What did you teacher have to say about what you should be practicing this week?”
In order for practice to happen consistently your child needs to view music practice in very concrete terms that they can understand and recognize. Think of music practice as a cerebral concept that, in your child’s mind, does not even exist until you find a concrete way to make it real to them. Like a new coat It needs a coat-hook to hang on. Or as a new shirt, it needs a drawer to be stored in so your child can use it. Practicing music will become much more real and important to your child if they can see it inhabits both a space and a time-frame in the context of their family and school routine. Here are a several ways you can help make practice real and literally “bring it home” to your child. Designate a place for practice
Once you’ve established a time with your child write this time down in their daily schedule, a family calendar, or through another means that will capture your child’s attention. Also, I would recommend using a written/visual practice agenda that is posted in child’s designated practice space. I used to tape and print my routine on my music stand). You could even make it a routine to have your child write a list of what he needs to work on and have him post it on his music stand. A good example of this is the Weekly Lesson Objectives document I use with each of my students. Take a look at this document. You will see that I list all topics that students should work on in the right column. I provide additional notes and specific instructions on the right column. My simple intent is to create a visual agenda that my students can then work through for every practice session.
Choose an amount of practice time that is age-appropriate and effectively captures your child’s ability to focus on practice. Rule of Thumb: Start with the same number of minutes as your child’s age (A 7-yr-old = 7 minutes of practice). Your initial goal is more about the routine than the set number of minutes they practice. See if you can gradually increase that time-frame. Also, It’s perfectly acceptable to break that practice time into smaller chunks as needed. Unstructured Practice Do allow for some part of your child’s practice to be unstructured so they have an opportunity for “free-play” and discovery learning. Kids who are given a little time to safely “experiment” the possibilities of their instrument feel relaxed and likely will focus their attention to the “must-do” items on their weekly practice list.
Do present the opportunity for your child to generate their own creative ideas on how to approach practice. Give them the opportunity to try these ideas and even fail. Focus on what worked well and build upon that and don’t waste too much time on fixing what didn’t go so well. Rewards? Consider setting up a reward system for your child’s practice efforts. Shoot for small, realistic, and achievable rewards that are concretely and consistent. Some kids really thrive with a chore chart and seeing a visual chart of their progress while other’s may not. I have used stickers for some of my younger students and they love the predictability of picking out a sticker as a result of their accomplishments and follow through with practice. Taking breaks helps kids re-focus. Encourage your child to take intentional breaks during his practice time to refocus. I have found that many students will use connecting or conversation to help re-calibrate their focus. So don’t be too concerned if your child needs a few minutes talking about topics completely unrelated to music after they have completed a task. Some students need to physically stand up and move after sitting to reset their attention.
My own parenting perspective favors natural outcomes over direct punishment when kid’s don’t or will not follow through on their responsibilities. So, I might recommend that you place an expectation that music practice is a prerequisite for your child being able to engage in “fun” activities or engagement with media. “Sure! You can play video games once you’ve finished practicing. “
Model the importance of being an engaged audience member. Take note of the music or performance aspects of concerts you attend and bring them up for conversation with your child. Also, If attending live performances is not a viable option consider viewing music performance videos on Youtube or other streaming services and then take time to talk about the experience. Keep the time-frame of this activity in line with your child’s ability to engage. Your child’s teacher may have some really good ideas and suggestions for artists and performances that you could experience along with your child. Presence: An underutilized parent super-power. The simple act of being physically present during your child’s practice session sends a very powerful message. It ultimately says, “This activity is important and your efforts in this moment carry tremendous value.” It also says, “You are important.” Your children might not let on, but they are very much aware of when you are really present and when you are tuning out. You essentially are assigning value to their work. They in turn, will likely internalize that same value of practicing in due time. Being present will look different for each parent/child. It might require your undivided attention for some of the practice session. Or it might just simply be you listening to them from another room in earshot.
Be present during your child’s practice to the extent that it’s helpful. Some children seem to do better when they don’t have to practice alone. They are fueled by the social support and presence of their parents. Other students may prefer to be more independent and may decline your offer to sit-in on their practice. Respect their choice while seeing if you can strike up an arrangement that works for both of you. Some of my students have preferred to practice behind closed doors. Their parents then will listen outside or in the house and later ask them about what they worked on. Resist giving unsolicited corrective feedback. Avoid unsolicited, real-time critique of your child’s efforts during practice unless they have asked for your feedback. Resist the urge to voice your own ideas/expectations when your child is making “mistakes”. Take note of your observation and bring it to your child’s teacher. They can then decide if that particular issue warrants timely attention. Use descriptive praise Whenever possible, Reflect and describe positive observations on your child’s successes. But do this in measured doses as a little goes a long way. Don’t just say “Good Job” but describe something specific that they did. I find this to be very effective with my students with regards to shaping technique. For example, I might tell a student “I really like the way you are keeping your wrist straight while holding your guitar neck”. Listen Listen/attend to the issues/challenges your child encounters with lessons. Providing an empathetic ear to your child and reflecting back their thoughts and feelings can really help alleviate some of the frustration that they encounter with learning something new. If your child is feeling frustrated with a particular piece you have an opportunity to help listen to them and move towards normalizing challenges as a regular part of their learning.
Resisting practice is a pastime that is enjoyed by professional music teachers and their students. All of us run out of excitement with playing scales, exercises, and the same songs over and over again. So, expect your child to eventually have that moment where the beauty of playing music begins to fade. I think it’s helpful to explain to them that this is normal for anyone taking up a new instrument. That even music teachers sometimes don’t feel like practicing. Look for similar examples in your own life that you can share with your child. Sometimes children just need the opportunity to just voice how they feel and be listened to.
Utilize the time-approved time out. Yes, it’s frustrating when a child or a music student is pushing against practicing or working in their lesson. My best advice: Avoid temper tantrums and give yourself a time-out if you are starting to feel frustrated. Try your best to separate your negative emotions from the practice environment. It’s in your child’s best interests if their practice space is a “conflict-free” zone and a safe space for them to inhabit. Avoid a battle of the wills if at all possible. Very Important: Avoid a battle of the wills over practice at all costs. Gently backpedal when this occurs so you can pause to take an inventory of what didn’t work and develop a different approach. If you win this battle it’s very likely that both you, and more importantly, your child will lose. If your child is really putting up a strong resistance to practicing take some necessary time to pause, breathe, and then look for a time when both you and the child are less emotionally engaged.
My children and many of my students are simply brilliant in their attempts to talk their way out of practicing. Their strategy is simple: Keep talking so I don’t have to actually practice. They will attempt to shut down their practice session by providing you with a very long list of reasons and arguments why they can’t practice today. Or, they will simply distract by talking about anything else except their work before them. My best advice for this is to validate your child’s objection and then create your own catch phrase that you can use to help redirect your child to their task at hand. Consistently repeat your phrase to the extent that it elicits eye-rolling from your child. Then direct your child to carry out a specific task in their practice routine.
Student: “I don’t feel like practicing because I’m tired and it’s raining outside!” Billy Thorton made me mad and..” Parent: “You sound tired and mad!” “But, it’s practice time now.” “Remember, more notes, less talking!” So, get started by picking up your guitar.”
Student: “Did you know that 23 dogs live in my neighborhood?” Teacher: “Wow! 23 dogs!” “Let’s practice now, and talk later.” “Play measure 13 one more time please.”
Tune-In. Take time to understand WHY your child might be resisting practicing.
Could it be because of fatigue, time-of-day, other factors. If appropriate, ask them put don’t push them if they can’t or refuse to articulate a reason behind their “NO”. Ask reflective questions. Use this conflict as an opportunity for dialogue: Ask them what they think would be helpful to motivate them to practice. Soliciting their own input is a good first step to giving them measured ownership of their resistance. Plus, your child might be more inclined to follow through on practice if he’s allowed to utilize his creativity. Review your expectations If you and your child are really at an impasse about practicing see if you can find an ideal time outside of the direct conflict to discuss your expectations about practice. If your child is really pushing back definitely consider taking a brief “pause” from lessons. If you do choose to take a break from lessons be sure to avoid shaming the child but look for a non-threatening way to provide a cause/effect reason behind your decision. Consider presenting your child with a conditional option to resume lessons in the future. As a teacher I feel that taking an intentional break from lessons will not harm your child nor result in them never playing music again. If they are between the ages of 7-12 they will have plenty of opportunities to resume lessons when they are a bit older.
Maintain openness and a growth mindset regarding your child’s practice.
I am still learning about how to best serve my students when it comes to helping them cultivate an intrinsic investment towards maintaining a regular practice routine. In fact, my student’s are very much like moving targets. Once I think I’ve figured out a way to motivate them the law of diminishing returns sets in and they no longer positively respond to it. So, I have to keep an open mind and creatively generate as many options and ideas that will keep lessons engaging for each of my students. In a similar fashion, continue to be an ongoing student of your child and maintain an ongoing curiosity for new ideas and insights that meet your kids where they are at. I would also encourage you to be willing to routinely evaluate and adjust your expectations around the needs of your child. Take time to research and learn about the developmental and social markers relevant to your child’s age. This will help you feel a bit more relaxed with how your child approaches learning music. Don’t overlook small accomplishments Don’t overlook small amounts of practice or small accomplishments. Anytime your child has the instrument in his hands is a success. So if your 8-year-old insists on only practicing his one favorite song over and over in his practice still consider that a success. Or if your child does pick up his instrument for only 8-10 minutes a day but does it faithfully he definitely has a future. I’m still amazed with some of my students ability to keep growing even with a minimal but steady routine of practice. As they get older they likely will be able to increase their time and effectiveness on an exponential basis.
Thank you for taking the time to read my article and make an effort, despite your demanding schedule as a parent, to formulate your perspective on music practice. We viewed motivating and supporting your child’s efforts by developing perspective, considering practical accommodations, looking for inspiration, being present, and thinking of ways we can address our child’s resistance to practice. Have thoughts/questions about your student’s practice?
Please contact me. I would love to hear from you. I would be interested to hear your experiences with your child’s practice both the successes and failures. Also, Please share any additional ideas or resources that you have found particularly helpful and might benefit both educators and other parents! We are all in this together.