It’s the question teachers get asked the most: “How do I get the kids to practice?”.
More often than not, it is not the practice that children hate, it is the negative associations that come with practice. These negative associations often come from the notion that in order for music lessons to be a success, students need to contribute long hours of methodical practice in order to reach a certain goal. Whilst placing goals are important, let’s not forget that if practice and ‘the journey’ are not enjoyable it is likely that your child will be give up on themselves long before the destination is even realised.
As you know full well, your musical child often suffers from a lack of motivation. This may be the result of an unmotivated teacher, your child’s lack of understanding on knowing how or what to practice. Perhaps your child is even learning the wrong instrument. If you are having trouble motivating your child to practice I want to encourage you to try and focus on the musicality, creativity and imagination that should be at the foundation of their practice. By making practice creative, I believe you will start to see your young musician running to their instrument, not from it.
It starts with redefining what we think practice is or needs to be.
What if we rewire a few things and define practice with the following phrases:
Learn music by playing.
Learn music by creating.
Learn music by listening.
Learn music by watching.
Learn music by inventing.
Learn music by exploring.
Learn music by experiencing.
Now we have made ‘learn music by practicing’ a little more multi-dimensional. You would also agree that these definitions are a little more appealing to most young musicians.
The thing is, there are always two approaches used to get a young musician motivated. Are students practicing because they have to or because they want to? When children are inspired, practice becomes play. When they are released to explore, discover and create, students will find a unique connection with their instrument which will drive them to it naturally. Also, when we empower students by giving them license to contribute to their practice routine, the energy to practice is fuelled by their ambition, not yours. In my experience I have seen that students are more likely to complete goals they have helped create. After all, music in its truest form is about finding ones own path through individual expression.
The problem is not the expectations parents place on young musicians, it is about how they go about meeting these expectations. Because music lessons can be an expensive and time consuming investment, parents (and teachers) find themselves pushing and pushing to achieve something. Unfortunately the striving mentality is what can make practice rigid, staunch and unenjoyable for a young musician. Sadly, it often results in a child quitting music all together.
Thumbs up though! There are answers and tools that can help. Lets look at how we can bring a fresh and motivating edge to your child’s practice.
Help Your Child See the Benefits in Music.
Parents and teachers should help students find the ‘WHY’ in their music pursuit. Ask your child why they want to do music. Ask them what they want to achieve. The benefits they suggest may be personal, social, emotional, creative, competitive or a combination of these. It is important that you not only help your child locate which kind of benefits they value but also that you help them experience these benefits as regularly as possible.
Use Motivational Language.
Because the word ‘practice’ often has negative connotations, using sentences like “It is time to PLAY the piano now” can help get a practice session off on the right foot. Especially with younger musicians, the hardest part is getting them to their instrument. Once they are there they generally stay for a while. Using playful and motivational language will make a huge difference in getting them over the line. Positive reenforcement is also key. Commend them when they achieve a personal best, even if it does not compare to others personal bests. Remember, there is always room for correction but there is never room for criticism.
Bring Context to Practice.
A lot of students don’t know where their music fits in the bigger picture. We invite all of our students to get involved in Music Central Weekend Band Practices and our Holiday Music Camps for this reason. We want them to find their place both socially and musically. Perhaps while practicing during the week, do some role play and help your child pretend they are performing at the Royal Albert Hall, in front of the Queen or at Wembley Stadium. You might want to create a mock exam environment where you pretend to be the examiner. This is a great way of making the practice room more enjoyable in the lead up to exams. Attending concerts and youth music events also brings context and helps motivate musical kids. If appropriate, placing posters or pictures of famous musicians or composers is a simple way to create a motivating practice environment.
Develop Your Child’s Independence.
It is important to give your child the sense that they are at the wheel. Ask them to assist you with creating a fun practice schedule or weekly target. On our music camps we get the children to teach each other. Students are empowered when they teach others, so asking them to teach you something from time to time can be very motivating for them. When appropriate, teachers and parents can allow students to help choose the songs they learn. This not only gives them the opportunity to learn the music they love but also develops key decision-making skills. Rewarding your child when they show initiative and motivation lets them know that exploring music at their own will is a good thing.
Let Your Child See Their Progress.
We all love to see our progress. Like the renovation shows we see on television we love to see the before and after photos. Keep music certificates in view. Be diligent with sitting them down and reading through their Music Central End of Term Student Reports with them. You may want to encourage them to return to the books they used to find difficult and show them how easy they are to play now. Is your teacher writing down clear objectives in your child’s practice pad that both you and your child understand? Some teachers indicate how many times they want a song or scale to be practiced before the next lesson. Especially for the younger children, a tally box for these tasks is useful so that teachers and parents can monitor the progress on the page. Rewarding your child for meeting their tally box objectives will help them see that they are progressing and improving.
Add Structure to Your Child’s Practice.
Music practice does not always have to be at the instrument. It is a good habit to make practice consist of two or three individual segments. They don’t all need to be at the instrument. Sometimes starting a practice session with a fun music theory book at the kitchen table can be a refreshing change. Music games, iPad music videos and other warm ups are also a great way to get your child into music mode. Try to make practice sessions regular, even if they are shorter in length. Practicing once during the week for two hours for example doesn’t develop strong muscle memory or consistency in your child’s playing.
Find the Right Teacher.
One of the best ways in deciding what instrument your child SHOULD play is finding out what instrument they WANT to play. Following this, finding the right teacher will make or break the whole experience. Don’t be afraid to try a new teacher if your child isn’t connecting. The best teachers are usually the ones who not only teach but know how to be a good friend and mentor to your child. Finding a musical mentor is not an easy task. If your child connects with their teacher in the right way they will naturally aspire to be like their teacher, trust their teachers advice and endeavour to make their teacher proud.
Make the Practice Environment Inviting.
Creating a cozy practice environment will also motivate your child to practice. Are they separate enough from the noise and chaos happening in the rest of the house without feeling like they are locked away in a distant room? Is the lighting optimised and are all the required tools within their reach? Is the temperature of the room inviting? Paying attention to these small things can make practice time a totally different experience for the whole family.
I hope you are able to practically implement some of these ideas to help get your child motivated. By making practice more creative I believe you will see that it can be enjoyed not endured. We all want our young musicians to find enjoyment in playing their instrument into their adulthood. Joy awaits in the destination but let’s start by trying to enjoy the journey. Perhaps, instead of just asking students what they want to do when they are older we should be asking them what they want to do now!