“If she doesn’t start playing more I think we’ll just have to stop.”
“I never want to force him to practice, but I do want him to understand you have to work hard to improve.”
“She never practices.”
I’ve been asking myself why, over more than 15 years of teaching music, I hear these (and similar) phrases often… from parents of students who are steadily progressing and clearly enjoying their lessons.
Practice is a hot-button issue, and a cause of no small amount of anxiety for parents and students alike. I’m here to relieve you of a lot of that pressure, and offer some strategies for more joyful playing between lessons.
It is completely normal to struggle with practice
First, finding the motivation to practice is not just a problem kids have. Serious college students working on music degrees struggle to commit to a practice routine.
My wife Kathryn tells the story of hitting a wall working on her masters degree in music. She just struggled immensely to stay motivated and sit down regularly to play. As she tells it, just getting to the instrument is the hardest part.
Break that barrier, and you’re well on your way to success.
Created a dedicated practice space, and maintain it!
Reducing barriers to entry is one of the most important things you can do as a parent. If it’s a hassle in any way to sit down and play the instrument, the chances of that happening are greatly reduced.
Here’s a quick checklist for any student’s practice space:
- It’s an area dedicated solely to making music. It doesn’t have to be a large space, but it should be explicitly for this purpose. A nice setting with natural light is the best, but as long as it’s cozy, comfortable and inviting you’re good to go.
- The instrument is out of its case, ready to be played. It’s in tune (if applicable) and in good playing condition.
- Any accessories are immediately within reach. These include:
- Drum sticks
- Guitar picks
- Music stand
- Music binder/folder
- Computer/Tablet/Music playing device (as needed)
By maintaining an attractive and highly functional play space, you’re setting yourself and your child up for success.
Effortless Mastery and the One Minute “Practice” Routine
Kathryn’s discovery of the book “Effortless Mastery” by Kenny Werner was a breakthrough on her personal journey towards a sustainable practice routine. It’s a powerful study in our very human struggles with habit forming, and specifically musicians’ struggles with practicing.
This philosophy takes a good deal of pressure off practicing. It takes the pressure off of you the parent (or you the student) to “force” practice.
Try this exercise today:
- Set a timer for 1 minute. That’s right. ONE MINUTE.
- Sit with your child at the instrument. Do free play – no rules, no expectations. We are here only to play.
- That’s it! When the timer goes off, you’re free to get up and go.
But here’s the catch: you’ll almost always find that you want to play more. That’s because
it’s the starting that’s hard. For you and your child. So, it doesn’t have to be this mammoth task. Just get started, and once you’re sitting in that beautiful practice space, already playing, you stand a pretty good chance of wanting to continue.
If we’re sitting at the instrument and playing, we’re winning.
Kids and Goal Setting
I’ve never known a student, no matter how serious, for whom practice routines and progress did not come in waves.
Young kids (up to around age 10) don’t yet have the mechanism in their brain that clearly says “I want to get there, so I have to work really hard here to make incremental steps towards my goal.” That’s just not how it works at this age!
This is also why finding 10 different ways of saying “if you want to get better, you have to work at it” hasn’t worked for you yet. It’s not you, and it’s not your child. It’s the human brain. You’re going to have to work with it, not against it.
So keep going back to that one-minute exercise. Make it a regular source of play. It will absolutely become easier and easier to parlay that minute into a few more minutes of your child showing you what they’re working on in their lesson.
Keep repeating that and before you know it you have a child who is regularly playing and happy to show you their progress towards the goals they’ve set with their teacher.
Practice is Play, Play is Practice
This is true at all ages, but it’s particularly important to keep this in mind for the youngest students. I would suggest purging the word “practice” from your vocabulary for awhile. Just substitute the word “play” instead.
It’s a subtle but powerful distinction. This is something we want our children to enjoy and benefit from for many years to come. The key to achieving that goal is understanding and truly embracing, deep inside your own mind, that this is supposed to be fun, and we are at play.
There’s a lot of reasons we sign our children up for music lessons. Here’s a few I hear often:
- “I’d just love for her to be able to play an instrument.”
- “I’d like him to learn how to work for something in a fun way.”
- “It’s an enjoyable way to instill some discipline and structure.”
- “I never learned to play an instrument and I want my kids to have that chance.”
- “It’s such a good way for them to express themselves.”
- “It’s a great social activity.”
In a way quite similar to sports, or theater, or any other activity – there’s a very diverse set of benefits we can imagine as being tied to music lessons. I think it’s absolutely true that music can be a vehicle for all of the above (structure, social engagement, self-expression, etc…)
Just keep one thing in mind: Without the enjoyment of playing, there is approximately zero chance of your child getting deep enough in to experience any of these benefits.
Practice is play. Play is practice. It is the play that confers all potential benefits that exist further down the line.
How do I keep them playing?
- Stay positive, encouraging and interested in their playing. Play with them often. If you have a keyboard, try sitting down together and playing just the white keys, or just the black keys. Play a little table top percussion while she strums a chord on the guitar. Anything goes – it’s your presence and interest that matter.
- Fun comes first. It’s essential that they stay enthusiastic and positive when it comes to music, otherwise they’ll never stick with it long enough to learn.
- Keep the end goal in mind: Music can be an important part of their life forever. You can play a pivotal role in making that happen. You can’t control whether or not they’re going to be professional players or high level performers, but you can be a positive influence by encouraging their play.
Great! How do I stay positive, encouraging and interested?
- Avoid threats, sternness, annoyance. These strategies almost universally backfire. And even when they seem to work, it tends to be a one step forward two steps back scenario.
- When they do play, offer genuine encouragement and show your excitement. “Wow that sounded really beautiful/cool/fun.” “I love hearing you play.” “It’s so nice to have music in the house.” “Thank you for playing some music for us!”
- Be a gentle accountability partner. Do they have a musical goal for the week? Do you know what that is? Ask them how it’s going, and if they can play it for you. Engage with your child’s teacher and be sure to ask how you can support at home.
More practical strategies for encouraging play
Form a play group
Music is a social art form! Is there any opportunity for your child to gather with other kids and play? Get a play group started, because the ability to regularly share your work with your peers is a powerful incentive to keep playing.
Host mini performances
Schedule zoom hangs with grandma or that cool uncle. Put on a weekly living room concert. Kids are typically proud to share their work, and music doesn’t have to be different. Make the act of sharing music feel normal, because it should be!
Every one of us has a high quality recording device in our pocket right now. Cell phone mics are incredible. Open up your voice memos app and try recording your child. I have seen many students become very motivated by this. There’s something so cool about being able to listen back to your own creation.
As students age and progress, there’s multi-track recording options available on desktop and mobile. The ability to create high quality recordings at home is a phenomenal development for the learning musician. Don’t overlook the possibilities here!
Find an Instrument Buddy
Here’s a tip for the youngest students. Try finding a “piano (or insert instrument here) buddy”. This can be a favorite stuffy, or a little friend who lives in the play zone. It’s someone to keep us company as we play, and someone to play for. It’s both extremely sweet, and very effective.
Try different forms of practice
Ideally, your child has more to work on musically than just their instrument. Ear training games and other theory exercises can be a really fun way to shake things up while still working on essential musical skills.
The foremost thought in your mind should be “if we’re playing, we’re winning.” Let that be your mantra. Literally any amount of playing is a victory, and it can and will lead to progress on the instrument. There’s too much hype over “x hours a day” or getting your “10,000 hours” in. This is a creative endeavor, and it’s based entirely on joy, expression and play.
And keep these tips top of mind:
- Maintain a dedicated play area with as little barrier to entry as possible (guitar is on a stand, keyboard is plugged in, music binder is open and ready to go, etc…)
- One minute of free play on a timer is a great place to start, and it’s ok if that’s all that happens for awhile.
- Your interest and involvement is so valuable. When you share your genuine interest, play becomes more joyful. Encourage them to share with you and with others. Make the act of sharing feel normal.
- Stay patient, and try your best to not show frustration or use negative language. It’s counter productive!
Good luck, and have fun making music with your family. May it be a lifelong source of joy, friendship and fun for you and your kids.