My 11,9, and 6 year olds play musical instruments. That amounts to about eight years of wrong notes, mismatched teachers, screaming (mostly by me), and intense (ahem) coaxing. Obviously, it hasn’t been all bad or we would have all quit long ago! These years have presented a real learning curve – for ME. While I don’t pretend to have THE solution for getting kids to practice without nagging, I thought I would share what I have learned along the way.
The goal? No more parents pulling out their hair!
1- Don’t call it “Practice.” This sounds stupid, I know, but I swear it makes a difference. When we ask kids to “practice” it takes away from what the real purpose is: “playing.” What sounds more appealing to you: “It’s time to practice”, or “It’s time to play?”
2- Sit down and talk with kids about short term and long term goals for playing. Short term: What do they hope to achieve in this playing session? Where will they be by the end of the week? Playing the same line in a piece over and over can seem pointless, unless kids are clear that it’s part of the larger goal. Having the kids set goals allows them to take ownership of their time, and most importantly, teaches that they are responsible for their own successes and failures.
3- Let them fail! Some days they don’t play. You’re paying for the lessons, you’re shlepping them in rush hour traffic, so it’s hard not to freak out. As long as this is not happening consistently, IT’S OKAY! Let the teacher deal with it. It’s good for kids to suffer some shame and disappointment in a lesson. When kids hear from the teacher that they’re not doing enough, it has a totally different effect than when it comes from you. They need that experience.
4- Back off! I’m talking to you, parents with a music background. YOU are not the teacher. I know every time they play a B natural instead of a B flat, or just don’t count, it’s all you can do to not scream. I had the habit of breathing down my kids’shoulders (literally) every time. There’s nothing wrong with helping the kids when they ask for it, or with using you musical knowledge to offer some insight. IN MODERATION. If the goal is to encourage kids to love playing music, think about how difficult that is in a high-pressure environment. Admittedly, I’m still working on this, because I can’t help myself. Probably the best thing you can do is model enjoyment of music making. Play your instrument, and listen to music.
5- Play with others and for others. Any opportunity your kids have to play with other kids is golden. I once had a very informal get-together at my house with kids’ friends who play instruments. They played for each other, and fooled around on their instruments together. They were surprised by their friends’ talents, and they got to have fun making music together. The kids also enjoying playing for grandparents, who provide plenty of praise and encouragement. Playing with others and for others counts as some practice time, by the way!
Well, there you have it. Five things I have learned to help me stay sane after years of practice. After many years of making my parents suffer, I still love to play the piano and listen to music. I hope my kids can get to the same place with their parents a little less worn down.
What techniques have worked for you when it comes to encouraging instrument practice?
Here are a few websites to check out for further tips: