How to get your kid (or yourself) to practice, Pt. 1

“Inspiration usually comes during work rather than before it.”  —Madeleine L’Engle

“Not only is practice necessary to art, it is art.” —Stephen Nachmanovitch

So we’ve come to the mid-year doldrums in which getting your kid to practice is harder than making them eat that last bit of eggplant or forcing them through the door at the dentist’s office. Practicing is hard, and if you’ve never taken lessons yourself or practiced an instrument, it’s difficult to empathize with your child. It’s hard not because the material is particularly challenging; it’s hard because you have to schlep over to the piano bench and just sit down when you’d much rather a) take a nap b) play video games c) do the dishes. It’s hard because not only do you have to master your physical body (fingerings, arm movements, hand/eye coordination) but you have to get past internal resistance.

Most kids I know will not voluntarily sit down at their instrument and practice. It takes a little gentle nudging, along with keeping their schedules relatively open and free of too many extracurricular activities. Practicing takes energy and focus, and if your child is stretched too thin they will have neither energy nor focus by the time they are ready to sit down at the piano (or guitar or….).

One question you have to ask yourself is: where does music fit into our lives? If it is number 59 on the list, maybe it’s time to take a break and return to it when there is more free time. If you have decided that music is towards the top of your list, then read on. Here are some suggestions for lighting that practicing fire.

(For the sake of simplification, when I refer to “your child” I’m also taking about “you,” if you’re the one who needs practicing guidance).

1) Form a practicing habit.

You’ve got to build those neural pathways in order to form a habit. In order to lay down those pathways it’s a good idea to practice at the same time and same place everyday. Find a time your child is most awake, when your child’s energy level is high. Maybe it’s in the morning before school or right after dinner. I think for most people, energy usually lags in the afternoon, but if that works for them, then go for it.

Once you have found a time, try the 5-minute trick. Tell your child, “Just play for 5 minutes.” Chances are, once they sit down and start playing, they will continue for longer than 5 minutes. Also, at first don’t press for quality practice within these 5 minutes. They are allowed to sit and make up songs, work out a favorite song by ear, or play avant-garde black key songs with the knuckles. We’re just working on a habit here. Once it’s established, then they can delve more deeply into effective practice.

If they refuse to play for 5 minutes, then just have them sit on the piano bench for a few minutes. That’s all. Just get them there. They can practice John Cage’s 4’33 if they wish. Start with teeny-tiny habits that take practically no effort.

Once they have formed a habit (let’s say, a week of doing the above 5-minute trick), stretch the time to 10 or 15 minutes at the instrument. If your child is between the ages of 5 and 7, I would not make them practice for longer than 15 minutes at a time. Older children (ages 8 and above) can usually handle 20 to 30 minutes at a time. You can also try 2 or more practice sessions per day, at 10-15 minutes each. You need to gauge your child’s energy level, and their developmental ability to sit still for a set period of time. Practicing should not be torture, and if they’re throwing tantrums or excessively whiny after 10 minutes, it’s time to stop (duh).

2) Find motivating materials.

Nothing gets my practice fire burning than watching top-notch musicians on YouTube. Find a video for them to watch that involves a high-quality performance by a young person (or old, doesn’t matter). For guitar inspiration I go back and forth between watching Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Doc Watson, and Mother Maybelle Carter. For piano inspiration I look at Blossom Dearie and Barbara Carroll (for jazz standards). For classical piano I just type in the name of a piece I like and pick my favorite version. It’s a fun way to hear different interpretations of the same piece. For flute I like Robert Dick, Dave Valentin, or that jazz flute scene from Anchorman (it doesn’t have to be real to be inspiring). Also, try watching a performance on an instrument that your child doesn’t play. There are some great accordion videos out there, for example.

Another way to find out what motivates your child is to have them do this exercise from W.A. Mathieu’s The Listening Book (an amazing book, by the way. Read it from cover to cover–you won’t be sorry). By the way this might work better with kids who are older–maybe age 11 or above:

“Imagine yourself ten years into the future, making ideal music under perfect conditions. Allow no boundary to this vision, no editor, and no holding back. Try to capture the character of your future music in your ear, even if the notes are a blur. What is your feeling? What is the quality of the light? Notice who else is listening there with you. When the picture comes into focus, describe it in writing. Tell everything.

“You can test your longing for the dream to come true. Go into the longing and ask: Why can’t I do that now? Zero in on the inside reason. Feel your wanting. What has to happen for you to be that person you see?”

Maybe they could illustrate this ideal music-making daydream through a drawing or collage. Images are powerful. In high school I used to request brochures from college music conservatories and hang those pictures of pianists and flutists in rapture on my wall (y’know, where they look like playing/practicing is the best thing ever right now?).

3) Practicing environment counts.

I’ve had more than a few students complain to me that they can’t practice because the piano or keyboard is in the living room where the TV is, and their mom/dad/brother/sister won’t let them practice because they are watching TV/playing video games. Now whether this was true or a cleverly fabricated excuse for not practicing I’ll never know, but seriously: Put the piano in a room where there is no TV to compete with it. Do you have a spare room with a door? A never-used formal dining room? A large entry way? Be creative with the way you use space. Can the TV be moved to a different room (or thrown out altogether)? Can a lovely full-sized digital piano (complete with headphones) be put into the child’s bedroom or playroom?

I’m also a strong believer in the positive effect a beautiful, clutter-free environment has on our mental state. Would you like to practice in a dark, dank, cluttered room with a poor-quality instrument? No, of course not. I think that’s probably the main reason I didn’t practice much as an undergrad: the practice rooms were tiny cells made up of white cinder blocks with moldy grout and no windows. If you want your child to practice, make the space beautiful, inspiring, and clean, with all the materials they’ll need close at hand. And tune the piano twice a year.

Need inspiration? I’ve been in love with the look of Waldorf classrooms. Notice the silk curtains, wool rugs (think natural materials), plants, clean space, natural light, and lazured walls.

Can you feng shui a music room? Yes.


Stay tuned for Part 2 (there is so much to say on this topic…..).

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