How to get your kid to practice, Pt. 2

So, we’ve got:

1) Form a practicing habit.

2) Find motivating materials.

3) Practicing environment counts.

Now on to :

4) Work through resistance.

When I lived in Oregon about ten years ago, I had a jazz saxophone player friend who told me, “I practice everyday whether I want to or not.” Wow. This is the secret to practicing, folks. Seriously. Chances are, when your children start music lessons, the newness of the instrument and new books will keep them going for a few weeks. After about a month their practicing zest might start to lag. If you can help them get past their initial resistance (because, like Madeleine L’Engle says, “Inspiration usually comes during work, rather than before it.”), you and they will have mastered the most important lesson of music lessons (or homework, or soccer practice, or just about anything).

So, what helps with resistance? Try these things:

*Start with a ritual.

Maybe you (or your child) could light a candle and set a prayer/intention for the practice. Maybe they could open the piano lid and dust the keys, or polish the flute. Maybe they could do a silly dance, or put on a funny hat. Maybe there is a secret handshake for practicing time. Feel free to be creative/silly with this one.

*Start with music that is easy and fun, then move onto something more challenging.

After performing the above ritual, instead of diving into the lesson book or a difficult measure of repertoire, have them improvise. I usually give improv assignments each week, so they can do those exercises or make up their own song or piece of sound art. It doesn’t have to sound pretty. The idea is to get their hands on the keys, playing something. They could make up a story and illustrate it with sound as they tell the story out loud. They could make up a little tune in a 5-finger position. They could make up a song made up entirely of 2nds, or 3rds, or other intervals. They could make up a melody or melodic motif based on a scale. They could play key clusters with their elbows.

The key word here is process. The idea of starting a task with something pleasurable where you’re not worried about the outcome, comes from a great book called Around the Writer’s Block, by Rosanne Bane. This is a terrific book for working through resistance in any kind of art, not just writing. She suggests you start with 15 minutes of a process activity (i.e. free play)  and then follow that with 15 minutes of product activity.

Product activity is where your child focuses on their assignment: working through a page of their lesson books, doing a theory assignment, practicing 2 difficult measures in a piece of repertoire, etc. Feel free to tweak the times for process and product. For example, for an 8-year-old, I might have them do about 5-10 minutes of process time, and 10-15 minutes of product time.

After they’ve spent some time engaged in product time, then they are allowed to take a break and reward themselves. Now, I’m not usually one for external rewards, because I think it kills intrinsic motivation; however, a pat on the back, a round of applause,  a piece of chocolate, or a sparkly sticker would probably be alright. You have to try different things and see what works for your family. Make the reward small and surprising. I would not rely entirely on rewards by saying, “If you practice then I will take you out for ice cream.” This is bad because we want them to like practicing and music for its own sake, not for the shiny reward at the end.

*Don’t break the chain.

This is a good one that I just discovered through Austin Kleon’s book, Steal Like an Artist. Get a calendar that fits into a 3-ring binder, or hang a calendar on the wall in the practice room. When they finish a practice session for the day, they can mark an ‘X’ inside the box for that day. When they do this day after day, a chain of X’s will appear. Try not to break the chain.

5) Keep a logbook.

I love this idea from Making Music for the Joy of it by Stephanie Judy. Buy a 3-ring binder, and divide it into these sections: daily log (jot down what and how long you or your child practiced), short-term goals (i.e. the goals for that practice session or for the week), long-term goals (“When I’m 25 I want to be able to….”), repertoire learned (this is great for motivation–for them to see what they can play well already), a calendar (for the chain; for jotting down upcoming concerts, recitals, events), music assignments, and a journal (“Today I felt frustrated while practicing because….” or “Today I had fun practicing because….”).

Then your child can decorate the binder with stickers, puffy paint, markers, and/or a collage.

6) Set up opportunities to play for people/share your music with others.

I’m not talking about endless competitions, adjudications, or formal recitals here. Personally I think these activities stress most kids out, and I don’t want them to be on an adrenaline rush for a year straight. Think instead of setting up informal opportunities for your child to play for others. Many assisted living centers, nursing homes, and hospitals have pianos and welcome intermediate (and even beginning)-level players. Set up an informal “recital” in your living room for family and friends. Host a monthly musical salon or folk music jam session in your home, where both adults and kids play for each other and together. Invite a couple friends over for tea and play for them. Have your child teach an improvised duet to their siblings, friends, or other family members (I usually show them how to do this in lessons).

Be kind about this one. Don’t make your child play on-the-spot, without warning, for company. Remember, they are not performing chimpanzees.

7) Think of practice in the Eastern sense, not the Western. In other words, don’t say “Practice makes perfect.”

From Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovich:

“Our stereotypical formula, ‘practice makes perfect,’ carries with it some subtle and serious problems. We think of practice as an activity done in a special context to prepare for performance or the ‘real thing.’ But if we split practice from the real thing, neither one of them will be very real. Through this split, many children have been irrevocably taught to hate the piano or violin or music itself by the pedantic drill of oppressively boring exercises…..

“The Western idea of practice is to acquire a skill. It is very much related to our work ethic, which enjoins us to endure struggle or boredom now in return for future rewards. The Eastern idea of practice, on the other hand, is to create the person, or rather to actualize or reveal the complete person who is already there. This is not practice for something, but complete practice, which suffices unto itself.

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

And to this I would add: don’t put too much pressure on your kid during practice. Practice should be fun and engaging. Sure, it takes mental and physical energy, but it’s a positive sort of energy. You should feel good when you’re done, not upset and in tears.

Finally, if none of these suggestions work it’s time to reevaluate. Ask yourself: why is my child in lessons right now? Is it because I feel outside pressure to take music lessons? Is it because I’ve read that music makes them smarter? Is it because I always wished I would have kept up with lessons as a child?

If your answer is anything but “…..because my child loves music; or loves the piano, or guitar, or flute,” then maybe you need to pull your child out of lessons at this time. Forcing them to do something they don’t want to do will probably backfire on them in the long run. They may end up hating music, or their instrument.

A better solution would be for you, the parent, to take lessons instead and to demonstrate live music-making at home. Then your child will learn naturally, through imitation, if that is what they wish to do.

1 thought on “How to get your kid to practice, Pt. 2

  1. Making practice fun with educational games is a great way to get your child to enjoy practice, and therefore do it more. I have found that it brings about a great deal of success.

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