SHOULD I FORCE MY KIDS TO PRACTICE?

The short answer to this question is “yes.”  

Before I discuss the reasons why we should make children practice, let me deal with one of the main reasons that we might not want to.  I talk to many parents who had negative experiences playing an instrument as a child.  Their parents made them practice and they remember that experience with dread.  These parents, rightfully, want something different for their own children.  They want their children to love music, and they fear that forcing their kids to practice will extinguish any joy that their kids might feel in connection with an instrument or with music in general.  This is a very legitimate concern.  

Having said that, I think it goes without saying that children need to practice their instrument.  Without regular practice, there is no improvement.  Music lessons then become a waste of time and a waste of money.  So, the question above should be reframed.  Rather than asking if we should force our kids to practice, we should be asking how we can encourage our kids to practice.  It’s also important to ask why kids might be resistant to practicing.  Some children will simply go to their instrument on their own.  They are inspired by the challenge of playing and want to improve.  However, these kids are in the minority (by a large margin).  Most children will not approach the instrument of their own volition any more than they will voluntarily cook dinner or brush their own teeth.  Even the inspired child will go through  periods of low motivation.  All of this is totally normal.  

As parents, it’s important for us to remember that children tend not to think far into the future.  They live in the moment (something we should all probably do more of!).  Making music is an experience that can bring a person a great sense of joy and fulfillment, but joy and fulfillment are not the same as fun.  It might be more fun right now to play video games or watch TV, but it’s our job to understand that our kids are not going to wake up one morning a decade from now and feel a great sense of fulfillment and self-worth because they beat all four versions of Halo.  They will, on the other hand, feel deeply grateful to be a great pianist.  They don’t understand the ramifications of that sort of long-term thinking, but that’s why they have us.  It’s our job to teach this to them and having them learn an instrument is a great way to do that.  

So, how can you motivate your kids to practice?  Here are some options:

Choose the right instruction.  Traditional music lessons often focus on a fairly narrow spectrum of musical skills: primarily instrumental technique and reading music.  The process of playing an instrument then becomes a process of moving through a method book and learning to decode the notes on the page.  This approach has a very long learning curve.  The earliest pieces are necessarily very simple and thus not very exciting.  Alternatively, even fairly young students are able to handle many aspects of broader musicianship, like learning chords, improvising, composing, and even delving into aspects of music theory, which allows them to understand why a piece sounds the way it does.  Those activities, in combination with the aspects of traditional instrumental study, create a holistic program that is much more exciting and motivating.  

Take a genuine interest.  Ask them what they’ve been doing in their lessons and let it start a conversation.  Ask them: What’s the best thing you learned?  Is it hard to do?  Do you like that piece of music?  Why/Why not?  Listen closely to the answers, and don’t be afraid to share that feedback with your child’s teacher.  Every child is unique and it’s very helpful for teachers to know what’s working and what’s not working for a particular child.

Don’t call it practicing.  We are all guilty of calling it practicing (myself included), but I try often to tell my students instead to play their instrument every day.  If they come to think of their daily interaction with the instrument as playing, learning, exploration, discovery, and creation, they are much more likely to maintain a positive attitude about the whole experience.  

Sit down with them and their instrument.  Ask your kids to show you what they’ve learned.  Or, ask them to teach it to you.  Actively engaging with your kids at the outset of their practice is a great way to get them started for the day.  Once they’re engaged with the instrument, they’ll often continue to play even after you’ve left the room.  This is far more effective than just telling them to “go practice.”

Have realistic expectations.  Many parents have said to me things like “He’s not practicing.”  The underlying expectation is often that I will be able to do or say something that will get their child to practice.  A teacher can certainly talk to a student to try to diagnose the reasons why they aren’t practicing and then adjust accordingly.  However, no teacher can do in a weekly 30-minute session what a parent can do with daily contact.  Starting a conversation with a teacher is an important component of solving the problem, but it’s crucial to understand that an engaged parent is far more effective than a motivating teacher.

Listen to music with your kids often – in the car, around the house, wherever.  If your kids see that you value music, they will value it, too.  More importantly, if they don’t see that you value it, they will have no reason to.  

Encourage their effort.  Studies have shown that encouraging effort is far more effective than telling kids that they’ve done well.  Kids are often more savvy than we give them credit for.  If we tell them that something sounds good even when it doesn’t sound good to them, it undermines our credibility as parents and educators.  Then our encouraging words ring hollow in the future.  Rather, encourage their efforts.  When children work hard, it’s important that they know that you’ve noticed.  It’s also extremely important as they pursue a long-term goal.  It might take a long time for them to sound good while playing, but they can make an effort from the outset and that can be encouraged in an honest way.  It’s also important to remember that lessons happen weekly, but not all pieces of music can be conquered in a week.  Children who understand that their hard work this week is part of a long-term process that will pay off four or five weeks from now will have learned an extremely valuable lesson in life.  

The most important thing to keep in mind is that communication is the key.  Communicate often with your kids and with their teacher.  The sooner you all know that there’s a problem, the easier it is to fix.