In all my years teaching music, one question remains: How can I motivate my kids to practice? This article for parents of music students ages 3-16. I'll be sharing five tips on how to motivate your child to practice. However, I also want to clear up some misunderstandings that parents have about practice.
Before you make changes to your child's practice routine, you first need to understand why practice isn't fun. You'll then want to create a positive learning environment, communicate clear and achievable goals, use games to engage your child, and develop a practice routine.
Many of the skills you learn here will help you in all aspects of your parenting.
Practicing Music isn't Fun. Playing it can be
When children struggle with practicing, many well-intentioned parents tell their children, "playing music should be fun! Go practice."
These parents, and others like them, want their child to take music lessons to learn how hard work can be rewarding. The reward of hard work is unique opportunities and experiences.
Many parents view music as a hobby that grown-ups decompress at the end of a stressful workday.
The idea that "playing music should be fun" contains two common assumptions about music: First, playing and practicing is synonymous. Second, practicing music is fun for its own sake (like playing with friends or playing video games).
These assumptions affect how parents attempt to help their child practice more. Naturally, these misunderstandings lead to misguided efforts to encourage children.
Grammy-Award winning principal bassoonist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra David McGill suggests that "rewarding" would represent a professional's relationship to their work more accurately (1). He goes on to say that few professional musicians would describe their practice time as fun.
Once you start to think about practice as rewarding rather than fun, you can experience a mental shift. This shift will help you find the appropriate ways to motivate your child.
From the earliest lessons, practice is meaningless to your child. They have no understanding of the rewards of practice. Because of this lack of understanding, you need to motivate using games, rewards systems, and verbal praise. This structure is called extrinsic motivation.
Said another way, since practice isn't fun, parents must make it fun. You can do this by using games and activities that provide an immediate reward and sense of accomplishment. It is not the practice itself that is fun, but the games played during practice. This time that your child spends with you is also a unique family-time opportunity that your child will relish.
In my studio, the games I use are simple; their immediate rewards and sense of accomplishment have nothing to do with music.
Eventually, your child will develop enough skill and awareness to take pride in their playing and understand that their skill results from their hard work. At this point, their desire to further that skill is called intrinsic motivation.
The purpose of the small, non-musical games and rewards is to keep your child engaged in each practice session. By staying engaged in a practice session long enough, they'll stay engaged in music lessons. By staying engaged in music lessons long enough, they can reach the milestone of developing intrinsic motivation. Once they can feel themselves getting better and get positive social recognition for the skills they developed, they may start to initiate practice independently.
Initially, it won't be with the regularity needed to maintain satisfactory progress; you'll still need to step in and use games and other motivational tactics.
There are a few key things to note about how practice changes and how it stays the same after your child develops intrinsic motivation.
While your child may enjoy playing guitar for its own sake, practice still won't be inherently fun. Instead, it will likely be "rewarding," much like it is for a professional musician. There will not be a sudden or drastic change in your child's need for games to make daily practice sessions engaging.
Young children will still require guidance structuring their practice time and help with practical problem-solving. Of course, you should keep praising your child for their accomplishments and giving them positive social recognition to see the best results.
As your child continues to develop, the extrinsic motivation you provide will be supplemented by your child's intrinsic motivation. Eventually, a role reversal will happen; the extrinsic motivation you provide will be secondary to your child's intrinsic motivation.
Positive Learning Environment
Many parents try to be actively involved in the practice process. However, some stop due to conflict and antagonism when attempting to help their child learn.
Removing yourself from antagonistic practice sessions is better than creating negative musical experiences for your child. However, it puts the entire burden of the practice regimen on your child. It also removes the motivation that parental praise and interaction brings.
The younger your child is, the more unrealistic it is to expect your child to allocate their practice time efficiently. This expectation can compound matters because it will only prolong the time it takes to develop the proficiency necessary to acquire intrinsic motivation.
Creating a positive learning environment, both at home and in the lesson is crucial for your child's enjoyment of the practice process. What follows are three recommendations that I give parents.
To learn more about communication and positive learning environments, see this article.
Find ways to use depersonalizing language.
The goal of using depersonalized language is to create some psychological distance between your child's sense of self-worth and their mistakes. It is much easier for children to accept their mistakes as part of the learning process rather than view them as a personal failure when using depersonalized language.
One way you can use depersonalized language is to utilize analogies. My favorite is the "Teacher-Student" analogy.
Tell your child that they are the teacher and that their fingers are their students. The "teacher" (your child's mind) must tell the students (their fingers) what to do.
Then, when your child plays something different than expected, you can say that one of their students misbehaved. The student might've been late to class or sat in the wrong seat (too slow and playing a wrong note, respectively).
If your child' doesn't notice their error, you can ask a specific question rather than telling them they were wrong. For example, you can say, "I think your middle finger student was in the wrong seat. What did you see? Let's try again".
This example of an analogy is only one of many that you can use to depersonalize errors. Younger kids especially may come up with analogies of their own. Using them and expanding on them is a great way to engage your child and help them feel ownership.
Use a Praise Sandwich
The Praise Sandwich is a simple and effective way to make critiques more palatable to people of all ages. You can think of it as a critique wrapped in positive reinforcement. By doing this, you get all the benefits of positive reinforcement while also making it easier for your child to recognize their shortcomings.
The structure of a praise sandwich is "Praise, Critique, Praise." For example: "You played through the whole song! That's great. I noticed that you forgot to slow down in the last measure of the middle section. I liked your tone!"
Even in its most simple form, this can be very effective. However, the above example is less-than-ideal in many ways.
As parents, it is so much easier for us to notice precisely what went wrong and much harder to acknowledge the specific things that went right. I even do this myself. However, when using the praise sandwich, it is essential to let our child know that what they do right is just as worthy of recognition as what they do wrong. If our praise is too vague, it won't accomplish its task of being positive reinforcement and will instead sound like a platitude.
Here are some examples of vague praise:
- That sounded great
- Nice job
- I liked how you played it
Here are examples of specific praise:
- The vibrato in the middle section was just right, not too fast, not too slow.
- I liked the way you shaped the dynamics in the third phrase.
- Your ritardando at the end was fantastic, and you held the last note for just the right amount of time. Not too long, not too short.
Additionally, the critique in your praise sandwich should be carefully worded. Avoid using "should," "don't," must," or "have to," as they can create anxiety and promote a rigidity of thought. These mental states are anathema to musicianship and artistry.
Avoid The Great Negator
The Great Negator: But. The rule of the great negator is that anything said after it negates whatever precedes it.
Take this example "I like my wife's cooking, but I'm a better cook. "
That doesn't sound like a compliment at all.
Here is an example from a practice session and an improvement right below it.
- Your vibrato was nice, but you should get quieter at the end of the phrase.
- Your vibrato was excellent. I noticed that you were still very loud at the end of the phrase.
Notice that, in addition to removing The Great Negator, the improved sentence also states how your child played rather than telling them what they need to do. This statement gives them valuable autonomy and displays your trust that they can correct it on their own.
The most important tip for creating a positive practice environment is to find any way possible that you and your child can have fun together while practicing.
As a teacher, I encourage parents to consider the practice session as follows:
For their child: it is practicing music to learn the rewards of hard work and persistence.
For the parents: It is practicing discovering how to engage with your child in a way rewarding for both of you. This practice will continue as your child grows into an adult. All along the way, you will be able to relate to them as they are, rather than as the child you remember them to be. If you are successful, your relationship with your child will continue to blossom past your child's years of dependency and into adulthood.
So be silly, be fun, make up your own games. When your child tells silly stories about the notes and what they're doing, engage with their story. It will help them learn the music and help you learn about them.
And, when you're tired and weary, do your best to remember a truth that was shared with me when I became a parent. "The days are long, but the years are short."
Clear, Achievable Goals
Many parents drop off their kids for a lesson, run some errands, pick up their child, and are entirely unaware of the material that the teacher covered in the lesson. Many teachers, including my former self, aren't even aware of the difficulty this creates at home and, as such, do nothing to remedy the situation.
As Yogi Berra famously said, "If you don't know where you're going, you'll probably end up somewhere else."
Without knowing both the weekly and long-term goals that your teacher has planned out, it will be impossible to guide your child and develop their musical ability and personal independence.
Naturally, it is your music teacher's responsibility to assign clear weekly goals for your child, as well as having a large-scale plan in place for your child's development. However, the practice that gets done at home is where the work gets done. On a day-to-day basis, you must guide your child in their practice session to achieve your teacher's weekly goals.
I love kids, but when I first started teaching music lessons, the children I taught made little-to-no progress. It was so bad that I stopped teaching kids for years. Years later, I decided to try again. First, I got training in teaching children.
While this training taught me many things, perhaps the most crucial thing it taught me was that parents must be present at every lesson and, ideally, taking notes. As the years progressed, I started giving each family a three-ring binder with an entire systematic approach to precisely communicating what each student's goals were for the week. This folder made all the difference, and I now have many, many excellent young musicians in my studio.
To accurately guide your child's practice session, it is crucial to have clear communication lines open with your teacher every week. It's obvious but bears stating; if your child comes home from a lesson and you don't know what they're supposed to be practicing, you can't help them. As with many practice issues addressed here, the younger your child is, the more problematic this will be.
Additionally, use your teacher as a resource. If you're struggling with helping your child reach the given goals, talk to their teacher about it. The communication should be a 2-way street!
Games, Games, Everywhere
Finally, we're here! I've addressed the most common structural issues that affect how parents view lessons and their responsibilities in them. Now I can get to the meat-and-potatoes of making practice sessions fun. I'm going to give you three games that you can use to make your practice sessions go from boring to a blast. These games are going to cover three different aspects of the music-learning process, so you'll have a well-rounded game set by the time you get to the end of this segment.
Remember, these games' purpose is to make practice sessions fun and rewarding right now. That way, your child will keep practicing until they develop the skills to get social recognition for their accomplishments and intrinsic motivation.
These games are so effective that I often use them with my adult students and in my practice sessions. Yet, they are super-easy and straightforward to implement.
The four games I use the most with new students are Animals, the Race Car Game, Bead counters, and Dice.
This game is geared towards younger students that is easy to understand and incredibly useful. If your child has problems sitting still long enough to get anything done, just grabbed a bunch of small figurines (I use small animal figurines, which is where the name comes from). Have them sit down in a ready-to-play position. Stack the figurines all over your child's. Kids love it when you put a larger object on their head to balance. I use a rubber ducky.
Their goal is to sit still until a designated amount of time has run out. You could use a 1-minute hourglass timer or count to 20.
This game helps children to notice errors and correct them, with minimal verbal feedback from the parent. This game is useful once the student can play a passage correctly most of the time. It loses its usefulness once a passage is comfortably under a child's fingers and only needs repetitions to get worked into the child's memory.
I play race cars using actual toy race cars, but you could use any small object that engages your child's imagination. Set two cars side-by-side on the floor. One car will be your child's, the other, your own. Build the racetrack by setting out 4 to 12 segments of track in front of each race car. I use poker chips, but you could use matchsticks, coins, or something else.
The rules are simple: If a child plays correctly, their car moves forward one space. If they make a mistake, their opponent's car moves forward one space.
Even students who are not very competitive want to win this game. Your child will try very hard to understand and correct their error so they can beat you to the end of the track.
Note that if your child is always losing this game, something is going wrong. They should win the game at least 95% of the time. If your child keeps losing, they haven't learned the segment well enough yet. Talk to your teacher about working in smaller segments or ensuring your child integrates material sufficiently before the lesson is over.
Your child should win by a wide margin. However, come-from-behind victories can be a real confidence booster. The anxiety and tension that a come-from-behind victory creates can help familiarize your child with playing under emotions similar to those experienced during recitals and performances.
I use a bead counter daily, both in my lessons and in my practice sessions. This game is an excellent way to ingrain skills into your child's memory. You'll have the most success using this game after your child has demonstrated that they understand a musical passage and consistently perform it accurately.
The beat counter game requires one of the many types of bead counters. As a guitarist, I use one that I made and hang on the tuning pegs (you can also use them to keep track of knitting rows; you can find how to make one on youtube). You can also use floor-based bead counters or an abacus.
The rules to this game are simple: For each correct repetition, pull down a bead. Once all the beads are pulled over (10-12 beads), you've won the game!
Proper Practice Habits and Routines
Many parents reading this article are here because they see themselves in the vicious practice cycle. A week of no practice leads to a lousy lesson. And who would want to practice after a lousy lesson?
Perhaps your child just started lessons, or maybe they've been taking lessons for a few years and have hit a practice bump.
The problem with a lack of practice habits and routines is that it often leads to minimal or no practice. And without practice, your child can not develop the skills necessary to enjoy music. Having an approximate sense of how much your child should practice can help you understand what may be causing your child's practice malaise.
How much your child should practice is dependent on many factors. These factors include your child's age, ability level, amount of material your child is learning, and tolerance for practice. It is best to talk to your music teacher to see what their expectations are.
Getting from where you are now to your teacher's may seem an impossible task. If you're stuck in a no-practice cycle, my first advice is to start simple, with 2-5 minutes of practice. Stick with practice material that your child is enjoying. Play the race-car game one time. Praise your child for their practice. Do that a few times over the week; the next week, add a few more minutes or a few more practice sessions.
Bit-by-bit, you will start to turn the tide and help your child enjoy practice again. As they do this, their intrinsic motivation will begin to develop.
As you go through this plan, keep in mind the following rule-of-thumb: your child's attention span is their age in minutes. To get longer, more fruitful practice sessions, be ready to improvise new activities and games based on your child's attention span. For example, a three-year-old could get a 9-10 minute practice session by doing three activities for three minutes each. Another example would be a 5-year-old getting a 20-minute practice session by doing four activities for 5 minutes each.
Finally, while basic guidelines are easier to understand and adhere to, it is more critical that your child accomplishes the goals their teacher has set forth rather than practice for an arbitrary number of minutes. I try to emphasize this with parents and students alike, sometimes going so far as saying, "I want you to practice as little as possible… but still get these goals done".
I want to teach my students to work effectively rather than punch the clock. A half-hour spent noodling around is not nearly as effective as 5--10 minutes, focusing on problem areas and improving. Focusing on goals rather than an arbitrary minute-count will reward your child for effective practice, capable of learning more in less time.
I hope these five tips for improving your child's practice will help you improve your child's practice habits. If you have any questions about what I wrote or other topics you would like me to cover, please let me know in the comments below!
McGill, David. Sound in Motion: A Performer's Guide to Greater Musical Expression. Indiana University Press, 2007.