As a music teacher, I am often asked “How can I get my child to practise?”  I have found that the answer to this very simple question is often truly quite complicated.

As the parent of 2 very talented, and yet very unmotivated young musicians, I often had the same question.  I was one of those kids that you couldn’t pull away from any instrument available to be played, so as a young parent I really couldn’t understand “not wanting to practise”.  I found quite often as well, that my children would make having to practise a power struggle … it’s important to Mom, so I can use that to my advantage.  In the end, my response as a parent would be: threats or bribery – whichever works.

After nearly 2 decades of experiencing the joys and frustrations of guiding young musicians and their families through the challenges of a music education, I find that my answer may not have changed much, but at least I have a greater understanding of some of the underlying reasons for the reluctance to practise, and an arsenal of strategies to help work through them.

I have found that there are 3 very distinct factors at the root of the problem: seasonal, social/cultural, and individual.  Any or all of these factors may be an issue, and there are a number of different tips and strategies that can be used to overcome them.

Seasonal Factors:

There are 3 times during the academic year when the question gets asked the most.  It comes first at the beginning of the year shortly after summer vacation.  At the end of the previous year our children have “completed a level”.  They have worked through the material and can play their songs quite well.  After a much-needed break (during which they may or may not have touched their instrument), we put before them songs at the next level.  Rather than seeing it as an exciting new challenge, some students may suddenly feel as if they can’t play anything or that the challenge is insurmountable.

Reluctance to practise also crops up at the end of the academic year.  After a long winter and months of hard work they would much rather be outside in the nice weather playing with their friends.  This is also a time, unfortunately, where activities tend to overlap…winter sports haven’t finished yet but spring and summer sports have begun.  Exams and festivals for music come at the same time as final projects, tests and exams at school.  Our students may feel overwhelmed with the number of responsibilities piled on their plates.

The question pops up most frequently, however, at this time of year, … during the dreary winter months of January and February.  The Winter Blues is a well-known phenomenon in North America, affecting an estimated 15% of adults.  Seasonal mood variations are most common between the ages of 20 and 40, but even young children can be affected.  These changes in behaviour are believed to be related to light, and to have evolved as an adaptation in response to a reduction in available food and the difficulties of surviving the cold winter.  Symptoms include lack of energy or a feeling of “sluggishness”, difficulty concentrating on or completing tasks, irritability, cravings for comfort foods or foods high in carbohydrates, and sometimes even a withdrawal from friends and social activities.  The question in this case would be, “Is music practice the only activity where my child’s attitude has changed?”

Social/Cultural Factors:

Our children are leading very complicated, very scheduled, and very busy lives.  They are used to tasks that are completed quickly and activities that provide instant gratification.  Music is neither of these things.  As well, in our effort to expose our children to the widest possible variety of activities and experiences, we can lead them to believe that if they don’t like something or aren’t good at something, they can always try something else.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t allow them the opportunity to develop the skills they need for a long-term commitment to achieving a difficult goal.

Individual Factors:

All behaviour is communication.

So when our children have that emotional outburst, or try to avoid practising by hiding under the bench, what are they really trying to tell us?  There are a number of possible answers, such as:

  • I’m frustrated because I find it too hard
  • I’m bored because I find it too easy.
  • I’ve already learned it, so why should I practise it
  • I don’t like the song and I don’t want to practise it
  • I’m already tired and I can’t concentrate
  • I’d rather be playing with my friends/games/toys right now
  • I keep practising but it never seems to be good enough
  • I’m only here because you made me do it, and I’m not going to

And I’m sure every parent of a young musician can come up with more.

Tips, Tricks and Bribery:

Time management – this is possibly the easiest issue to address, and can even help with some of the individual factors.  It’s always best to make music practice part of the daily routine, just like regular school work.  That way our children don’t feel like practising is “cutting into their free time” which they would probably choose to spend in other ways.  If your child is feeling over-scheduled or over-worked, make sure they have some down time first so that they can concentrate.  Sometimes it’s helpful to change the time of day that practising takes place, especially if they are tired at practice time.  Mornings quite often work better – if they are more alert, they can accomplish more in a shorter period of time.  Some students even find it helpful to break up their practise into smaller increments during the day, rather than one long one…technical requirements before school and songs after.

Gratification – Are there any actual tangible rewards (that’s the bribery part).  Can the student see the improvement (has the practise been effective).  Sometimes music itself, and playing something well, is reward enough but some children need extra incentives provided by parents.

General strategies for an effective practice:

In our busy lives, quantity of practise may not be possible, so it is important to focus on the quality of practise, which will also lead to tangible results.  A good practise strategy can help both with the busy schedule and with the need to see accomplishments.  Simply playing through a piece 2 or 3 times (or more) without focusing doesn’t necessarily lead to improvement.  Nor does watching the clock until the 20 minutes of required practise is over.

Setting practice session goals helps a child stay focused and see improvement.  Students can learn to enjoy practising if they realize success as a result of their efforts and if they can assume ownership of, and responsibility for, the structure of their practise sessions. The students themselves should be involved in the goal setting, making them more likely to be motivated to complete it.

Encourage your child to focus on different things each repetition of the song or at each separate practice.  The following is a list of ideas that I share with my students:

  • play it slowly
  • play with separate hands
  • focus on correct fingering
  • focus on correct dynamics
  • focus on correct articulations
  • sing while you play so the ear is trained as well as the hands
  • record the practise so you can sit back and listen to and evaluate your own performance
  • pick a specific thing to be improved upon at each practice.  This is particularly important if time is an issue.  A short practice with a small improvement is still a good practice.  What about that one spot that always slows you down?
  • how far have you actually come – at the end of a tiring practice session play something you are really good at, or take out something from a lower level that you used to struggle with, so you can see how easy it has become.
  • Variation during the practise can make it more interesting.  Make some cards or paper slips with different things to be practised that you can “pull from the jar” so that every practise is different.
  • Are you having fun?  Make sure you play things you like … just for fun.  Are there opportunities for you to make music with friends/peers.  Try creating music of your own.

As a parent, don’t forget to give praise (and even tangible rewards) for accomplishments.  Positive encouragement always works better than criticism.

Will these insights and strategies work every time…absolutely not!  I spent many years arguing with my children over music practice.  I can honestly say, however, that the headaches and heartaches were definitely worth it.  I now have an 19-year old who has chosen music as a career.  He is a fine musician, an excellent teacher, and a talented composer.  He will also be the first to say, “I love to play, but I hate practising!”