For whatever reason, you’ve spent some money on an instrument, and you’ve enrolled your child in some music lessons. Now the weekly practice grind begins. At first, your child will probably be intrinsically motivated because it’s a new toy and a new activity. But after a couple of weeks, the newness wears off, and the true work must begin. Learning how to play an instrument fluently takes about ten years of work and more work, and that goal can seem farther and farther away every day.
Having raised three children and worked with each one at the piano between the ages of 4 and 14, I have a few tricks up my sleeve to make it an enjoyable process. Ten years is a long time, so making practice sessions fun and satisfying in and of themselves is time well-spent.
#1 Set a Daily Time to Practice No Matter What
This is the time at which your child is going to spend a few minutes with their instrument no matter what. It should be a time at which your child is well-rested, well-fed, and alert. And, rather than having it be a particular time of day, set it to be just before or just after another regular activity like a meal.
My personal favorite was just after breakfast and just before my children got on the bus to go to school. This meant getting up only a little bit earlier every day, and often they were up anyway. It gave them something to do besides stare at a screen.
#2 Be Present for at Least Some of the Practice Session
Sending a child “away” to practice and “get out of your hair” tends to be unpopular. Believe me, I know there are times when you need to send them away and get them out of your hair! But this is not the time.
I used to make myself a cup of tea, dress in my coziest robe and slippers, prop my feet up on the piano bench, and work with each child for 5-30 minutes Monday through Friday. It became a precious few moments with each child before sending them out into the world.
#3 Become Emotionally Engaged in What They Are Doing
Put away your phone and pay attention to what your child is trying to accomplish at the moment. Be aware of the delicate balance between micromanaging and saying “Oh, that’s great!” to everything they do. Simply staying abreast of the task at hand and offering small encouragements along the way is all that is needed.
A parent can help a child remember to check the list of tasks the instructor has written out. Children tend to only do the things they like and “forget” to do some of the more difficult and tedious tasks. Of course, the latter are usually the techniques that are going to help them progress more quickly. I always said, “Just do your two minutes of torture.” And then be sure to honor the two minutes!
#4 Be Flexible About the Length of the Session
Some days are better than others. Five minutes every day is FAR BETTER than 25 minutes all in one go. I’m talking 1000% better. If it’s a good day, the sessions should be longer. If it’s a bad day, call it quits as soon as it starts to go downhill. Make your child feel okay about stopping. Don’t make him or her feel guilty about it. If your child can trust you to not push him past his limit on a regular basis, he will be more agreeable when it comes time for the next session. It says somewhere in the Bible “…do not exasperate your children,” and this is a good time to take that advice.
#5 Discover Your Child’s Ritual of Preparation
We all have our rituals of preparation for certain tasks. Remember mine of getting my cozy robe and slippers and tea? These rituals helps us get in a mindset conducive to accomplishing the task at hand.
A guitar player might need to get out their guitar pick, tuner, and capo and line them up on the table. And most guitar players need to spend a few minutes tuning.
Singers might want to pour themselves a glass of water and do some jumping jacks.
Piano players might want to organize their music books before starting.
Maybe a child needs to have a stack of exactly five Oreos next to her at the piano as rewards.
Study your child, find out what his or her ritual is, and help facilitate it.
#6 Set Up a Dedicated Practice Area
Make sure all supplies are handy in a pleasant area for your child. It is helpful if the instrument can be stored in the practice area and, even better, if the instrument can be on a stand or otherwise easily accessible. If the piano is stored in a dark, stuffy basement, it will be less motivating to go there.
When my son Zach was learning to play the drums, we lived in a small house. The only place we could store the full kit setup was in our basement garage, which was not the most pleasant of environments. So I did everything possible to make sure he had everything he needed: good lighting, music stand, pencils, a CD player, good speakers, headphones, and a bookcase. Over time, I made small improvements like an area rug and nice lamps. Eventually, I moved my entire studio down there, and then everyone wanted to be in there!
#7 If You Are a Musician, Play Music Together
Even if you are only a beginning musician, you can ask your child’s instructor to help you find arrangements for your particular duo. You’d be surprised what you can find! I bet there’s even duo music written for banjo and harp.
For what it’s worth, all three of my children still enjoy playing their instruments. I’ve gone to some financial trouble to make sure they all have decent, working instruments of their choice. They regularly collaborate with their friends. When they’re old, they’ll always have something they can do together.