Wednesday, January 5, 2011

How to Get Kids to Practice

I am writing this blog from the point of view of a mother, not of a music educator. However, one of my educator theories factors in -- the theory that children are like cockroaches. No matter how effective a solution is, sooner or later they will develop an immunity.

Method One

I made confession to my mother, "Did you know I used to practice to get out of doing the dishes?" With out a beat she responded, "Did you know I used to let you get out of doing the dishes so you would practice?"

In my house the dishes are a great motivator as well. Oddly enough my kids will do just about anything to get out of doing the dishes. And I -- a full grown mother -- will gladly do the dishes in order to get the kids to practice, do homework, edit a video, etc.

Method Two

The second method is also stolen from my Mother's toolbox. She once told me that you can yell at your little ones to pick up their rooms, it won't get done. But the minute you say, "Let's pick up your room," they are all over it. And if you maintain a pleasant attitude as you work together, they may even enjoy themselves.

Practicing is the same. You can yell at your kids to practice. If you're insistent, they might sit in front of their instrument and pout. But if you say, "Let's practice," they might actually make some progress. When you work on songs as a family, as a duet, as a trio, your student understands the need for counting, for a metronome, for being in tune. Family bands also help with communication in a family. Everyone, including the adults, learns how to give and take appropriate feedback without locking oneself in the bathroom.

Method Three

This is an academic method. English teachers take their students through a five step writing process. (Think, Write, Make it Better, Make it Correct, Make it Public). The same approach can be used in learning new music. Help your child make sense of the progressions, identify chords and repeated lines. Site Read. Practice line upon line. Practice just the hard bits. Celebrate your student's success in public.)

Method Four

Provide incentives. This does not necessarily mean pay them money. While tying practice time into allowance is effective, so is giving your child events to work toward. Find festivals where they can perform. Help them play with friends. Create "gigs" and house shows. Arrange for them to perform at church.

Method Five

Practice in front of them. Let your students see you practice and let them know how much you enjoy it. Parental attitudes are more influencial than I'd care to admit. I've known kids who were told "You can quit taking piano lessons once you can play the hymns." These kids grow up to be the adults who tell me, "I took lessons as a kid. I wish I hadn't quit. I can't play at all now." In this scenario, "quitting lessons" is held out as a reward. When I practice the organ, I spend a minimal amount of time practicing hymns. The majority of my time is spent practicing Bach. When I am in front of a crowd, I play less well than how I play alone. It is important that I can play better than I need to, so even with diminished skills I can perform to expectations.

The cool thing about practicing, is once someone is practicing, inevitably, someone else will want to practice. The warning here is to identify several areas in the home where people can practice so that it is possible for more than one child can practice at a time.

Method Six

Listen. Even if they are a beginnig string player. Do not complain. Do not criticize. Let your child know how much you love it when they practice. How much it adds to your loving home -- and threaten to thump any family member who complains about the noise. Practicing takes precedents over tv, video games, computers, and reading. It even takes precedents over doing the dishes.

If you have any more suggestions, put them in the comments. I would love to learn more methods. I have a couple of popular duets notated on the Piano Resource page.

Also check out the new Native Music page.


  1. Nice analogy with the Cockroach. I liked that. The Suzuki method is build all around Method Two: Practice Together.

  2. we're struggling around our house to get the oldest to STOP practicing... to do anything else... and yes, dishes would be nice, but I'm thinking small... like eating, or sleeping :)