June 26, 2014

10 Tips to Help Motivate Your Child to Practice

How do I get my child to want to practice more? Oh, if only I could have a dollar for every time I have been asked this excellent question over the past 20 years. In truth, even now, I know of no perfect, one-size-fits­-all type of answer but there are a few things I can happily share that may be of help.

#1 – Get Started Right – Learning Goes Up or Down

One of the most consistent things I’ve noticed in students over the years is that most go in one of two directions. Either the student gets a bit behind at first so they don’t play as well as they’d like so they don’t get to play the songs they want which make them want to practice less which makes them get stuck on the same song….practice even less…. the same song…..etc.  OR  – A student starts off with a burst of energy and this gets them ahead and makes their next lesson more rewarding, which makes them want to practice more, which makes the next lesson exciting, which makes them want to practice more…great songs…confidence….etc. Truly very few students stay level; most are headed on a clear trajectory. Either a downward one that feels like constant effort to try and reverse, or an upward one where they are virtually completely self-motivated and happy. The key is the START. Doing well at the beginning sets you or your child up to succeed. Having said that, it is never too late to make positive changes to one’s practicing routine, attitudes, and habits which, with the help of some of my other tips, can get your child moving upwards again.

#2 – Get Your Child to be Your Teacher

One of the best ways to ensure your child has learned something well is to get them to explain it to you. This can be an excellent bonding moment between you and your child as he/she proudly shows you what they know that maybe Mommy or Daddy “don’t know”. In truth, this is often the case as your child may show you things you indeed didn’t know. Or even if you did, it is so wonderful hearing it from your child. Now, from your child’s point of view, this is one of the best imaginable confidence builders as they develop a sense of being the “expert” at what they are learning. This, in turn, makes them want to keep learning so they can continue impressing their parents! It is an unexpected role reversal for them that can make a world of difference in motivating them to learn.

#3 – Set Small Consistent Goals

I find children (and adults) are most motivated when the “finish line” is in sight. Even if this means lowering expectations a bit, having a successful achievement of a small goal is usually worth far more than falling short of a lofty one. Just think of how we as adults self-motivate. One step at a time, otherwise we all know what happens! The idea is that over time you or your child will be able to handle larger and larger goals riding the momentum of previous successes rather than trying to recover from the disappointment of falling short of previous goals that may have been set a bit too high. Just remember: Success breeds success!

#4 – Practice Alone Sometimes – Where People Can’t Hear

The thing is we all want to play what we know best. It is more fun that way – to play what we are already good at. The thing is, even though any playing of your instrument is helpful, it is obviously very important to include time practicing what needs the most work. This can be a bit embarrassing. No one wants someone hearing all of their mistakes and so young students will often say “this is too hard” rather than having someone hear all of their mistakes. Left alone, many people will be far more willing to work through these challenges without feeling they are being “judged” by someone listening. It is of course never your intention to convey such a negative sentiment to your child but we must consider it from their perspective as well. Being heard making mistakes on difficult but critical sections of practicing are hard on the ego, for any on us, and sometimes giving them the headphones to plug in or closing the door can make all the difference.

#5 – Do the Opposite of #4 Sometimes – Practice Together!

Despite all I just said, everyone loves company! Sitting with your child makes them more engaged in the practicing. Focus is hard at the best of times, especially in this day and age of so many digital distractions, and simply by being there with a positive energy, you can make a world of difference. You can also consider thinking outside the box and including things like listening to music and discussing what instruments or sounds and emotions you hear as part of practicing time.

#6 – Kids will be Kids – They Still Need Their Parents

No matter what we do either as parents or as a music school in Etobicoke to help children want to practice, they will naturally resist when the challenges or a difficult musical song or concept persist. I often say: “Kids will be kids, they still need their parents.” And what I mean by this is, while we don’t want to feel we are “forcing” them all the time, young students still need motivation from their parents as they cannot see the long-term goals and future rewards the way adults can. A child doesn’t think of “one day”, they think of today, or tomorrow, or at most next week. I know it isn’t always easy but as parents you have a critical role in sometimes pushing your child to practice. No, you shouldn’t have to do this ALL the time (if you do then something else is wrong) but once in a while, it is perfectly normal for a child to lack motivation and benefit from the encouragement of their parents. My own parents used to have to push me to practice sometimes and now music has defined a large part of my life and career. One day they will look back and thank you. Think of yourself too, maybe you once took music lessons yourself and now you kick yourself for stopping. We have the benefit of hindsight that children simply do not have.

#7 – Give Your Learning a Purpose

Learning a musical instrument can take years, mastering it: a lifetime. For a child, this can make learning feel endless and daunting. As adults, we always often look at things from a cost / benefit perspective and even children want something to look forward to which gives meaning to their lessons. The most obvious example is performing at a recital but there are many other ways to add value for a child. Consider talent shows at school, show-and-tell, creating a band with friends, writing their own little song, having them draw a picture which goes with a song they are learning, making a homemade music video, and the list goes on. The important thing is that they associate learning their instrument with something fun and rewarding: applause, new friends, self-confidence, creative inspiration etc.

#8 – Have a Repertoire List

A repertoire list, for those who don’t know, is simply a list of your favourite songs. When we learn we sometimes get caught up too much in the song we are learning that week. We focus on the “now” and forget where we have been. Singing / Playing an instrument should be fun and great songs get forgotten when they aren’t played for a long time while the student focuses too much on the current song. When a song has been completed that the student really likes, they should write it on their own Repertoire List and then once every two weeks or so play every song on that list so they don’t forget it. This way each student develops a unique Repertoire List that they can be proud of and called upon to play at any lesson. Since students are always learning and improving, every year or so I recommend starting again adding only the absolute favourite songs from the previous list to the new list so that the student remains proud of and engaged by their list of songs! Think long-term memory building! Next time Aunt so-and-so is over to visit and asks your daughter to play a piano song for her she can proudly hand over her Repertoire List and say “Choose one, I take requests” J

#9 – In Tough Times, Get Creative

The old adage that everyone needs to practice 30 minutes a day measured by an egg timer to succeed simply isn’t true anymore. For a child less than 10 years old, focused practicing for 10-15 minutes a few days a week can be just fine. (Another rule of thumb is to practice 2-3 times the length of the lesson TOTAL in a week.) When times are tough and it is extra difficult to motivate your child to practice you can use creative methods of measuring time. One suggestion I used to make is to get a child to practice during the commercial breaks of a one hour TV show. Every hour of TV has 16 minutes of commercials…practicing done! Another trick is to not measure in time but in achievement. “Let’s just get those few bars sounding good and we’ll call it a day.” Remember tip #2 and keep goals small so that your child gets the positive affirmation they all need, and which makes the challenge of bringing them back to practice a little easier each time.

#10 – Practice Does Not Make Perfect – Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

The expression “Practice Makes Perfect” is, in fact, a terrible expression. Repeating mistakes only programs you to repeat those mistakes, it plants them in your mind and in the muscle memory of your fingers and your ears begin to interpret them as correct. It is in fact only “Perfect Practice” that can make perfect. When I first heard this I thought it was absurd. I mean how can one be perfect when practicing? Isn’t that the whole point of practicing, to improve? Well yes and no. Of course, we want to improve but we want to do it by playing correctly, not by repeating mistakes. How do we do this? Well for starters we can play REALLY slowly! We can also play one hand at a time. If we are singing we can do short phrases only at first. As for drum lessons in Etobicoke, drummers can slow the metronome to half speed or play only one or two of the drums for now. All of these techniques, while incomplete, are teaching the mind and muscles and ear to play and hear things that are correct. When I was teaching I used to often tell my students: “Making a mistake is no problem, repeating it is.” How to not make the same mistake twice? Perform the same section again in a way that you KNOW you can do correctly using the same suggestions. No one can be perfect at this technique but, ironically, with practice, it can make a big difference.

There are of course many, many ideas as far as practicing but I hope these ten have given you a few ideas that might help in the process. The end goal is always the same: Don’t let practicing get in the way of PLAYING your instrument. Enjoy!