Among the numerous challenges that parents face in handling children’s music lessons (choosing the instrument, finding a good teacher, etc.), getting kids to practice is the most daunting of all. The severity of the problem and the importance of practice make it hard to believe that there are so few articles addressing this. What’s more, parents and music teachers often resort to the failed tactics they remember from childhood in desperate attempts to motivate kids to practice.
A common example of this issue is the “practice for 30 minutes” rule, in which a music teacher will recommend that the child practice 30 minutes a day and generally increase this time as they get older. In attempts to enforce adherence to this arbitrary commitment, parents will often “pay” the child for 30 minutes of “work” with something rewarding like watching TV, playing outside or playing video games. The problem with this method is that it makes the 30 minutes of practicing something to be endured in order to do something that is valued. But what is so sacred about 30 minutes of practicing? Where did this standard unit come from? How is it better than 27 minutes or 34?
To transform practicing into a rewarding activity, parents should encourage reaching daily musical goals. For example, instead of saying that 30 minutes of practice is enough regardless of what is achieved, you might say, “Today the goal of practicing is to play the first eight measures of your piece without any mistakes.” Whether reaching this goal takes 12 minutes or 40 minutes isn’t important. What is important is that the child knows the musical goal of each daily practice session and feels motivated to be as efficient as possible while practicing in order to reach that goal and feel that sense of accomplishment. If the goal is playing the first eight measures on Monday, the logical goal for Tuesday is to play the next eight. Pretty soon, the child will acknowledge the cumulative goal of the week: to play the entire piece free of mistakes. This leads to more motivation, more effort during practice and most importantly, pride in what they have accomplished.
Although this method achieves greater success, it also requires more effort by the parents; it’s easy to look at the clock and monitor 30 minutes, but goal-related practicing means setting daily goals for your children, monitoring the ease or difficulty your child experiences with his music and setting new, more demanding goals. Don’t worry! Here are some tips to help you:
First, divide the week’s goal or teacher’s expectations into seven equal parts and make sure your child understands each one. On some days, your child might choose to work toward two days’ worth of goals, in which case, it’s wise to give them the option of skipping the next day’s practice session.
Daily goals should be attended to every day and should involve playing scales or other technique-building skills; advancement on specific pieces can be more spread out, as long as the child continues to move forward with the piece.
While it may be tempting, don’t bargain with practice time. Although in trying to skip a day, your child may really mean, “I will practice double tomorrow,” this sets the standard that practice time is negotiable.
Progress should be measured and appropriately altered each day (if needed) by analyzing the amount of effort, frustration and completion/advancement in reaching the daily goals. Yes, this is more work than monitoring 30 minutes a day, but in the end, this will be much easier than the agony of forcing children to adhere to the mandatory 30 minutes of meager, unmotivated effort. It will also make everyone’s life a little more enjoyable!
Dr. Robert A. Cutietta is the Dean of the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music. He is the author of “Raising Musical Kids” and a popular speaker whose areas of expertise include the middle-school learner, choral education, learning theories and the psychology of music. Additionally, he is a highly regarded musician and educator with extensive knowledge about the full range of musical talent nationally as well as internationally.