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How to Motivate Your Child to Practice

Girl playing the pianoAmong 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!

  • Pingback: Motivating Kids to Practice . Education . PBS Parents | PBS

  • Richard R. Reitzin

    I regard this as excellent advice – setting regular, daily, measurable and achievable goals for practice sessions. Adherence to this approach is certain to produce excellent results in the vast majority of cases. Well done, Dr. Cutietta.

  • TrombonePianoGuitarHarmonica

    The article above is well written.  As a parent of an eight year old who is practicing piano and a two year old soon two take up an instrument, I totally picture what this article is talking about.  I smiled when I read the “childhood” desperate attempts; I’ve had my shared.  Today, as an adult I play several different instruments: Trombone, piano, guitar, harmonica.  And I sing as well.

  • PragmaticMom

    Should practicing be something that is self-driven by the child versus making the kids achieve a practice goal? At what point should your child want to practice or choose to spend their time working on music? We don’t do practice goals with our kids for sports skills, for example.

  • Rachel Jenkins

    As a professional player and teacher I agree that set amounts of time are not the way to go. However, setting a goal such as playing a small section without mistakes is also a bit intense too. If that were me when I was eight, I would get upset more and more if a specific mistake kept happening (and it does if you tell yourself “No mistakes allowed”). Students need to feel special and rewarded through their music-making and having a teacher who is passionate about Music and the instrument makes a big difference. Getting a child to ‘fall in love’ with an instrument is the primary aim from an educator’s perspective. Once this is achieved the practice becomes automatic (as someone else commented re. we don’t need to make children practice sports). Regarding ‘mistakes’, I tell my kids these do not matter and that we learn from mistakes, and that includes me.

    • Viktoria Kaposi

      Hi, I like your comment so much…. I am passionate about music and about my son. I believe in my child and the power of music.

    • Vivace Teacher

      The first time you or student plays a piece should be the time that mistakes are avoided by playing slowly. When my students (even and especially the oung ones) are earning a small section, I reward the attention required to learn it correctly by challenging them to play with no mistakes, disregarding tempo. I put out 3 Skittles, and tell them if they play it correctly, the Skittles are all theirs. If they make a mistake I eat one of them. This really challenges them to concentrate, which is a difficult thing to do at first. Once they have learned something, though, even if it is wrong, I usually don’t try to “fix” it because it is much more frustrating to change a learned behavior.

  • guest

    I hate practice help me

  • MusicTech

    Interesting post on rewards and motivations behind practice. There’s a neat app on the Apple Store called Music Quest that’s trying to do the same thing.

    It’s an app designed for kids 5-12 that gets them excited to practice by tracking their times and generating on-screen responses. Kids like using it because they can see the results of their efforts faster.

    Give it a try?

  • Cherie Spannenburg

    I tell my students that it’s how they practice that matters. They should set their own goals each practice. As they are often busy with other activities such as homework or sport, I give them a “Practice Menu”. One quarter of their practice should be their appetiser – warm up, scales etc. Half of their practice should be the repertoire they need to work on, taking time to work on sections or phrases and put it all back together for a “performance”. The last quarter is dessert. They should finish on a positive note by playing what they like to play – popular music, band music etc so that the last thing they remember about practice was fun – not the frustration of still not quite getting that passage right. It seems to work with my students reasonably well.

  • eugenecantera

    I’m not sure anyone “likes” to practice (I know I don’t!) but this post does a good job of presenting a few ideas to make things simpler. Here’s another take:

    • Alana

      There are plenty of people who like to practice–in fact, LOVE to practice. Passion music and your instrument (the cello in my case) and the successes of daily goal-oriented practice keeps me coming back.

      • Alana

        Passion *for* music….typo!

  • Mil

    2 of my 3 kids are taking piano lessons. The 10yo is on his 3rd year and usually practices without me having to remind him. The 8yo (on her 1st year) needs a little more motivation: it encourages them a lot to tell them that every other day they will play for me or their dad. I know nothing about piano, but just sitting there and clap when they finish, and tell them how good it sounded (if in fact it sounded good) or tell them it may sound better with practice, has worked better for us than timing, making them practice 3-5 times each piece every day, or the no mistakes approach.

  • Viktoria Kaposi

    “Getting a child to ‘fall in love’ with an instrument is the primary aim from an educator’s perspective.” – i am so happy to read this. What I as a parent is doing, trying to inspire him in every possible way… What can be fun for a 6 years old boy? Colouring sheets, telling him fairy tales about the power/fun/mystery of music, watching sometimes youtube, listening to music, that HE LIKES, and yes, i have bought a good deal of extra stuff from amazon. Reading, writing music notes is also fun! Finding the good attitude is the trick I think. Never push a child. And now it happens that suddenly my son can say – mom, i would like to play this song! And then he sits at the piano and practises. Not for 30 minutes, oh, no! maybe 10? and that is great! If he is really interested he will increase the time self. At least this is my best hope :)

  • Viktoria Kaposi

    I also took my 6 yo son to the concert of the “Recycling Orchestra”. These kids were not pressed to practice i think at all…. They have just got TIME and OPPORTUNITY to DISCOVER what music can do…

  • BocaMom

    I am extremely frustrated. I have a teen who made All-District and All-State Bands all through middle school on sheer talent. She does not work particularly hard and usually puts effort in only about a week before an audition. She does enjoy the accolades that come with making prestigious bands. She is now in high school and does not seem to care at all about the upcoming auditions. She did not work hard before All State and did not make it. She was very disappointed. All-District auditions are now in one week and she does not seem to be too concerned. How do I motivate her to work for these things? She’s not a little kid anymore and has a very busy schedule.

  • MattB

    I think holding up great musicians as role models could help too. Look at what he (she) does! Don’t you want to be able to play like that? They had to practice just like you and now look at their success. You can do it too.

  • Ross

    Good idea, but for some parents a real challenge is not knowing enough to be able to offer real assistance, eg can’t read music enough to identify an error. Another example for young students playing eg a wind instrument, the parent can’t offer assistance in corrective action to produce sounds to play a piece that they can’t read. All of this leads to frustration for students and parents.

    • V-Share Trailers

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  • Edward Motter-Vlahakos

    Sometimes, for me, getting students the music they want entails me transcribing a particular pop song for them, that involves a lot of decisions for me about trying to be true to the original melody so the students can play along with the track (key, rhythm, register, etc) or transpose the piece to an easier key and with a simplified rhythm which will enable them to play it more easily. Sometimes giving them a very difficult transcription which is clearly beyond their current abilities is an excellent motivator, and sometimes it isnt, every student is a unique individual who responds to a wide range of positive or negative reinforcements- some will rise to the challenge and work their butts off to be able to conquer the piece and some will curl up in a little tearful ball and quit. One parent came up with an excellent motivator for her daughter (who was a very commercially minded girl), she paid her $5 for every day that she practiced on her own for 30 minutes or more- but at the end of the week the child had to pay for her lesson herself. Pretty quickly the student realized that if she practiced 7 days a week she would be turning a $10 profit weekly, and promptly doubled her efforts at home. Everyone is different, and part of our job as teachers is learning what makes each pupil tick, and helping them develop good discipline which will reward them with a wealth of achievements, both in music and life. This is the way we do it at my studio, anyway…

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  • Yasa540

    As a responsible pianist I wanna teach my little brother guitar. Actually I play a houndred of videos or audios from youtube to motivate and encourge him and Another aim is I wanna Develop his listening and playing skill by ear. In fact each individual has a memory of sounds if this part will be filled the child will have more encourgement to play the piece. And I really aviod compreing him with his friends and Definitaley I’ll help him to budget his time to do every thing.

  • Gail Cavanaugh

    I have been teaching piano for about ten years now. I taught in after school programs where I had a waiting list for children to get into the class. I taught in groups of six. In the beginning, children were distracted by the others in the class and engaged in talking with each other. I spread them around the class away from each other and gave them several songs to practice. This worked so that by the end of the quarter, they were able to play in a recital for their parents. I have a very low drop out rate because the children were interested in playing piano.

    I now have a student who I am teaching privately in her home who is not diligent about her studies. I tell the children that I have to practice new songs just like they do and that all piano players have to practice every day.

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