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The Parent Show Blog

Tips for Getting Kids to Voluntarily Practice a Musical Instrument

‘Tiger Mother’ Amy Chua created an outrage recently when she admitted that she once forced her 3-year-old daughter to practice a complex piano piece over and over again – denying her dinner, water and bathroom breaks – until it was perfected. While Chua’s actions were extreme (some have called it abusive), they raise a good question: Barring duct tape and rope, just how do you get a free-wheeling child to practice a musical instrument? Here are a few tips.

1. Pick the right instrument. It may be tempting to decide which instrument your child learns – especially if you happen to already have a piano sitting in your living room or a drum set in your basement – but keep in mind that different instruments work better for different temperaments, and a poor match will mean your child is more likely to drag his feet come practice time. “There has to be some reason you’re picking the instrument,” says violin teacher and education PhD Heather Allen Descollonges. “[Parents should] pick an instrument that the child has expressed interest in or that has some relevance to their lives.”

So pay attention to what music your child likes to listen to. If your ear can’t distinguish the music of, say, an oboe from that of a bassoon, the San Francisco Orchestra has a great Web site designed to introduce kids (and adults) to the sounds of various orchestral instruments. But besides sound, you should also consider the physical requirements of the instrument: The violin, for instance, can be hard for children to learn because of the technical skills and dexterity it calls for, while larger instruments like the tuba or the trombone may require a certain physical stature of the player.

2. Don’t practice inside a vacuum. All too often, there’s no connection between practice and the rest of the musical world, but Descollonges says that the more you expose your children to live music – be it from a symphony orchestra or a high school marching band — the more interested they will be in practicing at home. But it’s not just about performances, check out a local band during one of their practice sessions; this will give your child a sense of how other musicians hone their craft. Better yet, find other kids who play instruments and set up an ensemble “jam” session so that your child can play with others after practicing solo.

3. Establish a comfortable practice spot at home. Beginning musicians make a lot of noise – not all of it pleasant. Even so, refrain from banishing your burgeoning music maker to the basement. Instead, find a spot in your house that is comfortable and free from clutter and electronic games and encourage your child to practice in the same space every day. “[It’s about] creating a ritual around practice,” says Descollonges.

4. Aim for a short daily sessions over a longer, less frequent sessions. Descollonges says she’d rather have a child practice a musical instrument for five minutes a day every day instead of 20 minutes two-three times each week. That’s because the more frequent sessions, though shorter, help develop a child’s “muscle memory” for the instrument, and are less likely to end in tears or bribery.

5. Forget bribes. Sticker charts might work for around-the-house tasks like vacuuming, but using them to encourage practicing a musical instrument will only make practice seem like a chore. Instead, reward your child with a new sheet book of music of his choosing or a trip see a local performance.

6. Practice what you preach. How good are you at setting goals for yourself and working towards them? The best way to show your child the long-term benefits of daily practice to do to it yourself, maybe by playing a musical instrument or by working towards a fitness or financial goal. “Kids should know that [learning an instrument] is a long process,” says Descollonges. “Parents can model working to master something too.”

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  • Anonymous

    Short frequent practices are really a key to many kinds of learning and training.  In teaching my 5 year old to play baseball, I have him do 2 minutes of throwing the ball in the air and catching it.  Or I have him do it until he catches it a certain number of times.  At first it was twice in a row, then three times, etc.

    Burning a young kid out is a sure way to make him hate the activity.

  • Ana L. Flores

    These are great tips!  My girl is turning 4 and I see that she´s very interested in instruments, but have no idea how or when to start her. This helped

  • Sonic Maximizers

    Great tip! Your daughter very good!
    Sonic Maximizers  

  • Elvira Griffith

    You have listed out a great tips over here! Most useful and informative. Thanks for sharing.

    Activity Books for Children

  • 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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