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The Parent Show

Tips for Getting Kids to Voluntarily Practice a Musical Instrument

POSTED ON 05/13/11

‘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.”

Girl playing guitar

  • 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

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