Friday, January 10, 2014

How to Talk to Your Child About Practice

Long Term Vision

The first practice question that is sure to come up is simply: what behavior do you want to occur? Not too hard to answer, is it?  As an adult with perspective and vision (and access to lots of research articles), you know that your child benefits from her daily practice in ways she can't fully comprehend yet.  You want to see a cheerful response whenever you remind your child it's time to practice for the day.  

Question number two sometimes gets overlooked: what do you hope her motivation to be for that behavior?  That's what this article is about: creating a practice plan that doesn't plow ahead and leave this important  consideration in the dust.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

My biggest hopes are that my child falls in love with making music and finds a way to express herself and her creativity through this medium, that it becomes a great tool for her to relax and have fun with other musicians and family members, and that the allure of mastering challenges and creating beauty keep her gravitating to the piano of her own free will throughout her lifetime.  

A child who can tap into these intrinsic motivators will power up her own music practice for years! (even when she doesn't have me around to remind her.)

I'm guessing you are not excited to hear your child say, "I only practice so I can get my privileges," and  "I practice because I have to, because you're the boss."

You don't want her to quit music the day you are not there to give her a treat (extrinsic motivator) every day.  So what can be done?

Set the Stage
I suggest this step first because it's straightforward.  Set up your piano or keyboard in an inviting, uncluttered space.  Have your bubble and music player and alphabet pieces handy if they'll be needed this week.  If you want your child to gravitate to the piano easily, make it a pleasant experience to be at the piano. 

Why Do You Care?
Before making any other changes or plans, get a peek inside your child's mind.   Talk to your child about why you think practicing is worthwhile.  Side note: it is a great exercise for you to first pinpoint why you care about daily practice.

"Hey, come sit with me for a minute.  I'm so excited for this new semester of music to start up- you sure are learning a lot of things in class!  I've been thinking about practice...can I tell you what I notice?'

'I noticed how confident you seem when you're heading to class, fully prepared for the goals of the week. '

'I love how when you're all caught up on practice you really participate in class and show your teacher what you know.  You seem to have a lot more fun in class than on those days.' 

'It seems like you have a lot more fun at home, too, when we do it daily- it doesn't seem to be as scary or as tricky as it is if we skip a few days.  This is important to me, because I love seeing you have fun and I hope you'll love making music with me.'

'When you practice, I notice how capable you are at learning what your teacher shows you in class.  I get excited because I think you'll love some of the cool things you're going to learn next. You're so brave for learning hard new things.'

'Do you want to hear one more really cool thing?  Practicing music actually makes your brain bigger! and helps you be a better thinker and helps you learn how to work on hard things without giving up!  You're a kid who can think through hard problems and can work on hard things, even when they aren't easy at first. I'm so proud of you, and I'm proud of you when you struggle with something tricky, but you don't give up.'

Okay, reality check!  Some children can handle this whole conversation in one dose, and others might digest it better in small chunks.  I do think you do yourself a disservice if your child has no clue WHY you are asking him practice. 

Next, engage him with: 

Do you also notice that?  

Do you also feel that way?  

Can you tell me what it's like for you when you go to class prepared (or not)?  

Then sit still and listen!   If you bring up these ideas just after a successful practice, you may be rewarded with something like: "Why yes, I did really had fun playing that piece and I feel proud that I learned it in just one week.  My practice really did pay off!" 

Helping your child realize that he has fun making music and enjoys the challenge of mastering songs is your way of helping him discover the intrinsic motivation to stick with music.  

It comes from inside him: talking about the good feelings and experiences going on in there will help him be aware of it!  In the long-term, this will be a longer-lasting motivation than weekly stickers and prizes.

BUT... it takes years to nurture the intrinsic motivation. He's going to need you (extrinsic motivator/ coach) to help him stick with music lessons until he gets it.

Strategize Together

Practice time involves the student, so have the student help decide how to make practice time work.  Talk to your child about how this thing could be most enjoyable, and hear what he thinks would be enjoyable.  

"Well, you know I am excited to see you practice every day, so help me figure out what we can do to make it work really well and be most fun."

'I guess I like it best if I practice after dinner. In the morning I'm too sleepy.'
'I guess I better just do it in the morning... when I get home from school I just want to play.'
'I do like to play duets with you...that always makes practice more fun.'
'I want you to give me a prize so I can look forward to it.'
'If you help me play the games from class as part of practice, that would be fun.'
'I like it when I have a few minutes of free time to play my own stuff.'
'I like it if you play for me sometimes, so I can just listen.'
'I like it if you give me stickers to help me see my progress.'
'I like to decide the order of what I practice.'
'I like to set a timer so I know when I will be done.'

Warning: Your child might not be able to put the above statements into words. You can read those statements to him and say "Does this sound like how you feel?"

A Written Practice Plan

Draft an agreement with your child.  Write it down, because little people have fuzzy memories when it comes to promises to practice. 

We will agree to practice after dinner and set the timer for 15 minutes, and we'll be sure to play duets at least once each week and Mom will provide cute stickers to mark of practices.

Your agreement should include a caveat: What will we do if our preferred practice time doesn't work out one day? Make a plan, because this will happen! 

What will we do if, for some reason, we miss a whole day?  Decide in advance. It will happen!

And what if your child doesn't follow through? Ask HIM for some ideas of what the result should be.

'Johnny will agree to come to the piano nicely when I remind him.  If we are too busy one day to practice in the morning, he agrees to practice before bed.  If Johnny has a tantrum he will not have any playdates that day.'

What about the adult's roles? Ask him for ideas about what you should promise to do.

'I want to be helpful to you, so I'll promise to remind you when I notice practice time is coming.  Do you prefer a 5-minute or 10-minute warning?  I'll also agree to sit by you for the first 2 practices each week, so you can get help if you need it.'

'It will break the agreement if I call you to practice and you throw a tantrum.  If you want to practice at the alternate time, will you agree to talk to me politely about it and we can decide if it will work?  If you decide not to come to the piano at all one day, that will also break the agreement- what should be the consequence if that happens?'    

For some students, the consequence of being unprepared for class may be enough.  Your child might still need extrinsic motivation (supplied by you) to get it done.  

Do what works with your parenting style.  'Can we add to the agreement that in our family, each person will practice before they play computer games?' 

Jump in, But Be Ready for Bumps!

Post your agreement and start having fun!  When the day comes that your child doesn't want to practice, lovingly inquire (and make guesses about) what makes practice hard. 

'Okay, Johnny, we're here at the piano, but you seem to be having a hard time getting started...

'Are you feeling a little nervous because this is a huge song and you are not sure where to start?  Perhaps if you just figure out the right hand for these 2 measures, and play those measures 3 times, that's enough of that song for today. '

'Are you feeling worried that this might not sound right, because you don't know it well yet? Yes, there might be a lot of mistakes today, but I love hearing your work through hard things and not give up.  Let's find the tricky part and just practice that a few times. '

'Are you feeling like this song is not much fun to play, because it's really hard and slow right now?  Yeah, songs do take a lot of work at the beginning, but I know you get faster and smoother every time you play it...and that means more fun every time!  How about if you work on this for a few minutes, and then play one that you know really well. ' 

'Are you still thinking about playing with that toy you just had, and wishing you could keep doing that right now?   Yes, that was fun, it would be nice to have more time to do that.  You'll be able to play again in 20 minutes.  I bet if we play this song a few times, you'll start having fun at piano, and the 20 minutes will pass really quickly.'

'I'm noticing that you really need to wiggle today! How about if you play through the assignments, and do five jumping jacks between each one?' 

If your child can sense that you really understand why this is so hard for him right now, he is more likely to listen to your suggestion for moving forward. 

The Unilateral Decision

Hopefully your child was able to understand some of your wisdom and reasons for encouraging daily practice.  If he's having fun in class and having fun bonding with you around the piano, he has probably bought into the practice agreement, and isn't surprised that you follow through daily to check if it's getting done.

Occasionally a child may announce he just doesn't want anything to do with music lessons.  Take time to be curious: is your child feeling over-scheduled? Feeling negative pressure associated with music lessons?  Just wishing for more playtime?  Nervous about attacking challenges?  Sad that others got a prize in class and he didn't?

Was he originally interested, and what caused a change?  If suggesting these ideas strikes a chord with your child, perhaps he can finally understand his own feelings and find out what he thinks (he may not know exactly) and help him find a strategy to get what he needs while still meeting your request for practice.

In the end, it's up to the wise parent to weigh the benefits of musical education and decide how important it is to the family.   As the parent,  you can make music lessons a unilateral decision (no voting!).  You've probably already made decisions about going to school or church and certain behaviors.  Your children learn that "that's just the way we do things in our family, and it's not up for a vote."

'Johnny, I can tell that you don't enjoy practice right now.   I really care about you, and I know there are so many great things that will come to you if we stick with the music program.  I have many dreams for you, and musicianship is one gift I want to give you.  It is very important to me that I do my part to be sure you have this gift, so I would be too sad to let you stop music lessons.  I'm going to do everything I can to help you have fun and catch my vision.  I am pretty sure that one day soon, you will!' 

Long-Term Vision

LPM student shines
Your long-term vision is to have a child reaping the many advantages of musical education, all the while loving the adventure.  

Right now, he is young and the challenges of learning music are new.  He loves practicing music because he loves and trusts you, he loves his teacher, he is excited about prizes, he has fun with you at the piano, and he wants to avoid the consequences of missing practice.

Over time, an exciting thing will happen- he'll start finding his own enjoyment at making beautiful music, he'll find joy in overcoming the challenges of learning new material, and he'll feel the pleasure of creating.  He'll practice because he's intrinsically motivated to practice, and because he's caught your long-term vision. 

I wish you the best as you help your child catch on to your long-term vision this year!

Gina Weibel, M.S.
Let's Play Music Teacher


  1. Thanks, Gina, for your wisdom and ideas on the matter! I appreciate your positive, understanding, but firm approach.

  2. Love this! I will chat with my 6-year-old today!