After years of raising musical children and teaching violin, I've figured out how to help kids practice musical instruments better. Here's how to make practice time more effective while keeping your kids motivated.
If you're going to put the money into lessons and expensive instruments, you likely want to see a return on that investment. The best return is to hear sweet music coming from your child's instrument as they demonstrate their maturing self discipline with daily practice.
Easier said than done.
Right now three of my four kids play musical instruments. Esme has been playing the violin for 6 years. Eila played the violin for 1 year and then switched to piano, which she's played for a little over 2 years now. Ada has been playing the piano for about 9 months.
We've definitely traveled through some hills and valleys as I've tried to figure out how to help kids practice musical instruments better. But after years of working at it, we've learned a few things that make it easier and more worthwhile for all of us.
How to Help Kids Practice Musical Instruments Better
Practice With Your Kids
I've found that if I just send my kids in to practice on their own, very little actual practicing happens. They'll play through their songs a few times, get up and down for a glass of water, a kleenex, another glass of water, and call it done.
On the other hand, if I sit down in the same room, or right next to them on the piano bench, there's a lot more productive practicing.
Now that Esme is 12 and has been practicing for years, I don't need to spend an entire practice session by her side. Still, I normally start a practice session with her to see what she plans to work on. Then, after she's practiced on her own, I'll come back and have her show me how it went.
Know the Music
It really helps if you know what your child's music is supposed to sound like. If they're practicing a piece wrong all week long, their practice time, even if they do it diligently, won't be very effective. Likewise, if you know what they're aiming for and can correct or guide them when they're missing something, they'll be able to put their practice hours to better use.
This doesn't mean you need to know how to read their music or play their instrument. It helps if you're musically inclined, but you can still be a great parent coach even if the only thing you can play is an out of tune note on a harmonica. Here's how:
- Go to your child's lessons and pay attention to what the teacher asks them to work on - take notes, maybe even record the lesson. Often all your child needs is a gentle reminder of what they were taught during the lesson.
- Listen to professional recordings of the pieces they are working on so that you can hear what they're supposed to sound like. Have them listen with you!
Work Through Trouble Spots
All of my kids, and every violin student I have ever taught, initially thinks that practicing just means playing through their piece a few times. However, just playing a piece through from beginning to end several times in a row doesn't get you very far. What happens is the student just continues to repeat the mistakes over and over again.
To really practice, you have to stop when you hit a trouble spot. This is a great way for parent coaches to make a real difference at home.
As you're sitting with your child during practice time, stop them when they hit a measure that's giving them trouble. Have them work through just that one trouble spot several times until they correct the mistake. Then start over.
This is something that kids don't often do on their own, but with your help, they'll make leaps and bounds in their practicing.
Use the Strategy of Convenience
About a year ago I noticed that it was much easier for Eila to fit in piano practice time throughout the day than it was for Esme to play her violin often. After paying a little bit of attention, I realized that with the piano open and easy to access in the living room, it was convenient for Eila to sit down and run through a song whenever she had a few extra minutes.
Esme, however, had to get her violin out of her case, tune its strings, and tighten the bow before every practice. Then she had to put everything away when she was done. This meant she was much less likely to get out her violin and practice multiple times throughout the day.
After I read Better Than Before, I realized that I could make practicing the violin more convenient. According to Gretchen Rubin, we're much more likely to do things if they're convenient and easy to do.
I bought a hook so the violin and bow could hang on the living room wall where Esme would have easy access to it. This has made a world of difference!
Is there something you could do to make it more convenient for your child to practice their musical instrument?
Take A New Approach To Setting Goals
Practicing an instrument regularly can help a child master self discipline and teach them how to achieve personal fulfillment and success throughout their life. But this level of self-motivation does not come naturally to most children.
Helping kids set goals is an important step on the path towards self-motivation and self-discipline.
Set daily practice goals. This can be an amount of time per day. This can be a challenge like the 100 Days of Practicing Challenge.
Another goal that we've found useful is to set a goal to improve/master a specific technique or problem area in a piece of music. So, rather than say "I'm going to practice for 30 minutes," Eila will say, "I'm going to practice until I play this scale perfectly 3 times in a row."
As your kids achieve their daily practice goals, their confidence and motivation will grow and make practicing consistently even easier.
Motivation is Key
It's also helpful to have long term goals to work towards, like recitals and other performances.
Recitals can be very motivating, but they often only happen once or twice a year. In the meantime, find more ways to motivate your kids to work hard.
- Find local or regional competitions
- Register to perform at local music festivals
- Host informal "music nights" at your own home and have your kids perform for friends or family members
- Look for as many opportunities as you can to have your child perform in front of an audience - at church, at school, etc. Not only will this give them something to work towards when they practice, but it will help them get used to performing.
- Make frequent video recordings at home so they can hear their own progress and set goals to improve. This can be very motivating! This is something that I have done with many violin students with great success.
This one can feel a little tricky, but here's my take on it.
Kids are hardwired to stay inside their comfort zones. As adults, we can gently and lovingly push them to expand those comfort zones and grow.
Most kids don't LOVE to practice. But they will love it when they see how much their hard work pays off. It builds confidence to do things that are hard! This is why they need parent coaches to expect more of them and help them to move past their own limitations.
Occasionally it really is the right thing to do to let a kid quit playing an instrument. Most of the time though, they just need a little push.
What I've seen happen to a lot of kids is that it starts to feel hard so they pull back. They say they don't want to practice, they don't want to go to the lessons or play in the school band anymore. However, what they're really saying is "this is uncomfortable and I don't know if I'm good enough." When you let them quit, what they hear is that you didn't really think they could do it either.
When you expect more from your kids - more practicing, better practicing, more goals, more commitment - you're telling them that you have confidence in their ability to improve, grow, and succeed.
It can take some trial and error as you figure out how to help kids practice musical instruments better, but as you implement these steps you'll see improvement quickly!
Your kids need you to be their parent coach and when they know that you're in their corner, cheering them on, and pushing them when it's hard, they'll have both the confidence and the desire to keep working at it.