Getting Your Child To Practice

by Jan Caimano – Associate Director, The Ridgewood Conservatory

Although playing a musical instrument can be great fun, and performing in public is often exhilarating – practicing an instrument every day can be SO boring! We know very few professional musicians who just love to practice. We know even fewer students who are enamored of the process.

Here’s what we do know:

Everyone Needs An Incentive

If you’re like most adults, you probably wouldn’t go to work every day if you weren’t getting paid. Student-musicians also need some compensation for their hard work. While it’s true that enhanced performance should be reward enough for the long hours of practicing required to play an instrument well – many children need something a bit more concrete (and fun!) to entice them into putting in the effort.

No, we’re not suggesting that you shell out big bucks to get your child to practice…but there are other “currencies” that work just as well. Praise works. Gold stars work. Incentive programs work. You might find that younger children practice without complaint if they know there’s a special snack or fun activity waiting for them after their work is done. Older children respond well to an incentive program with long-range goals. We suggest tailoring the incentive to the child’s age, setting longer term goals as your child gets older.

When our son, Ben, was 7 or 8 years old, we created a weekly practice chart that we hung on the wall. A week of five good practices (big, bright stars on the chart) earned him extra television time or a video rental on the weekend. As he grew older, his incentives grew bigger: a month of good practices might earn a new computer game or a trip to a theme park. Establishing incentives and working toward increasingly greater goals helped Ben become responsible for his own success.

People Need People

Many youngsters who are happy to spend hours alone with a video game controller in their hands, can’t seem to spend one minute alone with their musical instrument.

Ben has never liked to be alone when he practices. In the beginning, he just wanted us to listen and applaud. (He hated it when Lou would correct a missed note or ask him to play something over!) Ben would practice flute in the kitchen while I made dinner, and piano before bed while Lou did some paperwork or made reeds. Even as a teenager, Ben liked company when he practiced. He didn’t care if we watched television with headphones covering our ears, read a book, or worked on the computer. In fact, he didn’t want critiques or comments on his playing at all. He just hated feeling like he’d been banished to another room to practice the same old stuff all alone.

Timing Is Everything

The time of day set aside for practicing is often just as important as the amount of time spent on the instrument. You’ll get the best results if you choose a time when your child isn’t distracted, tired or rushed.

Personally, I am a big advocate of setting aside a regular time for music. I don’t care whether it’s before breakfast, after school, at dinnertime or before bed. I just want it to be non-negotiable. We’ve tried them all. As a youngster, Ben did better in the morning. He had more patience, and so did we. As he grew older, Ben practiced before going to bed. His homework was done, he had finished the sport of the day and taken his shower, and he was (for the moment) done eating us out of house and home.

And yes, making beautiful music finally became its own reward for our teenage son. It just took some creative thinking, a great deal of “noodging,” continual encouragement, nagging, time management skills, and lots and lots of patience. It’s been worth the effort.