No, my post title is not very concise or catchy, but let’s be real. There is nothing cute or fun about spending money on instrumental lessons and then having to regularly battle with your child during practice sessions.
No matter how much a child loves music, learning an instrument is HARD WORK. Practicing for improvement is SUPPOSED to push you out of your comfort zone, and there is always going to be some frustration along the way. I don’t claim to have all the answers; every child is different, every practice session is different. But, I do have some insights that have helped to make home practice more productive and less of a fight for me and my son.
- Realize that your child needs help learning how to practice. Yes, your child is now taking lessons, but they are not going to be able to systematically work through their assignments unassisted for several years. Learning How To Practice is one of the most important skills a musician can learn. This is why I recommend that you:
- Take an active role in weekly lessons. I know, I know, it’s a HALF AN HOUR where no one is talking to you or touching you, and you can actually finish a cup of coffee and surf your phone with no interruptions. However, knowing not only WHAT your child is working on in lessons, but HOW the teacher works through the material is essential to effective at-home practice. Consistency is key with teaching, and it will make things easier for both you and your child if you can use similar processes and language during practice at home.
- Make a list. Once you know the weekly assignments, make a list to keep in the practice area. Each time something is practiced, make a star, a check, or a place sticker by that list item. This gives a visual of cumulative progress, and also ensures that nothing is neglected if you don’t hit everything at each practice session.
- Figure out what order works best for your child’s level of focus/mood. Sometimes my son does best “eating the frog” — getting the hardest assignments done right away while his brain and attention are still fresh. Other times, he does better “coating the pill with peanut butter” — starting and ending with something easy/fun, sandwiching the tricky stuff in the middle. Preference might change from day to day — this is one thing that I try to give my son control over. Which brings me to:
- Give choices and control when you can. Daily practice is non-negotiable in our house, BUT my son can choose whether he wants to practice after breakfast, after school, or after dinner. He can choose the order of practice items (using the star chart list as a guide to what needs attention.) He can choose take a brain break and come back in a few minutes, or keep pushing through. That brings me to:
- Know when to step away. Children age 5-6 can usually attend to an activity for 10-15 minutes if it is interesting to them, 5-10 minutes if the activity is difficult for them (Source). If a child is frustrated and fighting you, no amount of wheedling, bribery, or coercion is going to make them learn. Take a break and come back later.
- Reframe failure and celebrate success. “I can’t do it!” YET. “I don’t know how to play this!” YET. Get in the habit of emphasizing that practice and hard work make things easier. I always try to talk about The Process with my son when praising him; “You did that line so slowly and carefully!” “I could tell you were really thinking about your fingering!” “You worked and worked and now it’s getting easier!” Take time to revisit older songs and celebrate how easy they feel now.
- Put yourself in your child’s shoes. Children are in a constant state of growth, learning new things, and being asked to leave their comfort zone. Learning is exhausting! Keep this in mind, and be gentle with your little musician (and yourself!) as you navigate this journey together.
If practicing is a constant power struggle, try to include your child in brainstorming some solutions. Not going to lie, no matter what you do, there will be days of whining, screaming, and tears. However, try to see practice sessions as a time that you can connect with your child and work together to build a relationship with music and with each other. Music is a skill, but it is also a source of joy and togetherness!