playing guitar.jpgParents of young children are familiar with that most engaging and slippery of childlike characteristics: enthusiasm. You wake up one day to hear your child say, “I want to play the flute!” Happy to support such initiative, you run out to sign the child up for lessons. The next week, the flute lies dormant in its case, as your child has moved on to new infatuations like horseback riding lessons or karate. The fickle young brain has struck again.

But, say your child does make it past that stage and actually sticks it out with a chosen instrument for a couple of weeks or even months. Then, a new challenge awaits: practicing the instrument. Indeed, most parents dread practice more than their child. For, it is very often the parent who is there enforcing the practice time, making sure it gets done. Just how do you get your child to practice?

Montclair resident John Werner signed his son Liam up for trumpet lessons when Liam was younger. While John says that it is important “not to push too hard to practice,” Liam took to the instrument and soon branched out into piano, bass and mellophone as well. “We built benchmarks for him,” says John. “We weren’t that formal about it. But, we would say, ‘If you want a new horn next year, we need to hear more practice.'” This gave Liam the push he needed.

Tory Daines who teachers violin at the Montclair Music Studio advises that parents are important in the beginning, when kids are establishing routine. “From my experience, initial parental involvement in a child’s practicing sessions is the successful way to teach a child to have good practicing habits. Slowly allowing the child to use what she has learned to practice alone is the successful way to allow a child to come into practicing on her own.”

Setting up performance goals is also a technique that John says worked well with Liam. Often a teacher will set up recitals or gigs for students. But, a parent can also set up informal “performances” for relatives or friends. Getting your child to master one or two pieces that he feels comfortable playing in front of others goes a long way toward increasing your child’s confidence in performing. Auditions for special groups are another ways to motivate your child to practice.

Matt Sandoski, General Manager of Montclair’s School of Rock, agrees that offering kids group performance opportunities is the key to success. “Participation in jam sessions and rehearsals gives students a tangible, common goal and is key to creating motivation to practice for new or experienced musicians (kids or otherwise).”

Of course, School of Rock’s particular genre also adds the “cool” factor that might lure otherwise uninterested kids to consistent practice. Says Sandoski, “When budding musicians are provided with a frequent and consistent outlet for musical creativity, outside of the theoretical lessons of the classroom, they respond positively to the pressure of keeping up with peers, and it drives them to achieve their own goals.” It seems that the great social connections that kids often gain from playing together can in fact work as a benevolent peer pressure in raising the bar for practice.

Teenager Alex Intner, an Alto Sax player from Glen Ridge, reports that his school’s marching band also provides another incentive: running laps. “If we don’t know the music for marching band, we have to run laps around the field.” And that is motivation enough for anyone!

While there is no formula for getting your child to practice, parents can follow a few general guidelines:

  • Build in small rewards. For younger children, these may need to be material rewards, like M&M’s for every few songs played (one my own mother tried on me when I was a kid–to some moderate success!) Later, rewards can be more organic to the process: allowing a child to sign up for a music workshop or camp if practicing goals continue to be met.
  • Consistency is more important than number of hours. The ideal world scenario would have a child practicing the instrument every day for a set amount of time. The length of time isn’t as important as the consistency of practicing everyday or every other day, since this will build the habit.
  • Try to set up practicing at the same general time every day.
  • Talk to your child about what he does at a lesson. Montclair Music Studio advises parents to keep the dialogue about music going outside of the minutes of the lesson.
  • Bring your child to concerts and other music events. Montclair Music Studio offers this tip. It will help your child to see where she might go with her playing.

Realize that if your child isn’t the most consistent in his practice habits, it’s not the end of the world. Many times a child develops these habits after gaining maturity and after seeing the value of playing the instrument. This can sometimes take a year or two, or even longer. Bottom Line: If the child enjoys playing, however sporadically, then she is still drawn to the instrument and parents should nourish this affinity.

Richard Stillman is a Montclair teacher who teaches banjo, mandolin, guitar, ukulele, pennywhistle and bagpipes, out of his home. He agrees with Daines, and advises parents not to push too far, “My general feeling is that parents should gently coax but not force their children to practice. If it gets to be a struggle each time, they might consider another activity where the child has his own motivation.”

Cynthia Darling is a freelance writer whose work appears in “Teaching Music” magazine. She is also a frequent contributor at Barista Kids
(Photo: Flickr/woodleywonderworks)

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