How to Help Your Child Practise a Musical Instrument (and enjoy it!)

My pupils love their lessons - I know because they tell me... and they keep coming back (thank you!)! But I get the impression that some children/teenagers don't play the piano at home very much. This is a pity, because 'practice' is the most important part of learning a musical instrument - it is a magical place where discoveries are made, and where a child/teen can develop their own unique connection to their music! 

Practice is the 'fun' part... something to look forward to, not something to Look forward to completing!

Some teachers hesitate in using the word 'practice' because of the negative connotations it can have. I'm tentative about the word, too. Consider the following, which I've heard from parents in the past:

"You can't play your DS until you've done your practice."
"You can only watch TV for the same amount of time that you've practised piano."
"[Using a timer] Practise until the alarm goes off."

Here, practice is treated as a 'chore' - something to be done before fun can happen! Perhaps, parents are so busy trying to be good parents, that piano is added to a list of tasks a child needs to accomplish, in order for life to go smoothly?

But surely, the piano is the fun?! Or at least it should be...?

Without regular ENJOYABLE practice, pupils forget what they learn in lessons and music can become a 'chore'. When a pupil doesn't feel that they're progressing, this can lead them to give up altogether; for ANY HUMAN BEING, when life becomes a series of tasks on a check list, we know too well that the focus is on 'getting it done' rather than 'enjoying the process'.

Over the years, I've worked with many families who've been able to get this right. They are able to nurture the child, acknowledging the effort involved, but without the negative baggage. For parents, it really is a delicate balancing act! Here are a few tips that might help:

A parent's attitude is EVERYTHING. If the parent views piano as a chore, this view will be passed on to children, whether you realise or not! Remember that your child does actually like music. It's a privilege for anyone lucky enough to have a piano at home, and to be able to attend lessons. Don't lose sight of how wonderful that is!

Practice should happen every day. At first, just a few minutes is enough to get the child accustomed to sitting down to play regularly. And, no matter how old your child is, if he/she looks a bit lost, uninspired or unfocused, sit with him/her! Everyone can benefit from a little moral support sometimes.

Practice should be focused. I love fun piano games. Just exploring the instrument and playing around is valuable. But this shouldn't be a substitute for learning what was set in the lesson. Also, if 'practice' involves playing every piece from start to finish, then your child is most likely not practising properly! Follow the teacher's instructions by working on a particular bar or section, or a particular technique, for example. If this seems tedious or difficult, encourage your child to persist for just a little longer. Children build up a capacity to concentrate for longer, and it does get easier!

Help children understand longer-term goals. Younger children are very much focused on the here and now, and might find it hard to understand that short, regular practising really makes a difference! Frame things in a positive way so the child knows they're making a difference with every minute spent focusing. Don't nag. It's not good for you, or the child, or your relationship with the child... and it doesn't work, anyway!

Make it a routine "Practice only on the days you eat" said Suzuki. Little and often is best, and when children are in a routine, they're less likely to have problems with motivation.

Try mornings. Many young children are tired after school. Catch them while they're fresh!

Make it tangible. (Proceed with caution here!) Sticker charts can be a good way for a child to see their progress and effort. Some teachers like to set incentive schemes for pupils, and this can be useful. Personally, I like for the music to be an incentive. Encourage your child to be happy about practising, not happy about finishing practising!

Set goals. How about a 'performance' in front of family, friends or neighbours? Or, try "when you've finished this book, we'll go to the music shop for a treat, and you can chose a new one" OR "when you've done your grade, we'll go and see a piano concert". Make the music the reward!

Make it social. Share! Find a friend or sibling who can play an instrument, and organise a 'music party'. Or ask your child to teach you a tune! Practising can be a lonely experience, so include other people wherever possible!

Find inspiration. Go and watch live music. There is no substitute.

DON'T close the door shut every time a child is practising. Make it 'normal' for others to hear what they do so they can avoid feeling self-conscious! You want to give them the message that what they're doing is valuable, and that, even though their music might not be perfect, it sounds good to hear them working on it, and developing their playing. Build their confidence, so they can enjoy playing the piano to express themselves. 

And most importantly....

Praise, praise, praise!  Positive comments are fuel for productive practising!