Happy New Year! In the spirit of resolution, are you thinking about your current schedule and perhaps finding renewed energy for making practice time sparkle this upcoming year? I’d love to share my long-term-vision strategy for constructing a piano practice plan.
The first practice question that is sure to come up is simply: what behavior do you want to occur? Not too hard to answer, is it? As an adult with perspective and vision (and access to lots of research articles), you know that your child benefits from her daily practice in ways she can’t fully comprehend yet. You want to see a cheerful response whenever you remind your child it’s time to practice for the day!
Question number two sometimes gets overlooked: what do you hope her motivation to be for that behavior? That’s what this article is about: creating a practice plan that doesn’t plow ahead and leave this important consideration in the dust.
My biggest hopes are that my child falls in love with making music and finds a way to express herself and her creativity through this medium, that it becomes a great tool for her to relax and have fun with other musicians and family members, and that the allure of mastering challenges and creating beauty keep her gravitating to the piano of her own free will throughout her lifetime. A child who can tap into these intrinsic motivators will power up her own music practice for years! (even when she doesn’t have me there to remind her.)
I’m guessing you are not excited to hear your child say, “I only practice so I can get my privileges,” and “I practice because I have to, but I never want to.” You don’t want her to burn out on music just because you are not there to give her a treat (extrinsic motivator) every day. So what can be done?
Set the Stage
I suggest this step first because it’s straightforward. Set up your piano or keyboard in an inviting, uncluttered space. If you want your child to gravitate to the piano easily, make it a pleasant experience to be at the piano.
Share Your Vision
Before making any other changes or plans, get a peek inside your child’s mind. Talk to your child about why you think practicing is worthwhile. Side note: it is a great exercise for you to pinpoint why you care about daily practice!
“Hey Johnny, come sit with me for a minute. I’m so excited for this new semester of music to start up- you sure are learning a lot of things in class! I’ve been thinking about practices, and I’m thinking it’s pretty important to get that done every day…’
‘I noticed how confident you seem when you’re heading to class, fully prepared for the goals of the week. ‘
‘I love how when you’re all caught up on practice you really participate in class and keep up. You seem to have a lot more fun in class than on the days when you didn’t know the songs very well.’
‘It seems like you have a lot more fun playing when we do it daily- it doesn’t seem to be as scary or as tricky as when we miss a few days. This is important to me, because I love seeing you have fun and I hope you’ll love making music as much as I do.’
‘And when you are caught up on practice, I really notice how capable you are at learning everything your teacher taught you. I get really excited because I think you’ll love some of the cool things you’re going to learn.’
‘Do you want to hear one more really cool thing? I read some articles online about how practicing music makes your brain actually bigger! and helps you be a better thinker and helps you learn how to work on hard things without giving up! Those are all really cool things I hope for you to have, and those are some of the reasons why I really care about helping you practice every day.’
Okay, reality check! Some children can handle this whole conversation in one dose, and others might digest it better in small chunks. I don’t think of this as a huge lecture. I do think you do yourself a disservice if your child doesn’t know WHY you are asking him practice.
Whatever few phrases you use, engage him with, “Do you also notice that? Do you also feel that way? Can you tell me what it’s like for you when you go to class prepared (or not)?” Then sit still and listen! If you bring up these ideas just after a successful practice, you may be rewarded with something like: “Why yes, I did really had fun playing that piece and I’m delighted that I learned it in just one week. My practice really did pay off!”
Helping your child realize that he has fun making music and enjoys the challenge of mastering songs is your way of helping him discover the intrinsic motivation to stick with music. It comes from inside him: talking about the good feelings and experiences going on in there will help him be aware of it! In the long-term, this will be a longer-lasting motivation than weekly stickers and prizes.
Practice time involves the student, so have the student help decide how to make practice time work. Talk to your child about how this thing could be most enjoyable, and hear what he thinks would be enjoyable. “Well, you know I am excited to see you practice every day, so help me figure out what we can do to make it work really well and be most fun.”
‘I guess I like it best if I practice after dinner. In the morning I’m too sleepy.’
‘I guess I better just do it in the morning… when I get home from school I just want to play.’
‘I do like to play duets with Mom…that always makes practice more fun.’
‘I want Mom or my teacher to give me a prize so I can look forward to it.’
‘If you help me play the games from class as part of practice, that would be fun.’
‘I like it when I have a few minutes of free time to play my own stuff.’
‘I like it if you play for me sometimes, so I can just listen.’
‘I like it if you give me stickers to help me see my progress.’
‘I like to decide the order of what I practice.’
‘I like to set a timer so I know when I will be done.’
Draft an agreement with your child. It can be written or just spoken (but you might forget if you don’t write it down.) We will agree to practice after dinner an set the timer for 15 minutes, and we’ll be sure to play duets at least once each week and Mom will provide cute stickers to mark of practices, etc.
And When We Miss the Mark?
Once you agree on a few points of when/how practice will happen, ask “What will each of us do if we miss a practice?” Hear how your child is willing to be held accountable and let your child know how you plan to react.
‘Johnny, will you agree to come to the piano nicely when I remind you that it is time? If we are too busy one day to practice in the morning, will you agree to practice before bed?’ (or twice on another day, or practice on the “day off” day). Also consider: if he has met the goals of the week, will he be allowed to slack off for a few days, and what does that look like? ‘If you can show me that you are ready with all the goals for class, you may spend the last practice of the week playing anything you want’.
‘I want to be helpful to you, so I’ll promise to remind you when I notice practice time is coming. Do you prefer a 5-minute or 10-minute warning? I’ll also agree to sit by you for the first 2 practices each week, so you can get help if you need it.’
‘It will break the agreement if I call you to practice and you throw a tantrum. If you want to practice at the alternate time, will you agree to talk to me politely about it and we can decide if it will work? If you decide not to come to the piano at all one day, that will also break the agreement- what should be the consequence if that happens?’ For some students, the consequence of being unprepared for class may be enough. Your child might still need extrinsic motivation (supplied by you) to get it done. Do what works with your parenting style. ‘Can we add to the agreement that in our family, each person will practice before they play computer games?’
Jump in, But Be Ready for Bumps!
Post your agreement and start having fun! When the day comes that your child doesn’t want to practice, lovingly inquire (and make guesses about) what makes practice hard.
‘Okay, Johnny, we’re here at the piano, but you seem to be having a hard time getting started…
‘Are you feeling a little nervous because this is a huge song and you are not sure where to start? Perhaps if you just figure out the right hand for these 2 measures, and play those measures 3 times, that’s enough of that song for today. ‘
‘Are you feeling worried that this might not sound right, because you don’t know it well yet? Yes, there might be a lot of mistakes today, but I love hearing your work through hard things and not give up. Let’s find the tricky part and just practice that a few times. ‘
‘Are you feeling like this song is not much fun to play, because it’s really hard and slow right now? Yeah, songs do take a lot of work at the beginning, but I know you get faster and smoother every time you play it…and that means more fun every time! How about if you work on this for a few minutes, and then play one that you know really well. ‘
‘Are you still thinking about playing with that toy you just had, and wishing you could keep doing that right now? Yes, that was fun, it would be nice to have more time to do that. You’ll be able to play again in 20 minutes. I bet if we play this song a few times, you’ll start having fun at piano, and the 20 minutes will pass really quickly.’
‘I’m noticing that you really need to wiggle today! How about if you play through the assignments, and do five jumping jacks between each one?’
If your child can tell that you really understand why this is so hard for him right now, he is more likely to listen to your suggestion for moving forward.
The Unilateral Decision
Hopefully your child was able to understand some of your wisdom and reasons for encouraging daily practice. If he’s having fun in class and having fun bonding with you around the piano, he probably bought into the practice agreement, and isn’t surprised that you follow through daily to check if it’s getting done.
Occasionally a child may announce he just doesn’t want anything to do with music lessons. Take time to be curious: is your child feeling over-scheduled? Feeling negative pressure associated with music lessons? Just wishing for more playtime? Nervous about attacking challenges? Was he originally interested, and what caused a change? If suggesting these ideas strikes a chord with your child, perhaps he can finally understand his own feelings and find out what he thinks (he may not know exactly) and help him find a strategy to get what he needs while still meeting your request for practice.
In the end, it’s up to the wise parent to weigh the benefits of musical education and decide how important it is to the family. As the parent, you can make music lessons a unilateral decision (no voting!). You’ve probably already made decisions about going to school or church or certain behaviors. Your children learn that “that’s just the way we do things in our family, and it’s not up for a vote.”
‘Johnny, I can tell that you don’t enjoy practice right now. I really care about you, and I know there are so many great things that will come to you if we stick with the music program. I have many dreams for you, and musicianship is one gift I want to give you. It is very important to me that I do my part to be sure you have this gift, so I would be too sad to let you stop music lessons. I’m going to do everything I can to help you have fun and catch my vision. I am pretty sure that one day you will!’
Your long-term vision is to have a child reaping the many advantages of musical education, all the while loving the adventure.
Right now, he is young and the challenges of learning music are new. He loves practicing music because he loves and trusts you, he loves his teacher, he is excited about prizes, he has fun with you at the piano, and he wants to avoid the consequences of missing practice.
Over time, an exciting thing will happen- he’ll start finding his own enjoyment at making beautiful music, he’ll find joy in overcoming the challenges of learning new material, and he’ll feel the pleasure of creating. He’ll practice because he’s intrinsically motivated to practice, and because he’s caught your long-term vision.
I wish you the best as you help your child catch on to your long-term vision this year!
Gina Weibel, M.S.
Let’s Play Music Teacher