1. Set up practice charts so that your child can see his/her progress. Time and frequency are two very common (and relatively easy) ways to measure and quantify practice efficacy. Completing a wall chart that documents the time spent playing as well as the frequency of practice imparts to your child that practice should happen regularly, and that it takes time to learn up new skills relevant to music learning. Wall charts allow kids to visually see their development and track their progress.
2. Make sure that practice is goal orientated and do this by talking to your kid. Of course, time and frequency are not the only ways to measure practice efficacy. The problem with saying ‘I want you to practice for ten minutes a day’ is it leads to the wrong kinds of behaviors. Kids end up setting the timer for ten minutes, playing something in their music books (or conversely not playing something and just improvising) and then leaving once their ten minutes is up. Rather than addressing fundamental flaws and errors in their playing, they reinforce their mistakes by playing their pieces start to finish, over and over again until their ten minutes has finished. Instead of asking your child how long they spent at their instrument, ask them what they practiced. Also talk about what they intend to practice before their practice session. Encourage them to write down what they intend to practice (which can be a simple to-do list that consists of isolated passages, sections, pieces or ideas), and talk to them about how they intend to practice the things on their list. After practice, ask them how it went, encourage them to talk and reflect on what was effective, what worked, what didn’t work. Doing these things develops their problem solving skills and ensures that practice is goal orientated rather than time orientated.
2. Allow time for mucking around and improvisation. Improvisation or what I tend to call ‘mucking around’ is to be encouraged because fosters creativity and discovery.
3. When they are playing challenging passages, and struggling at them, praise them for their hard work and effort. We live in a world that rewards natural ability over hard work. We praise people for the finished result, not the late nights, early mornings and many hours spent practicing. And this, in itself can send the wrong kinds of messages, especially when it comes to praising children. Educational psychology is starting to acknowledge the need to praise hard work and perseverance, because when we are challenged, we work hard, and we grow. If everything were so easy, there would be fewer opportunities to learn.
In my own experience, I’ve come across kids who have wanted to only play pieces that they know really well. These kids didn’t want to extend themselves by learning new pieces, especially when they appeared to be difficult and challenging. Part of this was probably due to fear of trying new things but when I started to reward the process this was a different story. How do you reward process? The praise should sound like this:
“I am so impressed that you have kept trying to get that part right and that you haven’t given up! CHAMPION!”
“My goodness, that has really come a long way! I remember how it sounded last week, it is so much better now, and I know it’s because of all that work you put into it this week!”
“I really love the work you have done with that piece, it’s my favorite one to listen to, do you know why? It’s because you worked hard on it, to make it sound that good!”
Praising effort acknowledges that growth occurs through hard work. It also tells them that ability, intelligence and talent are not fixed, but acquired through effort and persistence.
4. If practice happens with little or no reminding on your part as the parent, then praise them for their high level of maturity and autonomy. As I have said before, motivating oneself to practice is hard, especially since it is a solitary activity; and more particularly because we live in a digital age that is full of distractions. When your child gets up and goes to their instrument on their own accord that in itself is a great accomplishment –one that should be rewarded and acknowledged through praise.
5. Be involved, listen, host regular informal after dinner concerts where the child plays for the family. Practicing is a solitary activity. Sitting at an instrument and playing for so many minutes or hours in a day can feel lonely. Holding weekly informal after-dinner concerts makes this experience less-lonely. If the “concert” happens a day or two before the lesson this gives your kid a smaller deadline to work towards, and also gives him/her the opportunity to enjoy and experience performing in front of other people.