“My Kid Won’t Practice”

“It’s always a fight.”

“She just starts crying when I tell her to practice.”

I’m still in the fairly early stages of my career, and yet I’ve heard this from parents more times than I can count, particularly parents of younger children. Practice becomes a battle, rather than an activity in which children are self-motivated to engage.

This is always discouraging for me as the teacher because I know all too well that a power struggle over music practice is one of the least effective ways to motivate a child to play. The longer to power struggle goes on, the higher the likelihood that the child grows to detest the musical endeavor itself, and the higher the likelihood that the parent tires of the tantrums and concedes to just quitting. What could have been a fulfilling activity for the child is now a failed attempt at a hobby. It’s disappointing for everyone involved.

Continued issues with practicing can become a vicious cycle. Force the child to practice and practicing becomes a chore. When practicing becomes a chore, the child is less motivated to practice of their own accord, because no human is intrinsically motivated to complete what they perceive as a menial, daily task (I can’t remember the last time I felt genuinely motivated to do my laundry, and I’m full-blown adult). Then, with less practice, the child grows less and less prepared for their weekly lessons. They come, I observe the child has made little to no progress in the past week, and we have to repeat what happened in the previous lesson rather than building upon it. The child leaves, feeling defeated and ashamed that they were unprepared. The longer this goes on, the more the child grows to view their instrument as the catalyst for their embarrassment, and then the cycle repeats until they ultimately quit.

Fortunately, there are tools to break this cycle.

Part of it is my job: when I observe a student is making little progress due to a lack of practice, I present them with a challenge: “Practice 10 minutes a day between today and your next lesson. Your goal is to be able to play this passage better next week than you did last week. If I can tell you made progress, I owe you a prize.” The prize varies from student to student; it’s been everything from a sticker to Starbucks. If the student holds up their end of the deal, I hold up mine, and then we talk about the progress they made. I have found that this weeklong exercise does wonders in helping a student see that practice really does make a difference, and when they feel more successful they are more motivated to continue the progress.

Breaking the cycle is partially the parent’s job, too. I can say “practice, practice, practice” until the day I die, but reinforcement at home makes a significant difference in the development and retention of practice habits. Here are some strategies I have tried with parents to reinforce practice at home:

  • Keep a practice calendar, set a goal for minutes per day, or number of days per week, and then hold the child accountable for writing their minutes.
  • Turn practicing into a currency. You want to play Fortnite for 30 minutes? Practice your instrument or 15 minutes first. You want a sleepover this weekend? Practice Monday through Friday and you can. By offering the child a tangible, desired reward for their practice, you are offering them an extrinsic motivation that’s not simply “Mom/Dad will stop yelling at me if I just do it.” I find positive reinforcement always wins over “I just want them to stop nagging me.”
  • Build practicing into their daily habits. Kids these days seem to have jam-packed after-school schedules, from sports to clubs to playdates to tutors. Depending on your child’s schedule, find a way to tag 10-15 minutes of practice onto an already existing daily task. Have your child practice right after dinner, right before their shower at night, right after they get home from soccer. Find a way to piggyback practice onto a task they already do, and you’ll spend less time haranguing about the matter.
  • Just leave the instrument out, albeit in a safe place. It seems silly, but it works. This even works on me when I fall into a practice rut, and I’ve been at this for a decade and a half. Remove the hurdle of physically dragging the instrument out, leave it easily accessible, and you’ll be amazed at how quickly the subliminal practice suggestion works.
  • Find a practice buddy. If your child is in school orchestra, ask if they have a friend in class that they’d like to practice with. Find some simple music they can practice together, and arrange for a practice play date. Some of my best memories growing up are playing my violin with my orchestra friends. Make it social, and everything is more fun.

Practice doesn’t have to be a chore! The sooner we can collectively help our young musicians understand that practice is the key to their success, the happier we’ll all be in the long run.