Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Motivating Music Practice

Becoming a "music family" has created a steep learning curve for us. Take out of the equation entirely that I've been learning to be a student of music (violin), I've also and mainly been learning to be a music mommy.

John began taking piano lessons a year and a half ago at age six, Mary began piano 11 months ago (age 5) and violin six months ago (age 5), and Margaret began taking piano last week at nearly four years old. I have had to learn how to get the kids to practice their instruments (and never having taken lessons as a child myself, really had no idea of the experience).

Do they love music? Yes! They especially love to noodle around on the piano and do so throughout the day, drawn to it repeatedly. Mary was very interested to try violin, even though it's not something easy to try since there is so very much to learn before one can even make a single note. But, even though they love music, they don't love practice--especially following the rule of thumb that one practices daily the duration of one's music lesson. A half-hour lesson means a half hour daily of practice.

This has led me to many questions for our music teachers and other music moms, a lot of frustration, and a few tears. Am I a "tiger mom" and, if so, isn't that bad? Do I force the children to practice no matter how resistant they are? I've never forced them to do anything that way! But when one starts paying for expensive music lessons, and there's "skin in the game," one's philosophy starts to change a bit! The children say the love their lessons, they love being able to play, but why do they have to practice?! And then I have to explain that we're not going to pay for lessons if the children won't practice.

If a child had no inclination for the instrument and never liked it, we'd never require lessons. But a child who loves the instrument and the ability to play needs some "pushing" to practice nearly daily. How to do it?

Carrots and Sticks

I have to use both carrots and sticks. I am absolutely no expert on this, I feel like I'm barely getting my sea legs as a music mommy.

Routine helps: practicing daily at around the same time. Practicing before other treats of the day (playing outside, TV) helps.

Time limits help: Sometimes a child will practice, but oh-so-slowly that what should be 20-30 minutes takes an hour and then he or she has conveniently used up the rest of (home)school time and has no more time for academic duties of the day. Setting a timer helps. "Your piano practice only counts if you finish within the 30 minutes." Parent decides what the consequences are for "not counting" the practice.

Supervision helps: The results are tremendously better if the parent knows the details of what is to be practiced and can sit in the same room supervising, offering commentary, counting how many times the child has played the songs. This is very challenging when one has other, younger children in the home, and I often can supervise only partially.

Lists help: I now make a weekly list of exactly what songs to practice and how many times. We divide the list into songs being practiced for an upcoming recital or performance (5x daily), new songs (3-5x daily), and repertoire songs that they already memorized (3x daily). Having a list gives a concrete standard for what "Yeah, Mama, I practiced" means.

Consequences help: I've learned to stop arguing with a child flopping on the ground. I just remind the child that he or she will be "in blackout" until the music practice is done and I walk away. Blackout means no privileges, such as TV, playing outdoors, dessert. That standoff ends quickly.

And carrots help!

Breaks help: Some children are too wiggly to practice for 30 minutes: two sessions of 15 minutes is okay at these young ages.

Mercy helps: A few times, my daughter has melted down in tears. This is so unusual, so unlike her, and we've learned through trial and error that she was exhausted. This daughter stopped napping long ago and we discovered those particular tears were her "neon sign" that she needed a nap. She'd happily go off, take a nap, then wake up and do her practice with not even a reminder! I am grateful to have learned this occasional signal from her.

Motivation helps: We try to feed a steady diet of motivation to our children via YouTube videos of people (especially children) playing piano and violin beautifully. Oh, how the children love to watch such videos! We also take them to live concerts when we can. We try to make "heroes" out of skilled musicians, including children in their social circles, just like other children think of Hollywood stars or athletes as heroes.

Earning money helps: Our violin teacher explained to me that many or most of her students get paid for practice time. I resisted this practice for months because it was so distasteful to me. The teacher reassured me that she sees a consistency in her students that by age 12, they come to her, seeing the silliness in being paid for practice, and say they don't need that anymore to be motivated. We were struggling with practice time badly and morale was low when my husband and I decided to give it a try. John would get paid 25 cents per 15 minutes of piano practice time, and Mary the same for her violin (she didn't need motivation for piano). The teacher advised a key tactic: Have each child pick something for which he is saving up, cut out a picture from the catalog, and paste it up in the practice area or in their music book. He or she may use only the "music money" to buy it, no allowance or other income.

Here, it was a bit difficult for me to truly let the children pick what they wanted because I felt they were spending their money a bit foolishly. I felt they could buy something else that would get more bang for their buck. But the key was that they would be highly motivated by the object, so they picked what they wanted.

It took months, but the children have earned their first toys! (I limited them to a cost that would take one to two months to earn, not longer.) And, I must say, their behavior at practice greatly improved. It's not utterly carefree, but their compliance rate is way higher because they, as very young children, can better conceptualize a short-term, concrete goal of a toy in contrast to a long-term, vague goal of learning to play music beautifully.

John bought a Star Wars Lego X-Wing Fighter (good guy) and a TIE Interceptor (bad guy)

Decorating Mary's journal

Mary bought a journal which one decorates with stick-on gems and which comes with a "lipstick pen," a lock and key!
She has great plans to write short stories in it at night when she stays up late in bed.

I would be so interested to hear from more experienced music moms how they motivate and require music practice of their children!

I don't have any recent videos of John or Margaret playing, but I will share two videos of Mary practicing with her teacher at a lesson.


  1. It's all a learning process :) God bless! -Emiliann W

  2. Katherine
    I was just thinking about you the other day and stopped by your blog today. Your kids are so smart nd talented. That is so awsome that they play piano and violin. My little one (turned 6 this month) plays violin too. You have some good tips there. Here is a video of Lana playing :) -