Monday, June 13, 2016

How to Inspire Music Practice in Children

It feels like it's been about a month--but I didn't keep track!--since the children were rewarded for their six-days-per-week instrument practice, so today we took the gang bowling and to ice cream as a spontaneous reward.

Thomas (10 months) had a very vocal, negative opinion about being confined to his stroller . . .

. . . until I bought little vanilla-cream cookies out of the vending machine and fed him tidbits for the hour, thus giving him a shining, happy countenance. Such is a mother's decision weighing the needs of four children (a happy reward undisturbed by a screaming baby) versus the one (giving him junk food).

All the children had so much fun! Bowling racks up the fees pretty quickly and, for a family of seven, could hit at least $75. We kept out outing to $20 (just shoe rentals) by signing up for "Kids Bowl Free" summer program (we parents did not bowl) and declining to buy any food.

When we do bowl, we visit what we've found, in our brief exploration, to be the most sedate bowling alley in Charlotte: Ten Park Lanes. Ten Park is an old-school bowling alley with a 1950s retro feel, and, while it has a few video games, it doesn't consist of a huge sports complex with a wing devoted to a video arcade and another wing devoted to indoor sports. It's simply a bowling alley with a few video games in the corners, plus a bar that serves food. (That said, I hate to vilify arcade games, but my three-year-old had a fantastic visit bowling, leaping up and down with joy at every turn, till he wanted to play one arcade game on the way out the door, and it left his hopes dashed and destroyed, so he had to be carried out wailing.)

Even in a relatively sedate bowling alley, I couldn't help but notice the still overwhelming degree of stimulation of all the senses. The rock music plays so loudly that one can barely talk to one's companions and there is a large television mounted at every single lane, so that one can just stare at the boob tube instead of being entertained by one's fellow team mates, cheering them on through all their foibles and efforts. Even amidst all that stimulation through the eyes and ears, so many young folk around us had their faces buried in their iPhones.

Such is modern life. It's never enough!

After our game, we buzzed over to the old-fashioned Mr. K's for a soft serve ice cream. The whole super fun outing, creating bonding within our family, cost about $30, which is about one extra dollar per day to inspire three kids to do daily music practice: that is money well spent!

How to Inspire Music Practice

I was asked once to write an article for a 'real blog' (a commercial one) about introducing children to formal music lessons. After initially agreeing, I then declined because I realized I was still 'finding my sea legs' and didn't feel I knew anywhere enough to share advice . . .  read: there were so much screaming and tears back then, how could I possibly have anything good to say?

Now, we've been in lessons for about three years, I feel I can share one tip that worked for us: I established extensive, but temporary, rewards to establish the habit of practice.

Teaching children to practice daily is very difficult. Especially in those early years, the children do not yet connect practice at home with the ability to play something beautiful. We were experiencing stand-offs, misery, crying, and consequences pretty much daily to require practice.

What did I do? About nine months ago, our experiments for gaining cooperation began to work.

I established expectations.

I no longer said "go practice your songs" or "go practice for 30 minutes." I wrote on the computer a list of all their songs, then put little check boxes next to each song for how many times they had to play each song each day. Giving them this list gave them a black-and-white expectation for what it meant to "do" their practice. That ended the arguments about whether what they did qualified!

Weekly practice sheet for the 9-year-old:
somewhat "light" because we're not in competition season

I required the practice.

The practice was required. If they didn't do the practice, all their other privileges were suspended until it was done. This was fine and good--needful--but alone it left the children and I still having a lot of conflict. I may have won the battle, but I was losing the war.

Weekly practice sheet for the 7-year-old:
somewhat "light" because we're not in competition season

I offered rewards.

I began a reward system that worked (having tried numerous reward systems in the past). What would be really special? Not another stupid toy, not more mind-numbing time on the television. What is really special will vary by child and family, but for us it was time alone with Mama doing something elegant and grown-up. (Different rewards might be screen time, quarters, trips to the playground, M&Ms, dessert night, etc.)

If John (then 8) and Mary (then 6) completed all their practice check-off list five days per week (not on lesson day, and taking a rest day on Sunday), then I would take them to Amelie's French bakery for a treat, just me and the child, where we would enjoy a beautiful pastry and read books aloud to each other.

On a personal note, the work I'm requiring for these rewards is hefty. Five days per week there is:

  • the piano practice and music theory homework for three children, 
  • plus Mary also has her violin practice and violin-specific music theory homework.

Weekly practice for the five-year-old: starting slow and easy

I was strict . . . for awhile.

I had to be strict for the establishment of this new habit. If a child missed one day's practice or did only part of one day's practice, he really was not allowed to go with me that Saturday morning, even in the face of tears. I didn't let the then four-year-old little sister tag along because she wasn't "part of the program" and this had to remain exclusive and special to be alluring.

Slowly, slowly, the children got into the habit of practicing every day because they wanted that weekly reward. This went on for a few months before they were simply in the habit and I didn't have to reward them weekly for them to be able to sustain their effort. When the spring came, it was music competition season and I was busy taking children to events about six Saturdays in a row, so I simply couldn't also manage to take them to our ritual Amelie's for a sweet treat. After that, I took them one place bigger for about a month's worth of practice.
A really young child cannot see that the ultimate reward is being able to play the musical instrument, but that young child can see an immediate and tangible reward offered to them.
By that time, the now-five-year-old had been inspired to start practicing. She'd been in piano lessons for a year without bothering to do daily practice, but now she wanted to do so to receive the reward! Margaret became so good so fast from simply practicing that she was finally skilled enough to participate in her first recital.

After the spring, I was able to relax more and the children kept up with their daily practice. I still commit to remaining in close communication with their teachers so that I can print out daily practice sheets: there is a black-and-white definition of what consists practicing.

Now our rewards are more casual and come when it is convenient for us. Every four to six weeks, I want to do something extra fun--like bowling and ice cream--so I announce that it is a reward for all their good practice that month, and off we go. They feel rewarded and that is what counts. This is 'the place' where I wanted to get from the beginning, but couldn't see that we'd ever get there.

Two sample pages of Mary's violin practice book, written out by her teacher

Two sample pages of Mary's violin practice book, written out by her teacher

Questions one might ask:

"But what about the cost? I'm already paying for music lessons, so why should I also spend more money to reward the darned kid for practicing?"

Believe me, I understand. My music teachers were trying to convince me to bribe/reward my kids for practicing for about a year before I would do it. They assure me that (1) children need external motivation because they lack internal motivation and (2) in a true musician, they regularly see that the need and even desire for external rewards dies off around age 12 and then the child simply practices to be an excellent musician. Alongside my rewarding our children, the daily practice is still a requirement and their privileges are suspended until they do it.

Something I remember: The entire cost of music lessons is wasted if the child won't practice daily because the child won't learn anything.

"Isn't a reward the same thing as a bribe? I don't want to have to bribe my child!"

A bribe is given in the spirit of begging: "If you'll just play the piano, I'll give you an ice cream! Please!" A bribe puts the child in the power position, and that is bad. You will notice that you're bribing if the child starts to respond with an ugly tone something like: "I won't play the piano unless you let me watch a TV show later!"

A reward is offered after the fact, but the practice is still required, so the parent remains in the power position. "You have to do your piano anyway, or you'll lose your privileges. But if you do it diligently and daily, you'll be earning this fun reward. Which way do you want to do it?" Ultimately, a reward can be unspoken, and given out at more random intervals just to keep up 'morale of the troops,' like any good leader, employer, or manager does.

"So, your little 5-, 7-, and 9-year-olds are just happy robots who practice their instruments as soon as you ask? That doesn't seem possible!" 

No, they're not robots. I still meet up with resistance but it has gone from all-day standoffs--sometimes week-long standoffs!--to just a momentary push-back and grumble. The 9-year-old experienced a huge leap in maturity this year and I can't remember the last time he showed any resistance about practicing piano. The 7-year-old is two years younger plus has the burden of practicing piano and violin, so she still expresses occasional spurts of distress, flopping on the floor, or heated words. I never assign her instruments back-to-back, but try to manage her time so she does one early in the morning, one late in the morning or early afternoon, and I try to make it more enjoyable for her (e.g., she really likes an audience, so, if I'm not available, which I rarely am, I will literally strap the 10-month-old into the high chair in front of Mary and this makes her so very happy to play violin for him). The five-year-old definitely still flops and moans about practice at times. She needs the most loving encouragement and quiet reminder that practice, she must, and now she might as well since her privileges are in suspension until it is completed.


  1. Thank you for an informative post. It was interesting to see how you manage practice with all your kids and i am glad to hear i am not the only parent who encounters resistance about practicing. Just curious, do you have to supervise any of the practices? My newly turned 6 year old has been learning piano for about 9 months but doesn't come home from her lesson with any of her pieces mastered (she gets new pieces each week) and so all her practices need my fullish attention (divided with juggling the 4 and 1 year old).

  2. Dear Provincial Homemaker,

    You make an excellent point and one which I've discussed numerous times with our two music teachers. (1) A parent being able to sit in on the lesson adds exponentially to the quality of the music learning. (2) A parent being able to sit in on the practices at home adds exponentially to the quality of the learning. A family gets MUCH more bang for their buck if the parent will do one or both of these practices.

    Over three years, I've been able to do one or both at various times depending on the make-up of my other children. Lately, because I'm NOT pregnant and my children were 2/now 3 and an immobile baby, I gave up my babysitter, take all the kids to music lessons, and occupy the two youngest myself. But it's just starting to feel "impossible" again because the baby is highly mobile and walking, and the three-year-old BOY is just THAT, so I'm running off my tail in 90-degree weather. At some point, maybe I will hire a Tuesday babysitter again, leave those two, and then I can sit in on the lessons again, which would be so valuable.

    As far as practices at home, I can rarely sit in. My teachers still encourage (beg, plead) for me to do so because it is just THAT helpful. I do listen with one ear and shout out "fix your tempo!" and things like that.

    My 5-year-old girl is making much slower progress on piano because she has never had my ability to sit in on lessons *or* practice. It is one of the disappointing facts of large family life.


  3. Dear Katherine,
    I truly like hearing your words describing daily practice and I have to admit you have come a long way with your little munchkins. Mary can really sing with the violin. I am very proud of all of you for your perseverance. Margaret's last recital made my heart sing with happiness. So much talent runs through every fiber of the Lauer family. We are very fortunate to have you in our studio. Both of my children are very proud to see the development of music theory and technique that has developed in your children. Yahoooooooo to the Lauer Family.
    Keiko, Randy, Miko and Anya
    P.S. You are right, Katherine. Parent involvement is key to great success to all we inspire to do :)