You’ve paid for music lessons. You’ve rented or purchased an instrument. You drive your child to lessons every week. Is your job over? Unfortunately, no. It is also your responsibility as a parent to make sure your son or daughter does what most music students dislike the most: practice. This is the most difficult, and most essential, part of a child’s music education. Most kids want to quit because they hate practicing. After teaching thousands of private piano and violin lessons to kids of all ages, I have learned that students improve at home, not during the lesson. If kids don’t practice, they will not improve. If they don’t improve, they will want to quit. There are many ways parents can make practice more effective and enjoyable for their children.
1 Set a timer. Agree on a set amount of practice time. If a student knows he or she is committed to an instrument for say 30 minutes, practice will be much more focused. Set the timer on the microwave, and when it goes off, he or she is finished for the day. The amount of practice time you shoot for completely depends on the student. Discuss it with the teacher and your child together. For beginning and intermediate students, I have had a lot of success with 20 to 40 minutes for each practice day. Remember, several short practices are better than cramming the night before the lesson.
2 Play games. Practice goes by quickly when games are involved. It can be as simple as making (or buying) flashcards. You can even make up your own games. Vincent Centeno, a piano teacher and director of the People’s Music School in Uptown, suggests keeping two jars on the piano—one full of pennies, the other empty. Have the student put a penny in the other jar each time he or she gets through a piece of music. Or play a game seeing how far the student can play without making a mistake. Get creative. You know what your child responds to better than anyone.
3 Give rewards. Rewards can be simple, creative and very effective when it comes to encouraging quality practice. It can be as easy as a high five when students answer a question correctly or letting them pick out a sticker to put on music. One parent brought me M&Ms each lesson to give to her son when he played things correctly. Another parent had his children earn their TV time through practice.
4 Sit with them. This does not mean sitting or standing next to the child the whole time. That’s the teacher’s job. Grab a book or magazine and sit in the corner of the room while your future prodigy practices. Occasionally offer simple compliments such as “Sounding good” or “I like that part.”
5 Learn the music. This especially goes for parents of beginners. Don’t expect your child to remember everything he or she is taught in the lesson. You should do your best to learn the music with the child so you can help. If you’re not a musician, don’t be intimidated. Basic note-reading and music theory is easy to learn. “If the parent is working on the instrument as well, you can share the learning experience together,” says Kerry Sheehan, the education program director at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music.
6 Create a routine. After school, before dinner, after their favorite cartoon, choose a consistent practice time and stick with it. “Routine is the most important ingredient,” Centeno says. “Just because they played the piece well one time doesn’t mean they should stop. They need to play it every day; repetition is key.”
7 Play it while they learn it. In the car, around the house, even softly while your child sleeps, play recordings of his or her music. If students know how their music is supposed to sound, they’ll learn it faster. But this should not be a substitute for reading music. Playing by ear is OK to a certain extent, but it should never replace learning to read the notes.
8 Sing the music. If a student can sing his or her music, it shows the student is internalizing the melody, not just going through the motions. This may seem unusual, but I can’t stress how important this is, even for advanced students. This goes hand-in-hand with listening to recordings of the music. “Any instrument at its essence should be an attempt to imitate the human voice,” says John Hagstrom, a trumpet player with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and trumpet teacher at DePaul University. Many of the pieces in beginning books have lyrics. If a piece doesn’t have lyrics, make some up.
9 Have home recitals. Every now and then it can be fun to have a mini-recital for the family. Ask your child to make homemade programs. “Creating a performance atmosphere at home can give students a goal,” Centeno says. “It also can help prepare them to play at school.” Practice is always better when a performance is coming up, no matter how small.
10 Play duets. Learning a duet with a family member or friend is a great way to add variety to practice. “A duet is a great source for motivation and improvement,” Hagstrom says. There is an infinite amount of repertoire for duets on all instruments. Any store that sells sheet music should be able to point you in the right direction. If your child is starting out on piano, try to learn a duet together. There is plenty of beginning “four-hand” piano music out there. If your child is learning a string, brass, woodwind or percussion instrument, see if you can find someone who can play a duet with the student on the piano. Piano is probably the best accompaniment instrument.
Dan Ponce is a graduate of Indiana University where he majored in vocal performance. He taught piano, voice and violin in Atlanta, Ga., for four years and is currently in the graduate program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.