The fine art of getting kids to practice

Music - April 2006


Fred Koch

Q: My child is in the second year of playing the trumpet, but I worry I am pushing him too hard to practice and he is beginning to hate playing. Is it always a struggle to get kids to practice? How hard should I push him to practice? Is there a fun way to do it?

A: Knowing how hard to push children when it comes to music lessons is a tricky proposition and it is hard to know how to be encouraging without being a nag.

A rare few children are disciplined or motivated enough to practice on their own. Children often start with a band instrument more for the social than the musical value. They like being in band and will do the minimum amount of practice so they don’t embarrass themselves, but they don’t particularly enjoy the practicing side of the deal. Truth be known, it is a lonely endeavor.

To address this, we need to understand a few things. First, most children don’t know how to practice. Sure, they may know what they are to work on, but they have not yet learned the skills needed to practice effectively.

Here’s one example: How many times have you heard a young musician play a song and do OK for most of the piece but make the same mistake at the same place in the song every time? And what does the child do? Go back to the beginning, play the song again and make the same mistake again.

To help children make good use of their practice time, we want to teach them to recognize those trouble spots and spend extra time working on those musical passages. It may take a couple of these experiences to get this idea into their head, but if we explain it to them and they see some success in those rough passages, they will be more likely to recognize the situation the next time and know what to do.

Parents need to be partners with their kids in this endeavor. If we can sit with them while they practice, we are giving them the message that we value the study of music. When we send our children off to practice in solitude, they may view it as more of a "have to" than a "want to." Obviously, we want our children to get to that place where they "want to" practice. But it doesn’t happen automatically.

Another very important point is that few children ever witness adults "practicing," so there is no role modeling going on. When I first realized this (a big "aha" moment for me), I started practicing my guitar when my son was around. When I practice, I can point out a tough passage in a piece I am playing and remind him that I need to pull out that part of the song and practice it over and over before I can play it without a mistake in the song.

Another important factor in a student’s motivation is the music he is playing. If children like the song they are working on, they are much more motivated to practice. We have noticed that when our son finds a piano piece he really likes, he practices because he wants to be able to play it. Oftentimes, children who play a band instrument can be motivated to practice because they have a concert coming up and they want to do their best.

If it’s practical, learn to play along with your child. I have noticed, for example, a real engagement in piano-playing children whose parents also are taking piano lessons. These children not only have a mentor, but they also see the time and effort the parent puts in to practicing.

I have come to understand that tackling the practice monster has its ups and downs. Because every child is different and each situation is unique, parents have to find out for themselves what the right mix of encouragement and support looks like for their family.

There are times when my son goes to the piano and practices on his own and there are times when we need to gently encourage him. One tactic we’ve found (a Love and Logic Institute technique, is to say, "We drive children to basketball practice that have practiced their piano." (If we don’t drive, he doesn’t play since the gym is too far to walk. So far, he’s only missed one practice.)

To me, the important issue is to have children gain some worthy life skills along with an appreciation for the art of music as they study an instrument. If, in a few years, you can look back and say that the band experience was worthwhile, then we will be able to survive the bumps in the road along the way.

Fred Koch lives in Lake Bluff with his wife and son and is an award-winning music educator, children’s musician and producer. His Web site,, helps parents, teachers and librarians select quality children’s music. The Web site also includes an archive of all Koch’s past reviews published in Chicago Parent. Please e-mail notes, questions and comments to [email protected]


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