Your child begs and pleads to play the piano, the violin, [insert instrument]. So, you rent one and you sign her up for lessons. A week passes and she practices daily. Then it dwindles until it stops and you turn into a nag, begging and bribing to hear practicing even for a minute or two. Sound familiar?
Is this normal? Are there any kids who actually enjoy practicing their instruments – and how did their parents manage to develop them into these musical unicorns? As Chicago kicks off its Year of Chicago Music initiative, we asked professional Chicago musicians and a music student about practicing. Spoiler alert: sometimes, the pros needed to be bribed to practice, too.
Tips for getting your child to practice
Set a regular time.
Have them do it when they first come home from school or before school, says Laura Voigt, pianist and piano teacher in Oak Park. Act like it’s a given, like brushing your teeth, doing your math or clearing the table.
Money works, says Oto Carrillo, French hornist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “I’m kinda not kidding.” He’s bribed his own kids with access to the internet.
Remind them every day.
Parents should understand that almost every kid has to be reminded, or even forced against their will to practice, says John Bruce Yeh, clarinetist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “My older daughters’ piano teacher told my girls once, ‘You only have to practice on days that you eat,’” he says. His parents would wake him up to practice before they gave him breakfast.
Sit with them.
A self-motivated child is a parent’s fantasy, says Joann Cho, pianist and founder of the Oak Park School of Music. “My mom was the one who sat down with me during each practice session and helped me recall my teacher’s notes from each lesson. She was strict sometimes, but in retrospect, I’m glad she was. I was sometimes reluctant to start practicing, but would often lose myself in the music a few minutes into the process.”
Give your child a handful of very specific goals for each practice session, Cho says, adding that parents should set up a weekly practice schedule.
Allow review pieces.
“Don’t discourage them from playing something just because they should ‘move on,’” from something they’ve already learned, Cho says. Sometimes, these review pieces help maintain confidence.
More advice from real musicians
“My mom was responsible for waking me up early to practice before school. But later I became obsessed with playing scales in different meters. … I’d suggest that others find a hook like a favorite song, and even if it’s not what’s on your practice agenda, you should put your energy into that thing that lights you up. … At this point, don’t make it about excellence, make it about joy and self-expression.” — Stephanie Browning, Chicago-based jazz singer
“As a child, I grew up in a household filled with music. My father plays piano and sings, and so does my older sister so music became something that was second nature to me. Sometimes, practicing seemed like a chore, but being able to join in family jam sessions and getting to learn my favorite songs helped along the way. I fell in love with playing and writing music because of the outlet it gave me. As a child, I had some minor anger problems, and I used music as my therapeutic escape. It still remains that till this day.” — Illi, Chicago-based hip hop artist
“Music is already in our souls and doesn’t need to be forced on anyone. I think parents should let children experiment with multiple ways of creating music, traditional and non-traditional. We must be careful not to place the weight of our own musical ambitions upon our children: they’ll want to practice naturally if we allow them the space to grow. My advice is to make music a part of great experiences, so it defines moments in life. I’ll never forget being 12 years old and watching my uncle wash his car while blasting Big Daddy Kane, Tribe Called Quest and Queen Latifah, or my grandmother doing her weekend house cleaning to The Commodores. … If you’d like your child to develop more of an appreciation for music, I’d suggest making music a part of everyday life for how your family expresses itself. Instead of television and video games, play songs after dinner. Rather than everyone being isolated with headphones or phones during car rides, play fun songs.” — Che Smith, AKA Rhymefest, a Chicago-based hip hop artist
“I was not motivated to practice when I was a child. My parents asked me or cajoled me to practice, and that was that. It’s possible that there were some pieces that I enjoyed playing, but I don’t recall ever going to the violin of my own volition (I started on the violin, not viola). Practicing – or knowing how to practice – is a skill in itself, and it can take a lot of time to develop.” — Lawrence Neuman, violist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
“I tend to have my parents remind me, but a lot of the time, it’s a choice between dishes and instruments. It’s really hard to stop once I start, so I could practice for hours. … Parents need to tell their kids that if they want to continue playing, they need to practice, or they cannot play; if they truly want to play, they will practice.” — Audrey Keller, six instruments, sixth-grader
This article originally appeared in Chicago Parent’s January 2020 print issue. Read the rest of the issue.