Getting children to practice their musical instruments

Practicing is the most common challenge for children and parents when trying to learn a musical instrument. Learning how to practice is also one of the most important skills we develop from studying music. Most children have a great time studying music, playing in concerts, and going to lessons; but many children end up quitting because they just won't practice. How your kid practices can be the difference between achieving their goals, or later in life wishing they had stuck with music as a child. 

Here are some tips to develop a strong practice routine. 

Start small. Do not feel like your child needs to be practicing an hour a day after their first lesson. What you want is for practice to become a habit; a routine. Studies show that it can take anywhere from 21 to 66 days to develop a habit. This means the first months are critical to developing a good practice schedule.

Baby steps. Gradually increase the practice time. As your child continues with their music lessons they will have more songs, scales, and note reading assignments that they will need to maintain.  This means in order to keep all things progressing equally, the duration of practice will need to be longer.

Pace yourself. Practicing four to five days a week is a good balance.  You do not want to overwhelm your child or tire them out.  Studying an instrument requires concentrated practice, so it is important to have enough energy to focus during a practice session.  But it is also important to take breaks. A day or two of rest from music will allow your child to absorb what they have been studying and restart with fresh vigor.

Take a vacation. Vacations are an integral part of long-term commitments. The happiest and most productive workers are given a fair amount of vacations and paid leave. This same concept should be applied to your child's musical studies. Between school, extracurricular activities, family time and socializing children have busy work schedules. They too need time to relax and unwind. Vacations can also be a soft educational tool for music. If you visit another country, introduce your child to local music by asking them to point out an instrument they have never seen, or song they have never heard. Music can be a child’s first introduction to the globalized world and a way to appreciate other cultures. 

Practice slowly.  Many children (and adults) have a tendency to rush when they are learning new music. Be sure your child is playing at a speed that allows them to play all the correct notes, rhythms, dynamics, etc. If a student is rushing through a song they are more likely to make mistakes. These mistakes then become habits that can be difficult to change.  Playing slowly will allow a student to learn music correctly the first time. Practicing this way will allow your child to get more out of their lessons because time can be spent focusing on advanced musicality rather than fixing wrong notes, rhythms, etc.

Be a team player. Parents should try and be actively involved in their children's musical studies. This doesn't mean a parent needs to control every second of practice. Intuition and creativity develop from a certain level of freedom or control.  The most successful students have parents who walk the fine line between encouragement and enforcement without straying too far in either direction. Parents can ask questions to try and get their children to articulate what it is they are practicing. Parents can track their child's practice and give rewards for certain achievements, e.g. finish a difficult song, reading at a certain level, practice a certain number of days in a month, etc. Show that you care and are interested in what your child is working on, it will go a long way.

Make space. The goal should be making practicing as convenient as possible. Set up a small, dedicated practice area in your home where you keep your music, instrument, and any other accessories used (foot stool, instrument stand, table). At a minimum, you should have a music stand where you keep the sheet music or books open that will be used to practice. If you practice sitting down there should be a dedicated chair in front of the music stand. If possible, the practice area should be free from distractions. Similar to the type of space that would be used to do homework.  

Be Flexible. Remember there is no magic solution.  Every child will progress at different rates and have different levels of focus, energy, and understanding.  Parents and teachers will have to be conscious of what works, and what isn't, and encourage the best practice to ensure successful, long-term learning.

Written by Michael Gilsinan, Founder of the Fort Lee School of Music