How do you get kids to practise?
Helping your kids to enjoy it
by Cora Lee

How do you get kids to practise?

As I began this essay, I let my thoughts wander, stopping them as they lingered on the contents of a thin, rectangular box stored in the basement. Within lay a small white recorder, untouched now for 20 years or more. Just thinking about that simple instrument brought me back to a time of ukulele and guitar, recorder band and choir--elementary school activities that were the only instruction in music I ever had. It was fun, I remember, and somehow easy to do well. I truly enjoyed practising, taking home the music from school and playing, without coercion, the pieces at home. I even wanted (but never got) piano lessons, a revelation that now, as then, appalled many of my contemporaries. They got the coveted lessons, but oh, how they hated them: the lessons, the theory, the recitals and, most of all, the practising. No television, they were admonished, until they had put in their daily half-hour of practice. For them, practising was the chore to end all chores.

So what was it that separated me from my peers? I haven't the conceit to suggest it was some never-realized genius that made practising such a passion. Could it be simply that I didn't have to do it? That, I think, is the essence of the enigma. The problem with practising can be summed up in three words: it's a chore. And, nobody enjoys a chore, especially one mandated by parents hell-bent on giving their kids some culture and desperate to recoup the fortune spent on lessons and instruments. To that end, they apply all the strategies at their disposal. They lecture and they nag, employing guilt trips, bribes and threats. In return, the children put forth an equally determined and opposing effort. To get out of practising, they wheedle, they whine, they bargain. And, when all else fails, they procrastinate. For one little girl I know, the performance begins long before she even sits down at her piano to play. This six-year-old girl prepares at length, adjusting her environment so that the conditions are just right. She likes to have her music placed just so, the light angled just right, et cetera, et cetera. To others, it may look like she's avoiding the task, but to her--I'm sure--she's just paving the way for a more productive practice session.

Well, with every session a battle, I'm not surprised that so many people dreaded practising. Strangely enough, these very people who, as children, shuddered at the prospect of practising astonish their adult selves by wanting to give their own children lessons. Asked why, they say that while practising was indeed agony for them, playing was actually a joy. They remember feeling good about mastering a complex piece, and having others affirm that satisfaction with attentive listening and honest praise. They wish now that they could recapture the excitement of pinning down the essence of a composition, and want to give their children the same experience--without the pain of enforced practising, of course. And by looking at what motivated their children, they succeeded in finding ways to make the process more fun. This idea may draw ridicule from those hardened by years of torturous sessions, but to me, it makes perfect sense. The secret is simple: just make practising an instrument more like playing it.


Advice from parents whose kids are positive about practising:

Capitalize on what your kids like.

o Kids like sounding good. If your children are having trouble with a difficult piece of music, finish the practice session with a piece they play well--it'll leave them with a sense of accomplishment and ease their frustration.

o Reward both effort and achievement. Don't bribe, but give praise and encouragement. You can motivate younger kids with stickers or gold stars.

o Turn practising into a game. Play a piece badly, for example, and let the kids correct you. Check the library or bookstore for books that suggest other games you can play.

o Use music software to help develop the interest of kids who would rather play with the computer.

Also think about what they don't like.

o Some children find practising too solitary an activity. Listen to music at home, go to concerts, even practise instruments as a family. At the very least, show interest by sitting with your children and listening as they practise.

o Avoid punishing children who can't settle down to practise. Try not to give into your impulse to nag or lecture.

o Avoid criticism. Negative comments can discourage children who become afraid of making further mistakes.

o Determine if the exercise is too hard. Start each session with an easy piece to build confidence before easing them into the more difficult ones.