Creative ways to encourage kids to practice

Many kids love music, but they don't always like practicing an instrument. Here are some ideas for hassle-free practice time.

I was recently sitting next to my 8-year-old daughter at the piano as she played a new piece. Apparently, I was nodding my head in a most unseemly manner, as Maya looked up and, never missing a note, announced, “Mommy, you look just like an elephant.” Then she stopped, bobbed her head several times as if waving an imaginary trunk and went back to playing.

Both Maya and her 11-year-old brother have been taking lessons for several years and I’ve been a big supporter of their musical accomplishments. Along the way, however, I’ve been called names and informed that I’m “the meanest parent on the planet” for insisting they sit down with their instruments and practice. But I’ve also had the pleasure of seeing them completely absorbed in the music and excited about their progress.

For parents who want to nurture a love of music in their children, paying for lessons seems like a natural step. But one of the most common complaints heard by music teachers is this: my kid won’t practice.

Sheila Veerkamp, a piano teacher in N.D.G., says parents often talk about the hassles of practice time. “It’s definitely a hot topic and I think parents want to know if there is some secret to making practice easier.” Sadly, there is no secret, but parents can try a few simple steps, says Veerkamp.

Having a teacher write out specific instructions for what to practice can reduce arguments between parents and children, says Veerkamp. She jots down specific instructions in each child’s agenda, such as “play line two at least three times each day.” A list of what to practice also allows a child to check items off as they are completed.

Children should practice in a common area, where parents can listen in. “Don’t put the piano in the basement,” she says. Try the living room instead. A child won’t feel banished during practice and a parent can intervene if a child is fooling around rather than working.

Veerkamp invites parents to attend at least one lesson during a session. This helps the adults understand what their child should and shouldn’t be doing. She also suggests that parents sit down once a week and have their child show them what they are working on. “I have a 15-year-old son who is taking drums and I still do this with him,” Veerkamp notes.

An essential part of practice is making it a daily or almost daily routine, but this can be difficult to arrange, says Veerkamp. “Kids have a lot of activities so it can be hard to build in a practice every day.” If taking music lessons is a family priority, then parents must ensure there is enough time.

…And how long should parents expect kids to practice? It depends on the age of the child, their interests and goals, says Sunyi Shin, director the Mont-Royal Music Academy and a teacher of piano and organ.

For younger kids (under 8 for example), 15 minutes a day may be more than enough, while an older child preparing for a music exam or recital may need much more. “What’s important isn’t the time, it’s that you do a little bit of practice every day,” she says. “It can be short, because young kids get bored easily. But it should be a routine.”

Shin also suggests that parents sit down regularly with their child during practice. But don’t harp on the mistakes, she warns. “Enjoy what they do. Be positive about it.” Remember, it takes playing a lot of wrong notes to finally get a piece right. And be patient, Shin adds. Parents sometimes don’t understand how long it can take for children to develop musical skills. “It’s like learning a second language. You don’t get it all at once. It takes time.”

Nurturing a love of music

Whether your child takes formal lessons or not, parents can nurture a love of music by listening together. Don’t limit yourself to one or two styles—branch out into world music, jazz or even rap or heavy metal. Many local orchestras and bands offer special concerts for children. Check out Montreal Families’ Fun Around Town listings for upcoming shows that might appeal to your little ones.

How to handle practice time

  • Make practice a daily routine. Give your child enough time to settle down, focus on the music and actually play.
  • Be positive and encourage their efforts. Learning to play an instrument takes time.
  • Ask the teacher to write down what a child should be working on so it is clear to everyone.
  • Don’t be surprised if your child wants to try different instruments before settling on one in particular.