It’s probably the number one challenge of every music teacher, parent, and music student: how to make practice part of a daily routine.
For young preschoolers, this is something that has to be taught and externally monitored by the parent. It’s highly unusual for a preschooler to consciously sit down and practice everyday.
So in this article, I want to give you a mindset - an overall framework for how to teach practice skills. By understanding the psychological aspects, and some high leverage points, with a few adjustments you can make dramatic shifts in your student’s practice routines and life.
I know this is true because, I have successfully taught hundreds of music students in my private teaching studio and because of my wide angle career path, have brought in some ideas from rather far-flung places. Over the last decade, my students, including my own son, all learned how to practice. It’s definitely a skill that needs to be taught.
The first thing I tell every parent is to find a time of day, everyday, that can become practice time even if it’s only 10 minutes. By setting this time for music practice, within a few weeks it no longer requires effort, but it becomes a habit the same way that brushing your teeth is a habit. You can always practice longer or at another time in addition, but this is a sacred time that should be honored as much as possible. Usually this works well for a while until the first school holiday comes along! Then it’s back to effort and focus to make a routine which then leads again to habit.
One thing surprised me when I began teaching young children. I discovered that many parents would place the piano or guitar or whatever instrument in an isolated corner of the house like a playroom or bedroom. Then, when it came time to practice, they would say,
“Go and practice!”
This makes practice time feel more like a punishment than a shared activity. It’s solitary confinement! It also says to the child,
“This is not a priority for my parent and they are not interested in me.”
So keep your instrument in your living room or near to wherever you spend the most amount of time. It signals its importance in the family. Unsurprisingly, the students who had this “practice dungeon” arrangement never lasted more than a year.
Some parents will say,
“But it sounds bad! And I am tired or my spouse is exhausted from work and doesn’t want to hear it.”
Well, what kind of signal does that send to your child?
“I am not worthy of your attention and love while I do this activity that you really don’t want to be a part of. Hmm. Maybe I should play soccer instead.”
Grit is a term popularized by Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth which is basically the courage and strength to keep trying, persevere and the resiliency to pick oneself up and try again. In her studies on children, grit was the determining factor on how successful a child would be on test scores and in later life. Link to Angela Duckworth Ted Talk.
Music lessons and practice is an incredible grit-building exercise. But to build a child’s grit, you need to praise the effort and not just the intrinsic being. What I mean by that is don’t just say a vague, “Great! You’re wonderful!” Find something specific to praise based on their effort, focus, resolve, resiliency and even their so called failures.
So during practice sessions, praise “how smooth that section was”, or “I like how you lifted your hands during the staccato parts,” or “that rhythm was so fun and bouncy!” By celebrating the small wins, you are watering the seeds of psychological growth and letting them see the glass half full as opposed to half empty.
One of the secrets to making it through an elite program such as the Navy Seals, where 94% drop out in the first few weeks, is to either have or adopt a mindset of grit. The key seems to be “celebrating the small wins.” By sharing a half-second smile or a short meal break with fellow soldiers, the ones that made it through lifted each other’s spirits, giving them just enough psychological strength to continue.
During the last few weeks leading up to my biannual recitals, I can see the pattern of emotional highs and lows clearly. The recital is such a motivating factor, if handled well, can be a positive growth experience.
One of the hardest things for anyone is to set a challenging goal and then continually make forward progress towards it. Many people see their goals out on the horizon and no matter how much progress they have made, they never seem to be getting closer.
The trick is to turn around and look where you came from. When your student is banging their head against the wall and just about to give up saying, “I can’t do it.” You can remind them to first add the word “yet” to that sentence and then show them how much progress was made.
Turn them around and see where they came from. You can do this by looking at previous lesson notes and pieces. Notice the dates of when they last played something that is now considered “so easy.” Also, if you have video recordings of previous recitals, you can show them where they were just a little while ago.
Years ago, Jerry Seinfeld was asked how to get better as a comic. His reply (link) was to write better jokes and do it everyday. To do that, he uses a wall calendar and large red marker. For each day you write, you put an X on the calendar.
"After a few days you'll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain. Don’t break the chain!”
You can see a video interview with Jerry by the NY Times where he details his writing process in his usually funny way.
Jerry is doing what a lot of preschool teachers do in their classroom. There are charts for attendance, the daily routine, and going to the bathroom, etc.
My son is one of these kids who loves puzzles, patterns, and organizing. When he was 3 we would go to the Barnes and Noble bookstore; and he would take out all the books from the shelf and put them back in size order! This was endlessly fascinating to him. So we instituted a star chart for him to reward the behaviors we wanted.
In learning anything in life, having the right mindset enables you to see the options ahead. Without adopting the correct mindset, you cannot even see avenues right in front of you.
I’d love to know your mindset regarding practice. Does this resonate with you? Do you have any other high leverage ideas to make practice better? Please share below in the comments.
Also, if you enjoyed the cross-pollination of ideas in this article, please share it with your friends.