Q&A: How to Get Kids to Practice Their Musical Instruments

QUESTION AND ANSWERS

Shannon Madden writes, "We found a music teacher who inspired him and now he plays all the time." (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

Anyone have any tips on how to get kids to practice their musical instruments… with out nagging them?

  • David Walsh writes, “Take them to a show (more than once) of some kind. It worked for me, 50 years old and still playing all three saxophones.”
  • Scott McGinley writes, “I sit next to my daughter and listen. And help when needed. Seems to work.”
  • Mercedes Echevarria writes, “Sometimes to get my daughter interested I let her pick the song we will learn on the piano… that seems to keep her going.”
  • Katryna Nields writes, “I am beginning to believe that to expect a child younger than about 8 (or in the first year or two of learning) to “practice” on their own is not realistic. We, as parents, probably have to approach practice as “play.” Sit with your child and play along with them. Don’t expect longer attention span than for any other things when they are first learning. The fun of an instrument really takes a year or so to reach. And that’s if you are quick!”
  • Lee Bingham writes, “Ask them to make a list of their favorite songs, then get them the music to learn. Teach them how to pick out a tune by ear if possible. That is a really empowering tool for self-directed musical development.”
  • Craig Fear writes, “Get them out of school bands and into rock bands.”
  • The Harmonica Pocket writes, “Remember it’s called PLAYing music. When I play, I don’t stress about how long I do it. Picking up an instrument for a few minutes is fine. If the musician watches TV, have him/her mute the sound and play during commercials. Whenever possible help them to find and play music they enjoy.”
  • Laura Lucchesi writes, “If you have to nag then they shouldn’t be playing it!
  • Phoebe Shaw writes, “We are trying, as suggested by piano teacher, 2x a week, one time is with parent, one without.”
  • Judy Bennett writes, “My son isn’t old enough for real music lessons, but we use a visual timer (Time Timer) around the house for a variety of things. I think it would be practical in this application too.”
  • Molly Twarog writes, “We just sit them down and set the timer for 15 minutes every day. They don’t get to choose when. If we left it up to them, they’d never do it. And since they both begged (and I mean begged) to take piano, they get to stick out for at least a couple of years. But we’re mean that way. ;-)”
  • Barbara Dunn writes, “Play for the dog, cat, fish…”
  • Linda Bennett-Mason writes, “Incentive”
  • Shannon Madden writes, “We found a music teacher who inspired him and now he plays all the time.”

14 Comments

  1. Laura Doherty said,

    October 7, 2011 at 6:59 pm

    -Work on songs the kids are interested in.
    -Have them pick up their instrument and play it everyday, even for 5-10 minutes.
    – Keep it out of the instrument case
    -Seek out local family jams where kids can see kids and adults playing other instruments, and participate too in a group
    -Better yet, form your own family jam, or neighborhood jam!

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  2. Rodney Lee said,

    October 6, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    I totally agree with Steve Weeks and Tonya on this one. My son just turned 3 and music is all about play. Even though I am a professional musician, I am not in any rush to push lessons or practice until he is ready. As Steve suggests, our house is definitely immersed in music and my son goes to a lot of my concerts, and we take him to as many performances by other artists as possible.

    I even went a step further and created a children’s music label called http://GrooveKidNation.com with the goal of providing additional tools for parents to introduce toddlers to musical instruments — sorry for the shameless plug ;)

    I didn’t start playing the piano until the age of 10, and I actually asked my parents for lessons then. They never had to push me to practice because I was so into it on my own.

    So while many kids show enough interest for lessons starting as early as 4, it appears to me that most don’t really get “into it” until around the age of 8 or older. Therefore, I’m not going to push the issue of lessons until my kid really shows that he’s ready for them. Perhaps he’ll start as early as 4, but if he loses interest between 4 and 8, I’m not going to force it. We’ll simply go back to goofing around with instruments until he’s ready. Music should be fun!

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  3. Nick Deysher said,

    October 6, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    As a teacher, I recommend short, consistent practice for my young students (4-7 y/o). You’d be amazed at how beneficial 5mins a day can be, but you can’t expect to send them off to play on their own. At that age, kids need lots of guidance and support. If you can sit with your child while they play, the encouragement makes practice less of a chore.

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  4. October 5, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    Record them! I have found that kids love to hear/see their progress and are often surprised by it when they hear what they sounded like a week or two weeks ago! Listen back together comment on the progress. You can use a free smartphone video recording app or a free audio app. I use one called “Record.”

    I agree with all of the wonderful comments in this thread. I think the teacher makes a huge difference and as does the method book used.

    Coincidentally, I just published a full-color piano method for preschoolers to get them started with note names playing songs with their right hand. You can download a free copy of the PDF version of the book here.
    http://debbieandfriends.net/piano-book/

    Thanks for this great thread, Sienna! I look forward to reading more comments and ideas!

    Best regards,

    Debbie Cavalier
    Dean, Berklee College of Music
    Debbie and Friends

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  5. October 5, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    For young children just leave the instruments lying about and let them bang or strum away at will. For older children, if they are interested, get them an instructor that is used to working with kids. Keep practice sessions short. The child will let you know how much is enough. Don’t be strict about it. If they want to learn an instrument they will need to understand delayed gratification. That’s the real hurdle at first.

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  6. October 5, 2011 at 9:55 am

    I used to enjoy practicing Suzuki violin much more when my dad or granddad played the piano with me, and loved singing when my brother played the piano. I think it’s the sense of music being something you do with others, and enjoy with others, makes it easier to have it be a part of every day life.

    I also used to walk around the garden in circles playing the violin, as I liked the way it sounded outside – finding a place where the space around you makes it sound better or feel better.

    The best thing I think is to be supportive and encouraging without forcing a child to do something that they really don’t want to do.

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  7. October 4, 2011 at 7:07 pm

    My 8 year old son, Liam, started violin a year ago and for him the things that work best are making sure we are fairly consistent with practice (4 or 5 times a week), sitting next to him and staying positive and enthusiastic while he plays, making sure we don’t leave it too late in the day when he’s too tired and can get easily frustrated, and adding some fun melodies he recognizes into the mix (he’s doing mostly suzuki songs but I occasionally ask his instructor to teach him some really simple Star Wars or Beatles melodies he loves).

    After we’ve gone over music from his lesson, we often try and end with an “open jam” session where he can play whatever and however he wants (ie. Shredding on the violin with Led Zepplin strings cranked up high in the background – sweet!). If someone in the family can join in on an instrument, all the better.

    One last thing — – I think it’s great to expose kids to as many different genres of music in which their instruments are played. With violin, Liam has heard lots of classical, bluegrass, and Irish music, but we also like to listen to and YouTube people/ bands that play violin in less traditional / more experimental ways (Andrew Bird, Noah and the Whale, Arcade Fire, Emily Wells). It’s inspiring to hear all the different sounds and styles that can come from one instrument.

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  8. October 4, 2011 at 11:12 am

    Light Light Light!
    Make sure there is plenty of light at the piano. There is nothing better than sitting down at a well lit instrument. Light brightens the keys of a piano and sheet music, giving students a more joyous feeling. Light helps students concentrate and focus on their playing. Light supports kid’s efforts and helps them know the spotlight is on what they are doing and that it is valuable and important. What’s more, they know that the family values what they are doing because the family helped create the place and light for them to play and practice.

    Centering
    Move the child toward the center of family activity and get them out of the isolation of a lonely living room. Can you move the piano into the dining room? Can the family be in the living room while the student is playing? Put the instrument and the child in the center of the action to show the child that the family respects and supports the practicing.

    Duets
    Parents can play music with children. That means singing along or even having the student teach the parent. If the parent can play the recorder, a drum, or the guitar with the child – GO FOR IT!

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  9. October 4, 2011 at 10:36 am

    Bring them to a rock concert for kids and say, “With lots of practice, that could be YOU up there.”

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  10. October 3, 2011 at 10:18 pm

    The voice is a wonderful instrument to inspire spontaneous improvisation before children are ready for more complicated instruments! Also, high quality marimbas and xylophones, especially Orff instruments, where specific keys can be removed for specific scales, give children the opportunity to create beautiful music with mallets. They love to “find their way home” at the end, by playing the top or the bottom note in the scale. Creating instruments is another way to engage children in exploratory music-making. We created an awesome guitar/sitar out of a long plastic planter (the kind people use in windows), putting large rubber bands around them, adding dowels on the sides, and creating endless melodies. My daughter has always been resistant to authority & rules (hmmm… the apple doesn’t fall far, here) so I try to have plenty of instruments around the house to play, and we go to lots of Family Band gatherings with various friends. So far the younger kids run off & play while the parents make music, but I know it’s rubbing off. Helping kids write songs is also a lovely way to get them excited about making music. It can be really simple, you can record it so they listen afterwards, and like writing before reading, the exploratory phase of music-making can engage imaginations and inspire a life filled with music. Some of us aren’t so crazy about enforced practicing. It certainly drove me away from the piano as a kid! Certainly following their lead by choosing music your child wants to learn, helping them form a band with friends, or a songwriting duo, or a quartet that plays at your house followed by snacks, could all be ways to encourage a more traditional practice. Playing with other musicians can be the best practice of all!

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  11. Charity Kahn said,

    October 2, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    Ah, the age-old question! Of course every child and family is different, but here’s what has worked in our family:

    Patience: Have the patience as a parent to wait ’til your child is seven or eight to start formal lessons. Before that, most children are not developmentally ready to commit to practicing 4-5 times per week, so either practice becomes a struggle between you and your child, or they don’t practice at all and consequently see no improvement and get frustrated or bored. Don’t set your child up for failure.

    Practice: Don’t have overly high expectations around practice. Until kids are in middle school, ten minutes four times per week is appropriate. Usually you’ll find they want to play longer of their own volition: bonus!

    Participation: Sit with your child during some or all of their practice session and support them emotionally (and musically if you can and if they ask for it). Listen, be present, hold space. Show them that you honor their efforts and time and learning process by being present for it.

    Playfulness: As always, keep things light and fun. If your child is constantly struggling or having tearful practices, check with the teacher to make sure they’re not moving too quickly through the material, or suggest they spice the song choices up with something your child is familiar with and is drawn to learn. Also be mindful of not putting too much pressure of your own on your child.

    The best modeling of all is to learn or re-visit an instrument yourself and model your own practicing for them. Then some day you’ll all be able to play music together! And there are not many experiences more magical and profound and connecting than making music with other human beings.

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  12. mike park said,

    September 30, 2011 at 12:27 pm

    We have a music room in the garage with a keyboard, drum kit, and guitars. Usually what happens is after dinner I will go out to the practice room and just started playing and the kids will follow without asking. Having daddy play music seems to get them motivated. My son is 2(almost 3) and can play rudimentary drum patterns. My daughter is a bit older and though lagging behind on her rhythmic skills is still very interested and we usually spend at least 30 minutes every day in that room.

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  13. Steve Weeks said,

    September 30, 2011 at 9:29 am

    Wow, this is a tricky one since there are so many factors. Some kids are more goal-oriented than others. Some instruments are harder to master than others etc.

    But I have to say that in my heart I really believe that music is supposed to be enjoyable. Adding too much stress to the early learning process can kill the best part of it. Music is best when it’s played for the love of it in my opinion. It’s supposed to be magic, so when they’re really young, just let ’em play.

    I would suggest immersing your house in music. Have it on the radio. Take you kids to local concerts. Don’t tell them to knock it off when they’re just plinking around on the piano . Break out that old trumpet and play once in a while… even if you stink. If you’ve never played an instrument, take up the ukelele. You’ll love it I promise, and your kids will see that it’s OK to be a beginner. If they’re learning the bagpipes, it’s OK to tell them to knock it off though …just kidding :)

    If you frame music in a positive way in your life, your child may develop a love for it which will get them through those times later (and they will eventually come) when they have to practice with much more rigor if their goal is to be good at their instrument. But that’s a little later.

    My son practiced sax a ton in middle school because the band director was an incredible educator who made the band program something my son wanted to be a part of. He worked really hard because of the tremendously positive influence this guy had on the kids. But when your kids are really young you have to be that influence.

    All musicians have to deal with the tedious side of music (paperwork, promotion, logistics, and yes, even practicing), but they all get through it because they know that at some point you get to just pick up your guitar and play.

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  14. tonya said,

    September 25, 2011 at 7:41 pm

    I totally agree with Katryna. Here is our story, Zoe started playing the violin at 5 years (her choice) and though excited to…the enthusiasm waned once the novelty was gone and the realization that to play an instrument was hard work. We kept playing casually, I did not push daily practice, and her teacher was patient and gracious. Fast forward to this summer….Zoe now just shy of 8 years…re-discovers her violin as she discovers fiddle music, and is completely self motivated and excited as she sees the value of daily practice, no incentives needed. I sit and listen every day while she practices and search the library for copies of the songs she is learning so she can hear them performed in various styles. It is becoming a most valued time of day for both of us.

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