12 Musicians Share Strategies on How to Get Kids to Practice Their Musical Instruments

Getting Kids to Practice Their Musical Instruments

“Parents can play music with children,” writes Deborah Poppink. “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!”  (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

Last fall we ask our readers how they got their kids to practice their musical instrument, generating great feedback on what worked for their families. We then invited many wonderful independent children’s musicians, several of them who have been guest DJs of the Hilltown Family Variety Show, to answer this same question. Their excellent advice ranged from letting them listen to themselves, filling your home with music/instruments, practicing along with them, allowing them to experiment, setting up a supportive environment, being patient, and making it fun!

Here’s what they had to share:

Debbie Cavalier: “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 and comment on the progress. You can use a free smartphone video recording app or a free audio app. I use one called Record.”

David Weinstone (Music for Aardvarks and Other Mammals): “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 use 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.”

Rachel (Gustafer Yellowgold): “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 use 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.”

Frances England: “My 8 year old son 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. After we’ve gone over music from his lesson, we often 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!). 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, my son has heard lots of classical, bluegrass and Irish music, but we also like to listen to 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.”

Charity Kahn: “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. – 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.”

Mike Park: “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.”

Steve Weeks: “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.”

Deborah Poppink (DidiPop): “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;  helps students concentrate and focus on their playing; supports kid’s efforts and helps them know the spotlight is on what they are doing and that it is valuable and important. – 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!”

Orange Sherbet: “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. – 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. – 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!”

Laura Doherty: “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!”

Rodney Lee: “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. 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 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!”

Nick Deysher:”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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