In an ideal world, your child will love to practice their instrument. They will never be tired, cranky, or decide they don’t want to do it. In reality, there’s often resistance. In this instance, here’s a couple of different tactics to explore:
Remain calm but firm; don’t nag, threaten, get angry, or give up. Brushing teeth is not optional, and neither is practicing.
If the student is still resisting, you could ask the student to do a little bit of practice now, and another little bit later.
Bribe – my mother used to let me off washing the dishes if I’d practice. A brilliant fiddler I know called Devin Shepherd played a reel at a gig one night that took my breath away, and I just straight out asked him: “Devin, how on earth did you get so good?”,to which he replied: “My Mom paid me ten bucks to learn that tune when I was eleven.” Healthy bribes include:
- Substituting practice for chores (my mother used to let me off washing the dishes if I’d practice … that one really worked for me!).
- Watching their favourite TV programme.
- Money, e.g. 10 cent for practicing once in a day, 50 cent for getting it done well in a week, 1 euro if the student works on their tune until they can play it brilliantly.
- Stickers – a great, cheap, healthy option
- A new toy is always a great incentive.
For students aged 7 and older, make a deal that if they practice on the day of their lesson, they get a day off practice later in the week.
Use listening: Listening is an easy, and vital, part of learning music. Say ‘If you manage to [accomplish this particular practice goal], we’ll listen to [the piece / your favourite piece] together on Youtube at the end and count it as part of our practice time’. If the student is finding a particular section difficult and frustrating, say ‘Look, we’ll work on this for 5 minutes, and if you concentrate on it really hard we’ll listen to it then on our break as part of our practice time before we go on to the next piece.’ Or if they’re particularly resistant to practicing, say ‘Look, let’s start off with listening. You don’t have to play – we’ll just listen.’, and then ask them questions about the version they’ve heard. Listen to just one piece, and just once… or else it can turn into a Youtube session rather than a practice session!
Make yourself accountable to someone else in the house / relatives / friends. E.g. You could tell them in person or on the phone: “We’re going to get Seán’s new tune up to 90 BPM now. Can we come in to you and play it for you / play it down the phone for you in 30 minutes?”
Do something that lifts you and your student’s spirits, then re-approach practice.
Get both yourself and your student to think about someone you know with lots of self-control. Sounds weird, but this is scientifically proven to work!
Admit that you, or they, or both are feeling unmotivated, and today as an exception you’re going to give yourselves a reward for getting this practice session done. There’s a list of reward ideas here.
A good old-fashioned ‘nag’ is sometimes necessary as a last resort. Fortify yourself with the knowledge that you’re doing it for the good of your student. Did my mother nag me to practice? Yes. Did I resent her for it at the time? Yes. Do I hugely appreciate it now? Yes.
Some teachers recommend changing activity and trying to practice again at a different time, e.g. Danielle Strachman says:“I often recommend for parents to end any signs of frustration before they start, even if it means stopping the activity altogether. It is always better to start from a tabula rasa than a mind imprinted by negative experiences.
If the student is really resisting, give them and yourself a rest. Sometimes we all just need a rest – and it’s proven that willpower gets depleted with use. So refuel…
Final note: Around 1% of students love practice. For the other 99%, initially music practice is an (often tedious) process which leads to external rewards. However, you the parent, and I the teacher, will gradually give responsibility to the student as they grow older and more musically skilled. Finally the student will shift from being motivated by external rewards to being motivated by internal satisfaction.
When you’re feeling at your wit’s end, remember: this is the heart of the work. At the beginning our aim is, through carefully sequenced assignments and a highly positive environment, to make the student feel comfortable with the challenge of assimilating an unknown skill. But ultimately, our goal is not merely to teach a sequence of notes, but to teach the student to relish the challenge of surmounting an obstacle, be it a technical, musical, or mental one.
What approaches / tricks / tactics listed above / discussed sound realistic and acceptable to you? Which could you try if your child refuses to practice?