More often than not, this is how practicing violin and cello looks with my children (ages 3, 5, and 6):
1. Tell children that practicing is starting in 5 mins. Listen to moans and complains and negotiations about who is not going first and how unfair life is.
2. 10 minutes later, head to practice space. Call most compliant child. Check social media on phone.
3. After 2-3 minutes of mindless scrolling on social media, call most compliant child AGAIN, because said child isn't complying. Issue threat if they don't come by the time countdown from 10 is reached.
4. Unpack instrument for child while waiting for them to show up.
5. Go find child in question and half drag, half push them into practice room.
6. Ask child to do the most boring thing on their practice list (scales).
7. Expect attitude to improve and head into another soul-sucking item on their practice list (difficult passages from new pieces).
8. Finally give the child the chance to play through something they know well and enjoy and tell them everything they are doing wrong, therefore negating the enjoyment for everyone.
9. End practice session early due to poor focus from child.
10. Weep quietly, call second child for practice, repeat steps 3-9.
It's funny because this scenario has played out multiple times in my home and I still find myself wondering why practicing isn't easier. When I reflect on our typical practice sessions, it couldn't be more obvious why my children aren't enthused about practicing. The only thing I am doing right is unpacking their instrument for them, and even that's debatable.
The last thing we want to instill in our children is that playing an instrument is drudgery: a labour-intensive, joyless task that they do simply to get us to stop nagging them.
We want our children to believe that practicing is enjoyable, productive time. We want them to learn that even in the worst of times, practicing is the means to a desirable end (making beautiful music, accomplishing goals, and feeling successful). So how do we reach that end when practicing feels like a chore to both our children and ourselves?
When I speak to other parents at Upper Beaches Music School about how practicing looks with their children, I know that my flawed practice "routine" at the beginning of this post isn't so uncommon. Making our routine more peaceful and positive is not going to happen overnight. But the very first thing that I need to do is check my attitude and make sure that I'm modeling the positive and engaged mindset that I'd like to see in my children.
Consider how differently I might approach practice time with my children if I first adopt this mindset: Mommy is happy to be spending this time with you.
If I want my children to enjoy the process, I have to show them that I enjoy it too (see #2 on this list of things I've learned from practicing with my own children). My attitude is contagious. Demonstrating to my children that that helping them practice is a pleasure, not a chore, is a very powerful way to quickly transform the tone of a practice session.
I can do this by saying things like, "I am so excited to hear you play that passage from Allegretto again today. Yesterday it was so fabulous." Or, "Your bow is so much straighter than it was at the beginning of the year! Great job! I wonder if it makes your tone better?" Before I even mention practicing, my child is primed to think that playing their instrument in my presence will translate to more encouragement and growth.
Once we've succeeded in starting the practice session, I must remember that I promised this would be enjoyable for them! Leaving time for review and free play (more on this coming soon) will ensure that my children have time to be creative and play something purely for pleasure. After all, the most satisfying part of playing an instrument is playing it well. We need to make sure we give our children time to play a piece that fills them up with pride.
After adopting a positive mindset toward practicing, the next most effective change we can make as parents is to have a predictable schedule for practicing.
If our children know when they are expected to practice, they are much more willing to start. It makes sense- if I know I can relax after I finish the dishes or fold the laundry, I'm more motivated to burn through the less desirable tasks. In contrast, if my after-the-kids-are-in-bed plans for binge-eating chocolate and watching Netflix are interrupted by, well, anything, I'm not thrilled about it. Expectations are key.
My children don't necessarily have a set-in-stone plan of how they'd like to fill their evening with fun activities. More than certainly, though, they aren't mentally adding "practice cello with mom" to their evening pursuits unless it's become so habitual to them that they can't imagine an evening when they aren't practicing.
If we are constantly interrupting our children's play time to do practicing at random intervals, this can understandably be pretty frustrating for them. If practicing is as routine as brushing teeth before bed, we might encounter some fussing every now and then, but most of the time, the fulfillment of the expected task is comforting and satisfying for children. For a more in-depth read of why establishing a practice routine is so useful, read Christine Goodner's post here. (For tips on how to do it, read our 5 Tips for Painless Practice Routines).
The difference between an adult mind and a child's is that we know that playing an instrument is great fun, if you can do it well. We know that practicing is a means to that end. It's our job to help our children connect those dots. If we can practice often, cheerfully, and effectively, there is a beautiful reward at the end. But we must support our children in a positive way in their journey to discovering this.
Still need more practice support? Check out our post on making practicing more fun!
About the Author:
Rebecca Lane is the director, founder, and owner of Upper Beaches Music School. She teaches at the school on Saturdays, but most days you can find her chasing after her three young children, all of whom now take lessons at UBMS.