How to Help Your Child Excel at Music - Part 1

by Noel Johnston (co-owner of Lone Star Music Academy)

“How do I get my kid to practice?”

You may have been part of a conversation like this:

Person: How do you perform so well?
Musician: Practice
Person: It must be an innate gift...
Musician: It's practice.
Person: I'll never understand how some people are so talented... It's a mystery!
Musician: Practice

I’m a product of parents who helped me practice. I started playing cello when I was 7 and switched over to other instruments later in my teens because of the opportunities those “cooler” instruments afforded me at the time. As a guitar player now, I'm extremely grateful for the foundational musicianship that my parents helped provide. I don’t feel like that time was wasted at all.

You may be wondering, “how do I get my kid to practice?” This is a question that I get asked a lot. As a product of a family that has produced some fine musicians, I’ve been taking notes for quite a while. Here are my 10 suggestions, based on what I have observed, on what works and what doesn’t:

1. Routine:
When you’re dealing with kids, realize that (for the most part) they do what they’re told. Don’t expect pre-teen kids to be inspired to practice on their own purely because of their love of music. This is extremely rare.
Kids need to be told “brush your teeth.” “Do your homework.” “Practice piano.”

That’s just it. It has to be a routine expectation.

Not all kids will willingly obey, but if you set an expectation with appropriate follow-up for your child’s personality, then it can happen. Parents, I know we all just need to take a nap right now, but this extra task on your child’s routine doesn’t have to take a huge amount of effort to check in on regularly.

2. Consistency:
To develop a new skill, the brain needs repetition and time. Learning to play music is not just information that can be learned instantaneously. New paths of neurons making new memories associated with motor movement require consistent repetition over time. This is true for many skills, not just music.

It’s better to practice every day for a shorter time than to cram it all in one day a week. Repetition is key to creating long-term motor-skill memories.

3. The parent-teacher partnership:
A good teacher is necessary. Among other things, a good teacher will know that most kids will need a list; a list of things to practice every week. If a parent asks, the teacher will be happy to provide such a list and will probably find it refreshing that their student has a parent who cares enough to ask. Keep in mind, your child won’t magically become a musician during their once-a-week 30-minute lesson. Your child needs consistent repetition throughout the week. A good teacher will correct, inspire and should provide clear instruction of what to master every week. We as parents are more involved in their growth because we can help them practice.

4. Be goal-oriented:
Try to instill a task-focused mindset. It’s natural for kids to develop an attitude of “running out the clock” just because their teacher said to practice an x amount of minutes per week. My wife was very good at rewarding my kids for bite-size tasks: “Play this line 3 times and get an M&M.” “Finish this piece and you get a sticker.” Or bigger tasks: “Finish this book and you get a new video game.”

Find out what motivates your child. These types of extrinsic motivations are appropriate for a season. Motivations will change over time - more on this later.

"...putting things from the hard bucket into the easy bucket."

5. Perseverance:
Don’t let them quit.

Practicing is not fun. Until it is.

What I mean is, when you are learning a new skill or new motor movement, it comes from a part of the brain that requires all of your consciousness; the cerebral cortex. It’s hard to learn new things partly because it doesn’t feel good doing it. But, when it’s learned and becomes part of habitual motor memory it comes from a different part of the brain (the Basal Ganglia) and engages dopamine-producing neurons.

It actually feels good to do things that are easy! This is what practicing should aim for; putting things from the hard bucket into the easy bucket.

Sure, let your kids do easy stuff often. Relax, play, have fun, etc. But let’s be careful, if we only let kids do what is easy all the time, not much will be easy later in life. Their easy bucket won’t have that much stuff in it.

6. Parents, be patient:
I strongly encourage parents to help their kids practice from time to time. If done right, this yields warp-speed progress. This requires even more effort and energy than just telling them to practice but the benefits can be enormous. It definitely helps if you understand the material (possibly listening in on the lesson), but it doesn’t always have to be the case. Simply sitting down with them at practice time, getting the task-list out and asking to hear each item step-by-step is helpful.

Use your intuition on this one. Sometimes your kid needs you to be "dad" or "mom" and not "coach" and you need to outsource the tough love. However, if and when you do sit down with them to help them practice, try not to lose your patience. It’s easy for us parents to lose our patience because we’ve seen them at their best - you know they’ll be great “if only they would just try!”

It’s easy to get frustrated when we see our kids not doing their best, being lazy or making the same mistakes over and over again. I have lost my patience with my own kids when practicing with them, but I don’t think this was helpful. Some kids deal well with pressure while some kids need to be corrected more gently. Give them the time and space to learn, find mistakes and fix them and repeat the phrases until they can flow. Hopefully they are not solidifying bad habits or bad technique, or worse, developing a distaste for music because of intolerable tension from a parent.

to be continued in Part 2...