Regular, consistent practice is required for your child to be successful at any skilled activity, whether that is music, art, sports, math, or science. No one disagrees with that.
Sometimes, your child will just practice on their own. At other times, it can be hard to actually get your kid to practice! But in this article we’ll show you some proven strategies to get them practicing consistently.
Consistent music practice is required to develop the habits of movement, the skills, and the memories needed to play music with confidence and ease. Without it, there won’t be any progress. So it’s important to find ways to help your child practice consistently, and consistently well.
With the many distractions of TV, the internet, games, apps, friends, and other competing activities, it’s harder than ever to get your kids to practice consistently and with focus. Here are some of the things that get in the way:
Routines can be great, if your routine is productive. But routines are especially hard when you are trying to add something new to your routine, because, well, it just isn’t in your routine. Changing routines can be difficult.
Mobile phones, tablets, and apps all pose a special challenge. With the immediate rewards that screens and phones and apps offer, it’s hard to pull anyone away - adult or child.
The light from the screens is stimulating, and apps are purposely designed to be addictive. A quick search on the internet will reveal how many articles are written on the topic of making apps addictive. And, yes, you read that right, apps are built with addiction in mind. App designers need you to stay on their platforms in order to make money - so they use some of the same strategies I’ll share with you in this article to build that habit of using their product. But the good news is that you can use those same strategies, plus more that I'll show you here, to build better, healthy habits and routines in your children.
Most children have an interest in music. It’s easy and fun to play music at the beginning, because the difficulty level is low and achievements are easy to come by.
Over time, as the difficulty increases or the novelty of playing music wears off, interest starts to wane in some children. Most of the parents we work with know this, but they aren’t always too sure of how to maintain interest when these factors hit.
How do I even list them all? From siblings, to phones, to the dog barking, to being hungry, there are such a multitude of things that can distract your kid. I’m sure your home is unique and you can list 5 new distractions that I’ve never heard before.
Lack of Time
With today’s busy schedules, you just can’t find 30 minutes to have your kid sit down and practice. There is never enough time, and so music practice falls off the list.
Thankfully, there are solutions to each of these challenges, and more, which I’ll address in this article.
Let’s start with a high level overview of the two types of motivation, to give you context. Then I’ll give you some specific strategies to help you motivate your children to practice.
Generally, there are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic.
Intrinsic motivators are the internal rewards someone receives from doing something. Examples of intrinsic motivators include doing music because it personally matters to your child, or the joy and excitement he or she receives from playing music.
Extrinsic motivators are external. These include practicing music to please the parent, or practicing because they will get some other reward, like playing games or a sweet treat.
Can you guess which one is better?
If you thought ‘intrinsic’, you are right. Intrinsic motivation, the kind that comes from within your child, is far superior to extrinsic motivation. Perhaps the biggest change you can make to improve your child’s motivation is to shift from offering extrinsic rewards, to helping your child find intrinsic rewards for practicing. There is, however, a place for extrinsic rewards, too, which I’ll share below when we talk about behavioral reinforcement.
Children can be influenced by authority. You, as the parent, are an authority to them. Most young children will respond to parental authority and practice because you have required it. But as children age, the influence of authority diminishes, so you will get less and less results from this.
Aside from authority, you can temporarily motivate a child to practice with the reward of playing games or, let’s say, a donut. But what if they aren’t in the mood for a donut or playing a game? At this point, external motivators fail.
Practice should not be made to feel like work or a barter. In other words, don’t say “You can only have a donut if you practice”.
On the other hand, intrinsic motivators are durable. They don’t lose value over time. You should strive to use these types of motivators for your children.
Here’s a straightforward example of extrinsic motivation:
“Go practice your guitar. After you practice your music, you can play your favorite game for 30 minutes”.
In this example, the motivation to practice is purely external, and won’t do much long term good. It’s also not a good behavioral strategy because it may be felt as a trade or barter. In the barter situation, your child gets to decide if the reward you are offering is enough to offset whatever negative experiences or associations they may have about practicing. And so they choose what they want, not necessarily what you want them to do.
Your child has just practiced and you respond:
“Hey, great job, I’m really proud that you just practiced today”.
This is better than the first example, because the child’s behavior is reinforced without it being a trade. Your child did not know the reward was coming before the practice.
However, it still relies on your external validation. It has some better effects than the first example, because there is often some internal motivation for children to please their parents.
Parent: I heard you practicing, how did it go?
Child: I dunno.
Parent: Was it hard?
Child: yeah, like maybe
Parent: Did you get it done anyway?
Parent: How did it feel when you got it done?
Child: I dunno
Parent: Did you feel a little proud like you accomplished something?
Parent: Does that feel good when you accomplish something?
Parent: Do you think if you practiced more, you’d feel more accomplished?
Parent: Nice, I’m proud of you for sticking with it.
Child: *uncomfortably runs away*
In that last example, I’m assuming the child was struggling with practicing. The parent tried to find something that was an internal, intrinsic motivator for the child. Then, the parent asks the child if practicing gives them that reward. In this way, the child makes the connection for his or herself that practicing delivers that internal reward. This will make a more lasting impact.
No one knows your child better than you, so it should not take a lot of questioning to find something that internally motivates them. The key is to ask questions to get them to discover the answer. Lead them there.
Here is an example of a student in my own studio. Hannah (name changed for privacy) is 7 years old, and comes from a large family. As such, she does not get as much attention as in a family with fewer children. Luckily, she’s got a supportive extended family that help her with homework and practice.
Initially, she never practiced between lessons. However, I knew she was very much motivated by taking care of her brothers and sisters, especially the younger ones. Family was her biggest motivator.
The conversation went something like this:
Me: You really love spending time with your brothers and sisters, right?
Hannah: It's my favorite
Me: Do they like music, too?
Hannah: Yes, we like listening to music
Me: I'm really glad to hear they like music, since you are working on becoming a musician. Do you think they would like it if you played music for them?
Hannah: Yeah, they like music.
Me: Would you like playing music for them if it made them happy?
Hannah: Yeah, I think so
Me: Would you spend some time playing the guitar for them this week? It sounds like they would really like it.
So I introduced playing the guitar for her siblings to help find togetherness with them, and as a way for her to make them happy. While I can’t say she is practicing every day, this approach has taken her from 0 days of practice a week, to 2 or 3. Nothing else has changed. She now brags in her lessons about playing music for her younger brother. That’s the power of intrinsic motivation.
My next steps with her are to leverage the practice she is doing already, to get more - and more importantly - better practice from her.
Your child’s practice needs to be in a time and place that allows for them to enjoy their intrinsic benefits of playing music.
The first thing you want to do is ensure that the practice space is clean, organized, and distraction free. You should remove anything that could pull your child’s attention away. That may include games, toys, electronic devices, siblings, or pets. You’ll know your child best, so remove what you know will distract them. There is a time to introduce distraction, but now is not the time for that.
You may also choose to include reminders to help build habits, such as when to practice. We’ll talk about that later when we get to the routine.
The best student I ever had was a young man named Noah (name changed for privacy). He was really doing well. However, his father was never satisfied with his son’s progress, despite the fact that Noah was by far the most successful student in my studio. And that included the music performance majors who were studying with me at Queens College in the City University of New York. He was that good.
I could see that Noah's interest was declining. And Noah eventually confided to me that he hated practicing the guitar because he had to practice so much, and didn't have time to play anymore. Around the same time, his father wrote a letter to me, concerned about Noah’s declining progress. I responded readily about what Noah had achieved and how well he was doing compared to his peers. Instead being satisfied with that, and encouraged by the news of his son’s potential, his father increased Noah’s mandatory practice from 2 to 4 hours daily.
Noah’s father thought that 4 hours of guitar per day surely meant more progress than 2. But Noah’s progress came to a grinding halt.
There was nothing left of Noah’s childhood. No more play time, no more friends, everything was homework and guitar. His father wanted his son to be great. And he was very motivated to have Noah give a grand performance at his Bar Mitzvah, marking his public entry into manhood.
Noah, a preteen at the time, just couldn’t handle that pressure and the loss of his free and leisure time. Noah quit music shortly after that. I regret that, because he had (and I’m sure still has) so much potential.
Playing a concert the Bar Mitzvah was the father’s goal. Practicing 4 hours daily was the father’s goal. Neither were realistic.
Noah’s goal was to enjoy playing music because “he loved the sound of the guitar”. Noah would have likely made more progress if the goals were his own, and if his father relied upon the things that motivated him personally.
The point is to make sure your goals for your children are reasonable. Get your kids involved in making their own goals that align with their own intrisic motivations.
They will stick with it longer and see better success.
We keep a lot of detailed records here at Sage Music. One of the things that we’ve found is that students who choose their own instrument take lessons twice as long as when the parents pick the instrument. The most common scenario being a child who wants to learn another instrument, like saxophone, but the parents believe that instead the piano will “give them a better foundation”. While not exactly the same, you can see the theme here - internal motivators and choices have a bigger impact than external ones for long term success.
Beyond the big goals, having your child write little goals about what they are going to achieve in their individual practice sessions can be very effective for three reasons:
Involve your kids in the decision making. When they feel they have made the decision themselves, you will have their buy-in, and it will be easier to get them to practice. The decisions are also more likely to align with intrinsic motivations. And remember our statistic, when students choose their own instrument they stick with it twice as long. So by keeping them in the decision making process, we’ve got some evidence that you can double the results.
Malcolm Gladwell made the 10,000 hours theory popular in his book Outliers. Gladwell claims that you just need to put in 10,000 hours of work to achieve mastery. However, please don’t read it. He really misinterprets the research, and his claim is essentially false.
Ericsson, the researcher upon whom Gladwell based the 10,000 hours theory states that Gladwell’s rule is an overgeneralization, a simplification and an incorrect interpretation of his research.
While Gladwell claims that “soft” practice is enough, Ericsson is much more clear. Ericsson’s work shows that experts have on average amassed 10,000 hours of dedicated practice by the age of 20. Dedicated practice is practice with clear goals, direction, and is done with greater concentration and effort than other practice.
In other words, it is not necessarily how long you practice, but how well you practice and the quality of your instruction that makes the difference.
Another key distinction is that 10,000 hours is an average. Some of the best performers practiced significantly less hours than others who practiced more but were less skilled.
Ericsson writes: “This distinction between deliberate practice aimed at a particular goal and generic practice is crucial, because not every type of practice leads to improved ability. You don’t get benefits from mechanical repetition, but by adjusting your execution over and over to get closer to your goal.” Emphasis mine, because expert practicers define outcomes before they start.
Having your child make little goals for each practice session is one of the ingredients of dedicated practice. Ericsson notes that the quality of the instruction also matters, so be sure to find a good music teacher.
How can you help?
It’s easy. Have your child make clear goals for their practice session. Then have them tell you what they are going to accomplish. That will help improve their practice quality because they will have a clear aim. It will also get them closer to the dedicated practice that Ericsson describes.
After they are done practicing, ask them if they achieved their goal.
If they haven’t achieved it, simply ask “I thought you said you were going to do x? (pause to give them time to think) Do you think you should go back and finish your goal after dinner?”
No one wants to behave in a way contrary to their public commitments. This can become an intrinsic motivation to finish the goal.
The behaviorists, largely standing on the shoulders of B.F. Skinner, are very interested in studying how the response to a behavior conditions one to engage in that behavior. In short, you can give a reward or a punishment after a behavior to increase or decrease the likelihood of that behavior. For example, after your kid practices, you can reinforce their practice by rewarding them with something positive like a cookie, or by taking away something negative like a chore they don’t want to do.
So…if you want your kid to practice, you should reward them after they practice, right?
Well, not exactly. Rewards can incentivize practice. But how and when you reward your child makes a difference.
Continuous reinforcement is when you reward your child every time they practice. You can do this for only the first few practice sessions. You don’t want to continue this way. If you do, the practice will depend upon the reward, so that the practice will tend to decrease if the rewards do, too. You will be stuck having to always provide rewards to get the desired action of practicing.
You could reward every third practice session, but then that, too, becomes predictable and doesn’t work well long term.
Better is to reward your child at unpredictable intervals. Reward them after the 1st, then the 3rd, then 5th, then 2nd practice session, etc. Just remember to reward them at various intervals that are not consistent or predictable. Keep it random! This tends to have the fastest effects, and the effects last much longer before going extinct, too.
You can also include a rare jackpot reward that is much bigger than the initial unpredictable rewards and reinforcement. This can be especially useful for any breakthrough moments in changed behavior, according to Karen Pryor, who specializes in animal behavior.
Our digital marketing consultant asked us to write a section about making music practice fun. But I can’t do it, because that’s not always good advice. Yes, practicing music can be fun, and it doesn’t have to be a chore. Sometimes it is a lot of fun. At other times it takes some effort, and at others it’s just straight up hard.
Fun implies that music practice is always fun. It implies short term rewards, and short term rewards don’t make long term success. Short term rewards don't build discipline, or any other traits that lead to long term achievement.
A much better goal is to make music practice meaningful and engaging for your child.
I believe there is an overemphasis on “gamifying” everything. This is one of the strategies that app developers take to get people hooked on their digital products. It’s had the unfortunate effect of so many children expecting everything to be “fun” and game-like as a result. This is because they interact often with “gamified” apps. And without those quick dopamine hits, music practice, or any other serious practice, can feel less exciting.
I’m not saying that music practice can’t be fun, but as an experienced performer and teacher, the honest answer is that sometimes it is just really hard work.
I’m also certain that the goals parents have for their children extend beyond just having fun. They want their children to learn to solve problems, tackle challenges, and not give up when things are hard.
So, to make music practice fun, you can create games, play with backing tracks, try to improvise over your favorite songs, and more. Let them pick music they want to play (intrinsic motivators). Be creative!
But when your child puts in that hard work and achieves something real, they will (and you will) get a sense of pride, of accomplishment, and more. Through this work, they also develop the ability to play music well. And playing music well is absolutely fun! That’s a fact.
So when your child accomplishes something, this is a much better time to reward them, show them your affection and pride.
When your child grows, that provides them with meaning, develops capability, and helps them become successful in the world.
This isn’t to say that you should not make your music practice fun. It just shouldn't be the only goal. Fun, in itself, is not a good long term motivator. Go back to intrinsic motivation for lasting success.
Lastly, I’ll mention music as catharsis - being an emotional outlet - for your children. Playing music got me through many difficult situations when I was a child. Music was my escape when I was sick with a rare disease and a test subject at the National Institutes of Health. Music was my solace when my grandmother, with whom I lived for many years, died. Music kept me going for a decade when I was recovering from my brain injury after the war.
Music can provide comfort and an emotional outlet for children when life is hard. It’s been mine since I was a child. And continues to this day.
Make it fun, absolutely, but don’t forget the more important things - like the healing power of music, finding meaning, growth, and self-development.
One of the unique things we do at Sage Music is to put our new students through our new student onboarding. In the onboarding, we do a personality assessment, because we are very interested in researching how your child’s personality affects their own learning, and their practice. Unlike most personality tests, we use the Big 5 personality assessment for two reasons: it’s validated by psychology, and the results are generally stable over the period of one’s lifetime. It’s an accurate assessment, and the results you get won’t change when you retest, so it provides a good description of your tendencies. If you are a current student or parent, you can log into your account to view your results at any time.
In the Big 5 personality assessment, one of the dimensions we look at is conscientiousness. In short, people who are conscientious tend to follow a checklist, get their chores done, and make their beds in the morning. Getting a conscientious child to practice is not so hard - put it on their list of things to do. But getting someone who is not as conscientious can be much harder.
On the other hand, conscientious children are often less adept at creating new ideas, or being abstract thinkers. We find that the less conscientious children often do better at less structured musical activities like composing or improvising.
None of this is to say that non-conscientious children can’t follow a routine, or that conscientious people can’t be creative thinkers. We’re just talking about tendencies.
So, if your kid is more conscientious, it might be easier to give them a checklist of daily things to do, like practicing. If your kid is less conscientious, then you might try other strategies that will work better with their tendencies like having them compose their own music or improvise.
The goal is to work within your child's strengths, but also develop their deficiencies. So don't lean only into their strengths.
So let’s say you have a not so conscientious kid. What do you do?
Let’s go back to two of the issues we talked about above: routines, and lack of time.
The problem with fitting something new into your routine is that it isn’t in your routine. And routines are habits that are happening without your conscious control. That’s why you just brush your teeth when you wake up without consciously deciding you are going to do it.
And habits can’t really be removed. They will always be there, just waiting for a trigger to set them into action. But you can use your kids' existing habits and hook into them to create new routines.
For example, if your kid always plays video games after school, then you just need to hook into that existing behavior to get the practice in.
"if / when...then..." statements are a good way to do that. Have your kid say something like
Then have them write their statement on a sticky-note and put in on the game console, or on their homework folder. It is important to get them to both say and write the statement.
The beauty of this strategy is that it hooks into existing behaviors to trigger the new behavior that you wish to develop.
False choices are another strategy that work well. You can say “go practice now” but you might not get a good result because you are in an authority battle.
On the other hand, you can trick them into practicing by giving them a false choice between two behaviors that you want them to do. For example, do you want to practice violin or do you want to do your math homework first? No matter which they choose, they are doing things you want, and they have had the illusion of control. Their compliance will be better because they chose it, after all.
If you want your kid to come eat dinner. You can say, “Come to dinner now”. Again, this is the power struggle. Or you can ask them “Do you want to sit at the end of the table, or on the side?” That’s the beauty of the false choice, no matter what they choose, you get your desired outcome.
Another issue that parents commonly report about their children not practicing is not having enough time to fit in a practice session.
Going back to Ericsson, the biggest factor is not time, but quality of practice. I hear many teachers erroneously argue about whether a student should repeat their music 10 times or for 10 minutes. However, they miss the most important factor. It’s not about repeating the same thing mechanically, or about the time spent, it’s about quality work. There are many reasons, more than I can list here, about why shorter practice sessions are actually better. In fact, we often recommend children take a shorter music lesson length, because it can improve their learning.
So, do shorter practice sessions with your kids. 5 minutes is enough if they put in a solid effort and play their music well. Part of good practice is making accurate repetitions. If the session is longer than your child can concentrate, they will be making inaccurate repetitions which can lead to getting worse, instead of better.
To do these short sessions, you'll need to pay attention to the section below on removing barriers.
Engagement is another factor. Many childrens' 'educational' shows, for example, keep kids engaged by quickly switching images and sounds and providing quickly changing stimuli. This is probably not so good for long term development, but it does keep engagement up in the youngest children. So let’s talk about how to use this strategy, and then tweak it to provide long term benefits.
Instead of having your kid do their science homework, then their english homework, then their music practice in blocks, you can have them switch between activities frequently. When do you switch? Easy, when their concentration breaks.
This switching of activities will give them a mental break from one activity while keeping them productive. Their focus will be better, and they will actually learn better because they are more focused.
Then, unlike what educational tv programs can do, you want to try to push your kids to grow or extend the time they can spend on an activity before their concentration breaks. This way, you are keeping them engaged, and pushing them to grow at the same time. The goal is to achieve longer periods of concentrated work over time.
Removing barriers to practice will also help you get your child to practice and into a new routine.
Your child has to go into their room, get their music, music stand, instrument, and instrument stand out of the closet. Open the case. Unfold the music stand. Take out the instrument. Tune it up. Open the music. Find the right page and put it on the stand. Decide what to practice. Double check the tuning. Put on their instrument strap. Get comfortable. And NOW they can start to practice.
Your child walks into the room, tunes their instrument that is waiting on the stand, and starts to practice the first thing on their practice list. After practice, they then make their goals for the next practice session so that they are ready to go first thing next session, and return their instrument to the stand.
The answer is obvious, remove all the barriers, no matter how small, to get to practicing. You don't want their efforts spent on menial tasks. This is especially important when you are trying to establish a new routine.
And if you want to get in those highly effective 5 minute practice sessions, this is a necessity.
At Sage Music, we are always talking about “Practicing What You Preach”. All of my employees are required to do monthly professional development as teachers - we can’t expect our students to get better each week, if we aren’t getting better, too. But I hold myself to the same standard, too. I work with an outside mentor to do my professional development each month. In that way, everyone at Sage Music is working toward the same goal of constant improvement and growth.
It’s infectious. You can do the same with your child. You can practice your fitness while they are doing homework. You can practice your “take home” work from your job while they do their science homework. Create a culture of learning and developing, and participate with your kids.
I am often critical of the Suzuki method's poor pedagogy, but there are some things I really admire about it and about Shin’ichi Suzuki, himself. I have much respect for the man.
The one thing that really makes the Suzuki method effective is that it really emphasizes the role of the parent in the child’s learning. Suzuki wanted the parents involved, and expects them to be involved. I believe this parental involvement is what leads to the childrens' success, overcoming their deficiencies in pedagogy.
This emphasis on parental involvement is the key to its success, leading it to become an internationally recognized method. The parent is often called the “Home Teacher” in this system.
So I’ll encourage you to be as involved as time will permit. Your kids will have a better chance to excel when you do. We see this with our students, too. When the parents are involved with their children’s practice, the kids perform and progress much more than if not. That’s one of the reasons we’ve developed our parent app, so that parents can log in at any time and see what their kids are working on and stay involved, watch their kids' recorded lessons, and more.
We also have many parents who take music lessons at the same time as their kids. Not surprisingly, both parents and kids tend to excel in this situation.
Consistent quality music practice is the key to your child’s musical success. Music provides a lifetime of benefits, from improved critical thinking skills, to being a rock to lean on in tough times.
Use behavioral reinforcement, intrinsic motivation, and habits to get your kid practicing consistently and consistently well. Remove barriers, set goals, and focus on quality more than quantity.