As students transition back to the school year after a Summer of camps, no homework, relaxed schedules and vacations it can suddenly become difficult to motivate them to practice their instrument regularly. We’ve got a few creative tricks up our sleeve for helping make practice a regular (and fun!) part of your student’s back to school routine. After you read our suggestions, tell us how you help your student practice regularly in the comments below!
1. Avoid “should”ing your student too much. One thing that can quickly sour students on regular practice is turning it into a forced chore. Suddenly, instead of a fun activity, practicing their instrument is just one more thing adults are making them do, and we want to avoid that feeling at all costs. Think about how you approach your student when you ask them to practice. Are you disrupting a favorite activity when you ask them to practice? Try waiting for a moment when they appear bored with what they’re doing, rather than making practice what they have to do instead of something fun. Ask them to play for friends or family! Think about language you could use other than “You should be practicing right now,” or “You need to practice for _______ minutes” (see our next tip for more on this). Try asking your student what they’re working on in lessons, if they could play their current piece for you because you’d really like to hear it, or to teach you something that they’ve learned. This can turn practice into an opportunity to show off their skills and for you to let them know that you’re interested and excited about their progress.
2. Ask your student to set their own goal for practicing a certain number of days each week, or at a certain time every day, rather than for a certain number of minutes each day. I personally use this system with my students and it works like a dream. I find that assigning a certain number of minutes for practice sessions often results in the student staring at the timer or clock, making very little effort and essentially just trying to kill time until they’ve been sitting in front of their instrument for the required amount of time. This in turn, makes for bored students who don’t make much progress because their practice sessions aren’t very effective. I feel that making practice a habit is much more important, so each week I put a post-it right on the piano/book/music stand, etc. with the student’s name, the date, and what the student is working on written on it. At each lesson, I have the student set their own goal for the number of days they will practice that week (I do tell them it has to be at least 3 days), and they keep track on the post-it using tally marks for each day they practice. This accomplishes several important things: 1) Because they set their own goal, they feel more responsible for meeting that goal. They committed to their number, rather than having me impose it on them. 2) There is a constant visual reminder every time they walk by that they have a goal to meet, and they can immediately see how close or far away that goal is. 3) It teaches my students to set realistic goals with flexibility (an important life skill!). I talk them through thinking about how much schoolwork they have that week, other activities, vacations, etc. that may be happening and setting goals that make sense taking all of that into account. They also learn to be flexible and manage their time, because it is up to them to decide which days of that week will be the 3 or 4 or 5 days that they practice. Over time, my students become extremely good at thinking through a realistic goal on their own, and then prioritizing throughout the week to figure out how and when they will meet that goal. And as for investing enough time? Interestingly, I find that once the student sits down to practice without a number of minutes they must complete, they just focus on the music rather than a ticking clock and they will typically put in enough quality practice time on their own.
3. For young students, in particular, make practice a part of their daily routine or chore chart. Many of our young students already have a very set morning, evening and/or after-school routine. Some even have a chore chart posted and know that they have to complete those items on a daily or weekly basis. If your child already uses a routine or chart system, consider simply incorporating practice into that routine or chart. Again, avoid imposing a certain number of minutes for daily practice, especially with young children, but teach them instead that practice is just a part of daily life. If your young child only practices for 5 or 10 minutes on their own, but is practicing every day, they will make progress. Think about where practice could fit neatly into your child’s existing routine. Does your child have a favorite part of their daily routine (reading a story before bed, playtime, etc)? Put practice right before that pleasant, rewarding experience so that they will associate completing a practice session with the good experience that follows it.
4. Make sure that your student’s practice space is inviting. We’ve talked a bit about this in recent posts about getting ready for the school year, but it’s a big one. Think about where your student currently goes to practice. Is it a space that they like? Does it isolate them so that practice means feeling lonely and punished? This is important for students of all ages. If your child is social and wants to be with the family, set them up for practice in or very near the common areas of the house where they still feel that others are nearby and available. On the other hand, perhaps your child needs their own special place that they feel “belongs” to them. Consider letting your child choose artwork or other items for the walls in their practice area that they like and make them feel good about being in that spot. If your child likes to draw or paint, they could create some special art for their space themselves! If your child is a piano student, perhaps they could choose some small items or a collection to put on top of the piano. Get creative with ways to help your child feel positive about where they practice.
5. If your child seems perpetually uninterested in practicing, (especially once they approach late elementary and middle school ages), think about adjusting their lessons to their interests. It’s not at all uncommon for early beginners to be reluctant about practicing, especially when they’re very young. But if your student is late elementary or middle school age and still seems to avoid practice time after time, consider whether they are learning material that excites them about music. There are many different genres and pieces that can be used to teach your student the skills they need, not just classical performance pieces. Ask your student if there’s anything they’d really like to learn to play on their instrument, whether it’s a specific song or piece or a new genre they’d like to explore. Even adding one or two “fun” pieces to a more traditional mix can go a long way towards reminding students why they love music and motivating them to practice and challenge themselves. Share this information with your teacher, and have them talk to the student about what would excite them as well.
Do you use any of these strategies? How have they worked for you? What do you do to get your students motivated to practice? Tell us all about it in the comments!
Sara R. Longwell, M.M.Ed, MT-BC
Community Relations Manager & Music Therapy Specialist