Reinvigorating Flute Practice

“Goodie Bags” for Reinvigorating Flute Practice

As musicians, there are times when we know we need some help reinvigorating our flute practice.  We might feel like we’re spinning our wheels and not improving. Maybe we’ve prepared everything for the lesson as best as we can but don’t feel like there’s anything else to do. Or perhaps the teacher is out of town and you have another week before she assigns new material. Sometimes practice can feel monotonous and we need a little jolt of excitement to get the creative juices flowing again.

“Besides the lesson assignments, what else can I practice?”

But if you have prepared all the lesson materials and are still looking for something to do (or if you need new ideas to add some excitement to your practice), try the following activity.

Practice Goodie Bags

Print out this sheet and cut on the dotted lines.

ideas for creative flute practice

Notice that there are two columns. One is marked “no flute needed.” Place these pieces of paper in one bag and the items in the “flute needed” column in the second bag. You can fold them in half to conceal the contents. Tape the headings on to the bags like this:

bags of ideas for practice

two bags to choose from

Activities in the “no flute needed” bag include activities online, composition ideas, singing/humming the lesson, and exercising. These might not seem like practicing, but time spent in these activities will help your playing and deepen your musical knowledge.

In the “flute needed” bag, you will find ideas for improvising, practice hacks, and reminders to practice sight reading and record yourself.

You could just choose an activity off the list, but I think drawing from a mystery bag is much more fun. My children use a similar activity for chores. We write chores on slips of paper and draw them one at a time. We also write a few fun activities on the paper to stir things up. They don’t really want to do any of the chores, but when the bag tells them (not me!) they will get to work.

More ideas for general motivation (not just reinvigorating flute practice) can be found in a three-part series I wrote for this blog:

Blog articles on creative ways to practice include

Happy practicing!

Grit for Musicians: Practicing and Parenting

Is Grit the Secret to Success In Music?

I first heard about Angela Duckworth and her research on “grit” on a Freakonomics podcast. Duckworth talks about how persistence, not talent, is the secret ingredient for success. It got me thinking about how grit translates to music, especially its application in practice.

What is grit?

According to Angela Duckworth, grit is “passion and perseverance for especially long-term goals.” It seems clear that studying music is a gritty activity. Learning to play an instrument is a long-term commitment if any success is to be achieved.

From the book review of Grit in Scientific American: (

In this standardized testing culture, Grit is a good reminder that an exclusive focus on ability and potential can distract us from the importance of other variables important for success.

Grit may be more important than talent.

There are plenty of musicians out there with natural talent. Some even have the almost mystical ability of perfect pitch. Yet not all people with perfect pitch become professional musicians. It seems that talent can kick-start a musician because it creates a positive feedback loop. Talent says, “I’m good at this. It’s easy. People recognize my innate ability.” But talent can also be a hinderance. When music practice becomes difficult (and it does get hard at some point for everyone), only the gritty will push through and learn new skills. Of course when a student is endowed with both talent and grittiness, the chance of success is high. As a music teacher, however, if I had to choose between a student with lots of talent or lots of grit, I would choose the grit. Every time.

Want to find out how much grit you have?


Even if you score low on the “grit scale,” the good news is that grit can be cultivated, even increased.

What do gritty people have in common?

By studying people who are particularly gritty, Angela Duckworth has observed four things the grit paragons display and cultivate:

grit in musicians

Cincinnati Symphony – paragon of grit

  1. Interest
  2. Deliberate Practice
  3. Purpose
  4. Hope

Duckworth observed that people who pursue one interest for long periods of time “learn to substitute nuance for novelty.” I love that. As a musician, I’m not constantly switching instruments. I’m delving more deeply into the repertoire of the flute and perfecting the craft of teaching. There is always more to learn about a subject.

Deliberate practice is something I have discussed many times on this blog. Brain research is helping us understand that some kinds of practicing are better than others. Good practice habits include being able to isolate a mistake and employ solutions to remedy it. Another “grit” researcher, Anders Ericsson puts it this way: “So anytime you can focus your performance on improving one aspect, that is the most effective way of improving performance.”

How can parents help kids become more gritty?

As a parent (see my admission on this blog about being a Tiger Mother), I want my kids to grow up to be gritty. How do we foster resilience in kids? Perhaps studying music is one way to cultivate grit. When your child studies an instrument, there will be opportunities for improving grit (theirs… and yours!)

Don’t let your child quit music. Teach your child that playing an instrument is a long-term commitment. Everyone comes to a point when things get hard and quitting seems the only way out. Help your child understand that music, like many other pursuits, will seem really hard from time to time. Remind your child of other times they have been frustrated but persevered and overcame the challenge. If your child is just beginning to study an instrument and wants to quit, don’t give in! Set a reasonable time period (6 months – 1 year) after which you will discuss the possibility of changing instruments.

The Atlantic Magazine recently published an article “How To Teach Students Grit.” The author wondered about the role of grit in academic settings. One of the most interesting findings was the role of intrinsic motivation in achievement. Behaviorism, using rewards and punishments to change behavior, is proving to be a colossal disaster in the classroom. A 2011 study of behaviorism in New York public schools (“Financial Incentives and Student Achievement“) showed that incentives such as money had no effect on changing student performance.

In Dallas, students were paid to read books. In New York, students were rewarded for performance on interim assessments. In Chicago, students were paid for classroom grades. I estimate that the impact of financial incentives on state test scores is statistically zero, in each city. -Roland G. Fryer, Jr.

Behaviorism relies on the ability of external forces to change behavior. When students are motivated by rewards, it is called extrinsic motivation. Students who are intrinsically motivated do things because they want to or because they know it’s the right thing to do. As parents, we must be careful of using too many rewards, thereby discouraging intrinsic motivation.

I’ve discussed motivation in music in other blog posts (Motivation: Parenting and Practicing, Motivation: A Teacher’s Perspective), but if you are going to use rewards like a sticker chart or money to reward your child for practicing, do it for a short period of time.  Recitals, positive feedback, and continued success in music will foster intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is critical for finding purpose (see #3 in the characteristics of gritty people list.)

Be sure to show your child the world of art and music. Your child needs to see that he or she has a place in the arts, that she is part of something larger. Give them hope that there is more in the world of music than high school marching band. (Not knocking marching band– it’s awesome, but there’s so much more to discover.) A hopeful outlook is one of the hallmarks of a gritty individual.

A final thought

If grit is the secret to success in music, and music is the key to success in life, then grit and success have a direct relationship. The more grit, the more success. Not just in music. In everything.

Goal Setting for the Practice Room

Goal Setting should be part of every musician’s practice session.

There are many kids of goals in music. Some goals will be achieved within a single practice session, others will take longer to achieve. Regardless, simply writing down goals is a powerful first step in making your practice as effective and efficient as possible.

Today is the first day of lessons after the winter break, and I am talking with my students about their musical goals for the year. Together we are setting New Year’s Resolutions for music. The goals we are developing are mainly long-term goals, like improving tone, learning repertoire, winning first chair in the fall, or memorizing all the major/minor scales. Articulating these goals is good for the student and it’s good for me as a teacher. Once I know what a student’s goal is, I can create a plan and offer the right materials to assist that student’s progress. Goal setting is a positive experience for the student because it promotes motivation and focus,goals are dreams with deadlines

Students should develop the habit of setting goals as part of music practice. Ideally, goal setting should happen at the beginning (Practice Session: Part 1) because it’s easier to build an efficient practice session with and endpoint in mind. When creating practice goals, it’s a good idea to set some short-term goals that can be achieved during a single practice session because meeting those goals is very satisfying and builds confidence that other goals can be met also.

I have always encouraged my students to set goals because it has been a useful tool for me in my development as a musician. Many other music teachers also recommend goal setting so this isn’t something I’ve invented. However, I had no idea that researchers have been looking into the benefits of goal setting since the 1930s. Goal setting really works and there are many scientific studies to prove it! There’s even a codified theory, Goal-Setting Theory, to explain why goal setting is useful.

Goal-Setting Theory

Setting goals affects outcomes in four ways:

  1. Choice: goals narrow attention and direct efforts to goal-relevant activities, and away from perceived undesirable and goal-irrelevant actions.
  2. Effort: goals can lead to more effort; for example, if one typically produces 4 widgets an hour, and has the goal of producing 6, one may work more intensely towards the goal than one would otherwise.
  3. Persistence: someone becomes more likely to work through setbacks if pursuing a goal.
  4. Cognition: goals can lead individuals to develop and change their behavior.

from Latham, Gary P.; Budworth, Marie-Hélène (2007). “The study of work motivation in the 20th century”. In Koppes, Laura L.; Thayer, Paul W.; Vinchur, Andrew J.; Salas, Eduardo. Historical perspectives in industrial and organizational psychology. Series in applied psychology. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. p. 353–382 (366). ISBN 0805844406. OCLC 71725282

Write Down Your Goals

A recent report on NPR (“How Writing Down Specific Goals Can Empower You”) discussed the role of goal-setting in achieving academic success. Schools around the world are trying one simple thing. They are asking students write down their goals. Teachers have found that their students have higher achievement after committing to the written goals.

goal setting imageIn my studio, I know that some students skip the goal-setting step in their practice. They believe they will remember their goals without writing them down, or they worry that it takes too much time, or they think it’s silly. However, this study from McGill University in Montreal suggests that putting pen to paper has a powerful effect on achievement.

Make Goal Setting a Habit

Goal Setting also improves non-academic skills like communication, resilience, creativity, and problem solving. The development of these “soft skills” may be more important than cognitive skills that can be measured by a standardized test. Employers are increasingly looking for people who are able to complete complex projects. Musicians are particularly good at this!

Adding goal setting to your daily music practice might make your entire life better.

Goal setting, like many other things, gets easier with practice. Once setting goals has become a habit in music, it’s easy to include it in other parts of your life.

Keep that pencil and notebook handy. You are going to need it.

whatever the mind can conceive, it can achieve

Temptation Bundling in the Practice Room

What is “temptation bundling” and how can we use it in the practice room?

Temptation bundling is when we take something that we’re not excited about doing and pair it with something that we really want. Katherine Milkman, researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, defines temptation bundling as

the coupling of instantly gratifying “want” activities (e.g., watching the next episode of a habit-forming television show, checking Facebook, receiving a pedicure, eating an indulgent meal) with engagement in a “should” behavior that provides long-term benefits but requires the exertion of willpower (e.g., exercising at the gym, completing a paper review, spending time with a difficult relative).

A recent Freakonomics podcast featured host Stephen Dubner interviewing Katherine Milkman about how temptation bundling can encourage us to make better choices (“When Willpower Isn’t Enough“). In her research at the University of Pennsylvania, Milkman found that people were far more likely to reach their exercise goals when going to the gym was paired with listening to an addicting book on tape. (Holding the Hunger Games Hostage At the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling.)

As I was listening to the podcast, I was thinking about how musicians can use behavioral economic theory in the practice room.

Temptation bundling is appealing because we tie something pleasurable with the work that needs to be done. (I talked about this somewhat is the blog post about how I motivate myself “Motivation: A Student’s Perspective.”) Some examples of temptation bundling in the practice room are

  1. Giving yourself a small reward for reaching a practice goal. This could be something small like eating a piece of chocolate or playing a few minutes of your favorite electronic game.

    temptation bundling

    massage balls

  2. Keep your instrument and music next to you while watching TV. When a commercial comes on, mute the TV and practice until the commercials are over. This works equally well for adults and kids. For every hour of broadcast TV, there are about 15 minutes of commercials!
  3. While practicing, roll massage balls under your feet. I like to do this while I’m practicing long tones.

“Commitment devices” are a cousin of temptation bundles. When we use commitment devices, we are setting up things that help us practice. Unlike temptation bundling, the linked activity does not have to be pleasant. Stephen Dubner and co-author Steven Levitt define commitment devices as “a means with which to lock yourself into a course of action that you might not otherwise choose but that produces a desired result.” These can be useful sometimes, but we have to be careful not to over-use the unpleasant ones. Some examples of commitment devices in the practice room:

  1. Scheduling practice time in your daily calendar. Add an alarm to help you remember.
  2. Set a timer and don’t let yourself get up from the chair until the timer goes off.
  3. Tell someone about your practice goal(s) and ask them to keep you accountable. To make the commitment even stronger, you can create a punishment if you don’t reach your goal. I read about a man who told all his friends he was going to quit smoking. If he failed, he would give a large sum of money to “a horrible little communist organization.” He hasn’t touched a cigarette since.


Ultimately, our practicing needs to be internally motivated. We play because we love music. It moves us. It makes us better human beings.

But sometimes I’m not feeling very spiritual about my practicing. There are bad days when practicing feels like the last thing I want to do. However, musicians know that we must practice regularly to keep our muscles strong and our skills sharp. For those days when we don’t feel like practicing, “temptation bundling” and “commitment devices” might be the only way I am able to drag myself into the practice room. Those massage balls are sounding particularly nice right now…

Interlude (R&R in NYC)

Finding artistic renewal on spring break.

It might seem odd to describe a trip to New York City as being restful and relaxing, but I love visiting big cities. The artist within is nurtured by throngs of people going places, by the easy access to art and music, by the diversity of people, by new sights/smells/sounds. Looking out my window today, I see acres of prairie to my right and forest in our backyard, a red barn chicken coop, and endless expanses of sky. Folks in the concrete jungle talk about how they vacation in the country to “get away from it all.” But for our family, city vacations are important for finding a new perspective.

We visited museums, rode the subway, explored Central Park, stared at the bright lights of Times Square, ate food from every corner of the earth, walked until our feet ached, and felt the pulse of the City.

NYC trip

Guggenheim Museum

We took the kids to the Guggenheim Museum where the work of On Kawara was featured. His work is difficult to describe as art. It’s not personal, not particularly beautiful, but definitely difficult to understand. It’s not even clear if Kawara moved living from his art. Nevertheless it hangs in one of the most important museums in the world. The kids are clearly trying to process it too. I wonder what will happen with this in their minds in the future.

A good friend of my husband is the head piano technician at The Juilliard School in New York City. We were fortunate to get a tour of the music school from him. Floor to ceiling windows look out on Lincoln Center and the immaculate studios are huge. Practice rooms are reserved through a kiosk or an app on your phone. In a special climate-controlled area of the building, priceless original manuscripts are available for perusal. My heart swelled with pride upon hearing my 9 year-old daughter say that she wants to attend Julliard when she is older. Although I know the odds are stacked strongly against her (thousands apply for a few precious spots), I was delighted that she could see herself there. A little seed has been planted and I hope she is able to remember this goal when practicing feels pointless.

The kids now know how to get to Carnegie Hall. (Up two blocks and turn right.) Son had chapped lips so he didn’t smile in the picture.

Carnegie Hall

Carnegie Hall

We also took the kids to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where we saw everything from ancient Egyptian tomb art to modern masterpieces. The children were pretty foot-weary by the time we got to the musical instrument collections, but it was important for them to see the history of music as well as the present.

music collection

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Out here in the middle of America, it’s easy for us to be complacent about music. Even worse, we can feel that hours of music practice is without meaning or purpose.

New frames emerge from travel. I am left with the feeling that as musicians we need reminders that we are linked to the past, the present, and the future of art. Even when we are alone in the practice room, we are connected to an unbroken line of artists from the ancient cave painters to the buskers playing music in the subway today.

Pablo Picasso said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

Artistic renewal takes many different forms. For some, a walk in the forest is the genesis of a new poem. For me, the energy and resources of a big city is the best way to clear out the cobwebs.

Motivation: A Student’s Perspective

I’ve been playing music since I was 5 years old so I’ve had a lot of time logged in the practice room. Today I’ll share some personal stories about practicing and some tips from my perspective as a recorder/flute/guitar student.

Neither of my parents played an instrument, nor any of my grandparents, but I’m grateful they gave the gift of music to me. My mom likes to tell people that she never had to tell me to practice. I don’t think that’s quite true but my motivation for practicing wasn’t always pure. In high school, I would disappear into my room to practice immediately after dinner, neatly avoiding the clean-up. I still hate doing dishes to this day. Practicing is not always pleasant but it beats doing the dishes.

avoiding dirty dishes is my motivation

avoiding the dishes is my motivation for practice

What is your motivation?

I don’t like doing housework of any kind, but I love checking things off on my to-do list. If laundry needs to be done, I’m much more likely to tackle the basket of clothes if it’s on my list. There’s something about checking that box that I find deeply satisfying. Along the same lines, every morning I think about what I need to get done and create a schedule. On a really busy day, it’s helpful to block out time for my practicing. Because I’m completely enmeshed with my iPhone, I use the “Reminders” app for the checklist and calendar to schedule my practice. When it’s Siri asking me to do something, somehow that feels different.

As you may have read in a previous post (Motivation: A Teacher’s Perspective), I’m not a big fan of using behaviorism in the form of rewards with young students. However, I’m not above using it on myself! When something is particularly difficult, I’ll set a little reward. For instance, last week I didn’t feel like practicing my guitar though I knew I needed to work on a song for a concert. I told myself that if I worked on the song for 20 minutes, I could have a cup of coffee. That was all I needed to get over the hump.

Know when to walk away.

Kenny Rogers’ song “The Gambler” is playing in my head…”You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.” When practicing becomes too frustrating or too difficult, walk away for awhile. It might be a few minutes, maybe a few hours, maybe even a whole day. Building up tension and bad feelings only hurts your practice. Be kind to yourself (and your musical children.) Give the brain time to do its subconscious work. You might be surprised at the miracles that can occur between practice sessions.

Not all practice happens by moving our fingers and blowing/bowing/pedaling/etc. Mental practice can be every bit as useful, often more so. Bring your music anywhere you would a book- on public transportation, while waiting for appointments, to your child’s baseball practice, wherever you may have a few minutes of quiet. I’ll talk more about practicing away from the instrument in a future post. Stay tuned!

Try playing along with a recording. There are many books now that come with CDs or mp3 files, and this can be a lot of fun. Find a recording of a professional playing your piece and see if you can play along. I have found that this makes for entertaining practice without stopping to catch mistakes. Of course, we need to spend time working out difficult passages on our own, but playing with the recording can be another kind of mini-reward for doing the detail work.

I’ve always tended toward introversion; having stretches of alone time during the day is good for recharging my batteries. Reframing practice to see it as restorative – physically, emotionally, mentally – rather than a chore, can make the instrument more appealing. Sometimes, it feels good to practice. On those days when tangible progress is made, when I’m able to be in the “flow,”* when I’m creatively stimulated, I try to savor that feeling and file it away for use on a day when I need it.

What motivates you to practice?

*For more on “flow,” check out Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.


Motivation: A Teacher’s Perspective

Far more time is spent in the practice room than the performance hall.

I have been teaching private music lessons since 1995. One of my primary goals as a teacher is to motivate my students to practice.

In a previous blog post (Parenting and Practicing), I explored practice motivation from the perspective of a parent of young musicians. Another post explores motivation from my personal perspective as a student (Motivation: A Student’s Perspective.) In this post, I approach the same subject and share with you some of the lessons I’ve learned in 20 years as a teacher.

Flute Recital 2012 participants, motivation

flute studio 2012, motivation

Students of all ages like to hear praise.

Giving a student ample performance opportunities is a good way to create opportunities for praise (see my blog post Parenting and Practicing), but there are other ways too. In these days of cell phones, it’s easy to make a video of a home performance and leverage social media for feedback. Upload the video to FaceBook or YouTube. If you make the video private on youtube, sharing it with only friends and family, you can limit the negativity that can come from sharing with the entire world. The very act of making the video can be motivational because of the expected praise. Further, making a video creates a goal (see below) and heightens the practice by encouraging the musician to listen differently. I recently recorded my son performing with his friend at church and uploaded it as a private video on YouTube. The response from friends, family, and their teachers has been overwhelmingly positive.

Think about it: are you more likely to work hard for a boss that is consistently negative about your performance or one that gives you credit for your strengths while sometimes offering helpful suggestions?

I believe it was Kathy Jones at Ohio State University who taught me the value of PCP feedback. (Positive, Constructive, Positive!) In studio class, we were encouraged to give each other feedback by offering two positive observations tucked around a constructive suggestion. Parents, you can do this when you listen to your child practice at home. Overly critical students can benefit from remembering PCP when evaluating themselves.

Caitlin*, mother of five young musicians, shared with me that she asks the children to practice for her, one at a time. Although Caitlin isn’t a musician herself and perhaps can’t hear every error, the kids enjoy their special time with Mom. When my kids practice for me, I like to applaud when they finish a long piece. Hearing my enthusiastic clapping helps them know that I’m listening and that I appreciate their efforts.

Setting goals can be motivational.

Jim* is an adult student in my flute studio. He has recently been keeping a practice journal. In it he lists long term and short term goals. It only takes a minute at the beginning of each practice session to answer the question “What do I need to accomplish with my practicing today?” At the end of each practice session, it’s helpful to review your goals and set new ones for the next practice session. I like to add my goals to the “to do” list I keep on my phone. Checking them off gives me a lot of satisfaction.

Goals can be simple and have a short time frame, such as wanting to work on a new scale or practice for 30 minutes without distraction. Or goals can be long-term, like presenting a full recital. It’s helpful to have some goals that can be easily accomplished and some that will take a year or more to complete.

Anything new or fun can break the tedium of practicing.

Buy some new music. It doesn’t have to be classical etudes. Maybe playing the music from “Frozen” is the kick in the pants you or your child needs. For my daughter’s birthday I bought her a book of pop tunes and Star Wars, both with play-along CDs. It’s not Bach, but I guarantee she will practice more this week.

I’m a flute teacher so I like for new music to play everyday. In the comments, please share resources for other instruments.

Read through my blog for some creative ideas for practicing to get unstuck on a difficult passage. Ones you may enjoy include Upside DownMiss It? Mark It! and Rhythm Game

Private lessons can be motivating.

Knowing that a teacher is going to listen to the assignments every week will keep kids and adults on track, as long that teacher is a good match for the student. If you or your child do not look forward to lessons with the teacher most of the time, find a new teacher. Lessons serve as weekly goals and a good teacher will give the right amount of work at the right level so practicing continues to move the player forward. If lessons don’t fit your budget or schedule, seek out other ways to enrich the music practice, such as online forums and music websites. If you are unable to find a teacher within a reasonable distance, investigate lessons via Skype.

Keep it in perspective.

Remember that progress on a musical instrument can be slow and non-linear. Parents, private teachers, and family members (spouses of adult students) can help by providing prospective. Saying things like “Your tone is really improving” or “Last week, that part was hard for you but now it sounds easy.” are encouraging. Ask the musician to play something they practiced six months or a year ago. It can be a shot of confidence to an otherwise bruised ego.

Happy practicing!

Motivation: Parenting and Practicing


As parents, we want to support our kids. We know that playing a musical instrument is good for them, but the issue of practice can be thorny.

I’ve seen this struggle from the teacher’s perspective when parents ask me how much they should insist on practice. There are power struggles and concerns about the child being “turned off” music forever. Parents are worried that motivation is lacking.

I have had five years to wrestle with it myself as a parent of two young musicians. I don’t know all the answers and I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I know that every family and every child is different, but I’d like to share with you some of the things that have worked for our family. I’d love to hear about the things that work for you.

Practicing is not a choice at our house. That may seem harsh, but chores aren’t a choice either. The children do, however, have a choice about when they would like to practice. Our children are motivated by SCREEN TIME so they are allowed to play on the computer or iPad/iPod when they have finished all chores and all practicing. We keep a fairly consistent routine at home and I think this helps us maintain a regular practice schedule. Music isn’t the only activity the kids are involved in, but it is the highest priority. If we have to choose between baseball practice and a piano lesson, piano is always going to win.

Our ten-year-old son would rather die than miss a day of “Minecraft” so he is eager to finish all jobs as soon as possible. Screen time is his ultimate motivation. We have to keep an eye on him to make sure he doesn’t rush through his practice or forget something, but generally this works well. He is advancing quickly and practices 45-60 minutes every day.

However, our daughter (8 years old) has inherited my dear husband’s proclivity to procrastination. She is easily distracted during her practice. If the cat walks through the room or her brother is making noise, she is likely to get sidetracked. There have been days when we have had to hold a firm line with her about screen time and there have been excuses followed by tears. As long as we continue to gently remind her and redirect her attention when it begins to wander, she will practice 30-40 minutes every day.

In the book How To Talk So Your Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, Faber and Mazlish encourage parents to be consistent. They argue that consequences should be fair and directly related to the situation. They also encourage parents to let kids make decisions, though the choices should be agreeable to all. Last night, Daughter was complaining heartily about having to finish her practicing. We were in the kitchen, having just finished dinner. I looked around at all of the dinner dishes and mess from cooking and I understood how she felt. I didn’t want to clean up the kitchen either. In fact, there are a lot of things I have to do everyday but I don’t feel like doing. So I gave Daughter an option: she could clean up the whole kitchen (clear the table, do the dishes, wipe the counters, etc.) while I practiced the flute -OR- she could finish her practicing without complaining while I cleaned up the kitchen. After sizing up the mess, Daughter walked upstairs and started practicing right away. It made me think about the research that showed that “grit” is an important indicator of success. (Check out Glenn Kurtz book Practicing: A Musician’s Return To Music for more on that topic.)

I know that motivating my kids is like the Whack-A-Mole game. The things that work right now are different than what has worked in the past, and we’ll have to stay creative in the future.

When the children were younger, we would award stickers in their lesson books for good practice. This worked for awhile, but it required a bit of management from me to have the stickers at hand. I wasn’t consistent enough to make it work long term. However, I was giving Daughter a lesson this afternoon and offered her stickers for perfect scales. It worked! She played three scales perfectly, earning three sparkly stars… and then she put them on her face! Tomorrow this trick isn’t going to work because the novelty will have worn off, but I was grateful for those silly stickers today. We were able to laugh together and she learned the scales. Victory!

stickers for motivation

stickers for motivation (today)

I know other parents who use money as a reward for practice time, similar to allowance, and that works well for them. I have been wary of over-using rewards as motivation ever since I read the book Punished By Rewards by Alfie Kohn. If the rewards are fair and not a burden to the parent, I think they can be used for motivation, but we have to be vigilant about making sure that musicians understand the intrinsic value of practice.

Performances can increase motivation.

CMC fall concert

piano trio concert

Studio recitals are great, but think about other places your kids can perform too. Could they play for their class at school? Church? A nursing home? Even a concert at home is fun. At Thanksgiving dinner for the past several years, the four of us put on a mini-recital after the big meal. My student Ada* played a concert as her Christmas gift to family, and even printed a concert program. Try asking your child to play their lesson assignment for you. It’s silly, perhaps, but I like to clap at the end of each piece to make it feel like a performance. We once invited my son’s friend over for a “playing play date.” The two musicians played for each other and sight-read duets. Ask your teacher (band or private) about competitions, solo and ensemble contests, talent shows, etc.

Most days my kids are motivated to practice because they want to have their “screen time.” Maybe as they achieve success in music, there will be a positive feedback loop to keep them intrinsically motivated. But until then, it’s my responsibility to make sure they are supported in the ups and downs. “I’m so glad my parents let me quit my instrument,” said NOBODY EVER!

Practice Builds Better Brains

Music instruction is better for children’s brains than “sports, theater or dance.” 

Save the link to this article and read again after a big fight with your kid about practicing. Or forward it to your spouse who wonders if all this money for lessons and instruments is worth it. Or if you are an adult whose parents made you practice an instrument, pick up the phone right now and say “Thank you!”

Hey, you’re a busy parent, so in case you don’t have time to read the article today, let me summarize it for you. A 2013 research study on kids who take music lessons found that these kids

“have better cognitive skills and school grades and are more conscientious, open and ambitious.”

Specifically, the study found that musical kids have significantly better brains. They outperform their peers in

  • reading and verbal skills
  • math skills
  • spatial reasoning skills
  • grades and IQs
  • ability to learn languages
  • motor coordination
  • memory
  • self-confidence and self-esteem
  • creativity

If you are the parent of a musician, don’t expect your kid to be oozing with gratitude today.

My kids will probably roll their eyes when I ask them to practice this evening. There might even be some pitiful sighs. But that’s OK because today I’m feeling good about being a meanie.

My teacher Alexa Still brought this to my attention. Thanks, Alexa, for helping my brain grow…in many ways!

photo of the author

Marlene Hartzler