Helping Kids Practice: Tips for Parents

5 Ways You Can Help Your Child Practice and 4 Tricks To Try At Home

Neither of my parents were musicians. The only thing my dad ever said when I was practicing alone in my room was “Close your door! I can’t hear the TV over you.” Honest. I’m not making that up.

My dad, though he loved his TV, showed up for every single one of my music concerts. It must have made him crazy to listen to all that noise, but I always saw him in the audience clapping and grinning.Today I have two degrees in flute performance and make my living as a full-time musician. I have two kids of my own now and struggle with how to best support their practice.

As the parent of a musician, you’re giving your child an amazing gift by providing him with an instrument, books, music stand, lots of pencils (check out the blog post “The Pencil Problem”), and perhaps lessons. Give yourself a pat on the back. That’s more than many kids will ever get. It’s a huge family sacrifice to listen to the wrong notes, the squeaks, the high notes, the screams of frustration. And you’ve smiled through interminable school concerts and recitals.

But if you are like a lot of parents I know, you want to help your child. You know that she will enjoy the instrument more and have more success if she learns how to practice. I talk about how to motivate your child elsewhere on my blog (see the three posts on motivation, especially “Motivation: Parenting and Practicing”) but this post will focus on the ways parents can gently guide their musical children while practicing at home.

Dad and daughter at the piano

helpful dad

If you are able check in with your child’s practice for a few minutes two or three times a week, you will be helping your student tremendously. It’s not necessary that you be with your child for the entire practice time because it’s important that your child learns how to work independently.

  1. Open up your child’s ear. Young students have trouble listening to themselves. Remember, HEARING is different from LISTENING. (For more on this, please read the blog post “Hearing vs. Listening“) If your child isn’t paying attention to what’s wrong, he can’t fix it. When you are present in the practice room with your child, he will hear himself differently. You can also make an audio or video recording of your child playing his favorite piece of the week and listen to it together.
  2. Gently redirect wandering minds. If you notice that your child wants to talk to you as soon as she is finished with an exercise, the words rushing out almost before the last note is played, that’s a clear signal that her internal dialog is louder than the music. Listen to whatever she desperately needs to tell you but quickly redirect her attention back to the music. If she is having trouble focusing on the music, try some concentration exercises or brain games. (See a future blog post for more on this topic.)
  3. Mobilize resources. My son really enjoys watching YouTube videos of the pieces he is playing. The quality of the performers varies a lot, but even the bad ones give us something to talk about. Many good digital recordings are downloadable for a small fee on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, etc. Ask the music teacher if there’s something your child should be focusing on for the week. Let the teacher know the difficulties you noticed during the week so the teacher can address these in the lesson. Reach out to musical friends or the internet when you are feeling stuck or frustrated.
  4. Help your child stay organized. Schedule practicing into your family routine. In our house, the children do half of their practicing in the morning before school and the other half before dinner. We try to keep this schedule consistent, even during the summer. Other families report that good times are right after dinner and first thing after school. Keep all the music books in one place so you don’t have to look all over the house when it’s time for the lesson.
  5. Make music a priority. In our house, when the choice is between baseball practice and a piano lesson, piano is always going to win. Ask your child about music class at school. Make sure your child knows that playing a musical instrument is a big part of his life now and into the future. You can even show them some of the incredible research that is being done on the cognitive and social benefits of music. A quick Google search will turn up many research studies or you can read about my favorites in blog posts “Better Brains,” “Brain Imaging,” “Music is the Key To Success,” and “Essential for Being Human.”

I want to give you some extra ideas about how to “open up your child’s ear.” Non-musician parents, don’t worry if your ear is “untrained.” A musical background is not necessary to help guide your child. You don’t need to fix the mistakes, just help your child recognize where there might be problems.

  1. Disturbances in the Force. When Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda detect something is wrong in the Star Wars movies, they are unsettled by it. Wrong notes or rhythms have a similar effect. When you’re listening to your child play and something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably a wrong note or rhythm. When you hear something that makes your ear twitch, try saying one of the following:effect. When you’re listening to your child play and something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably a wrong note or rhythm. When you hear something that makes your ear twitch, try saying one of the following:
    A Disturbance in the Force I sense

    A disturbance

    1. “What was that?”
    2.  “Hmmmmm….”  
    3. “Was that right?”
    4. “Can I hear that again?”
    5. “Check your notes.”
  2. The Game Show. If you have a young child, she may like this game. However, I have to warn you that this idea will not work for every child. My two kids enjoy it (we laugh a lot), but other students in my flute studio do not. Here’s how you play: Every time you hear something odd, make a loud beep or buzz, like the ones you hear for wrong answers on a game show. After the wrong note is corrected, you can have a different sound (like “whoo-hoo”) for praise. This works great if you’re making dinner and your child is in the other room practicing.
  3. Feel the Beat. Tap your toe or bop your head while your child is playing. If you’re having trouble keeping a steady beat, ie. instead of dancing you feel like you’re having a seizure, try one of the following:
    1. ask your child to tap her toe
    2. suggest using a metronome (tips in a future blog post)
    3. lightly tap on your child’s shoulder as she plays
    4. ask her to point out the rhythms that are hard and say “how would your teacher help you with these sections?
  4. Get Creative. If a passage is persistently difficult for your child, you may need to help her get out of a practice rut. Playing things again and again in the same way reinforces the mistakes. Try gently asking “What would it sound like if you played it slower / smoother / backward / …?” You can even be goofy with this. Perhaps you could ask her to play it “as fast as possible” or “jazzy.” The weirder, the wilder, the sillier, the better. The blog post “Practicing Upside Down” explains how turning the page upside down will create novelty and re-invigorate the brain. The post “Articulation Game” includes a game you can play with dice to change the articulations of a difficult passage.

Despite your best intentions, sometimes your ear will be wrong and your child will be playing the music correctly, but it doesn’t matter. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Your child will be quick to correct you and that’s OK too because you’ve just made her double-check her work, a useful skill in school as well as music. However, most of the time your ear will lead you in the right direction. Again, you don’t have to know how to fix the problem, but you can suggest resources to help your child and you can bring attention to a problem. You will enable her to look for ways to solve the problem and engage her ear on a deeper level.

Two final thoughts:

  • Slow Down. There are very few children who enjoy practicing slowly, but brain research is confirming what teachers have been saying all along — slow practice with right notes is the most efficient use of time. You’re going to have to remind your child of this… a lot! Check out my blog post “Research on Effective Practice Skills.”)
  • Practicing is Hard Work. Your kid will probably complain about how hard it is. You can help by offering perspective and encouragement. “Remember how hard the first piece in the book was? Now it’s easy for you.” When the going gets tough, seek out a teacher’s advice or scroll through my blog for more ideas on how to practice difficult sections, also known as “woodshedding.”

Your child is lucky to have a parent who cares enough to read this article. It is terrific that you sometimes listen to her practice. If you want to go the extra mile and give a helping hand, bravo! Don’t feel like you have to fix every mistake —your child needs to learn how to push through failures by herself too. When the shrieking, wailing, honking, ear-twitching notes become too much, you have my permission to turn on the TV and ask your daughter to close her door.

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!