My 5-year-old drama king wailed, "I can't! It's too hard! I hate this! I HATE PIANO!" He ended by throwing himself against the piano keys (headfirst), resulting in a crash loud enough to wake the dead. The kicker? This was my fourth hour that day coercing kids into playing piano.
I'm both a music teacher and a music mom, and I know it's an uphill battle getting kids to practice music with a positive attitude. I'm not going to lie — you'll always have days that end in tears (and foreheads crashing down on keys). Learning music is hard, especially for little kids, but that doesn't mean practice time has to become a daily battle of wills.
Use these few tricks (and a lot of persistence) to get your child to practice — without all the theatrics.
Pick a consistent time
When you make practice a part of your everyday routine, kids are less likely to kick back. Kids don't throw a daily fit over brushing their teeth or going to school. When you make practice time just another automatic part of the day, things run more smoothly. Many parents wait until after school to schedule practice, but if you can swing it, schedule practice before school. Kids are either more cooperative in the mornings or they're simply more sleepy, but morning practice sessions result in more consistent practice.
Whatever time you choose, treat practice time like a daily appointment. Just like you don't stand up visits to your doctor, don't stand up the piano (or violin, or clarinet). You'll meet resistance in the beginning, but once your budding musician figures out that daily practice is nonnegotiable, most days will go according to plan.
Make your presence known
If there was ever a time to hover, practice time is it. No one likes a stage parent (least of all your kids), but young musicians have a tendency to goof off when left unsupervised. Don't turn practice time into musical boot camp, but grab a good book, park yourself in a chair and stay physically present for practice, especially if your child is under 10 years old. You won't have to say a word, but your child will use her practice time more wisely when you are there.
But what about other kids and household responsibilities? We're all super busy, and attending each practice session feels daunting. Remember that, with any other extracurricular, you'd be driving your kids back and forth to practice. Musical practice happens at home. Take the time you would've spent driving, and commit to at least sitting in on 15 minutes of each practice session. If nothing else, poke your head in from time to time and offer some encouragement.
Bribery gets such a bad reputation among parents, but it works! In an ideal world, our kids would practice out of sheer intrinsic motivation (and some teenagers will reach that point); however, kids have to build up enough skill before they'll play for pleasure. To get to that point, use all the tricks up your sleeve. Trade small candies for each time your child plays through a song. Lengthen your kid's bedtime for each minute he spends playing. Add music practice to a chore chart that leads to allowance or extra privileges.
Remember that you're asking your kid to master an extremely difficult task. You know it will pay off in the end, but all your child sees is increasingly harder material with no end in sight. Give him rewards to work toward along the way. Everyone needs a little motivation. Kids are no exception.
As a mom, I know that practicing consistently and effectively each day is no small feat. As a musician, I assure you it's worth the effort. Hang in there, and make practice fun. Your child needs your encouragement and sincere praise. He is the one taking the lessons, but remember that you're in this together.