Helping Young Students Practice

Since starting my private music lesson business in 2009, I have gotten many questions from parents and guardians on the subject of practice. I have seen how coming down too hard or too soft affects young musicians over time, and I have been grateful to have parents in my studio that give me feedback about what has worked or not worked for their family. I’ve also read several books on the subject including, “Nurtured by Love,” by Shinichi Suzuki, “Helping Parents Practice,” by Edmund Sprunger, and “Practice Personalities: What’s Your Type?” by Thornton Cline. This blog will be a little longer than most, because ‘practice’ is kind of a big deal! I will help you set up a system step-by-step that will ensure the best practice with the least amount of friction in your family.

In this blog, I’m going to be talking to parents/guardians - not kids - about practice. In fact, I suggest you treat this article as TOP SECRET! There are tips and tricks in here that we don’t want kids getting wise to, so don’t discuss anything listed in here with them.

Over my years of teaching, I have encountered two main types of parents of music students: 1) those that want to give their children the opportunity to explore an instrument for their own joy and self-expression, and 2) those that require their children to play an instrument as part of their education. Neither type is right or wrong, they are just different approaches and both are totally legit.

Usually the first type of parent/guardian (play-for-fun parents) had negative experiences when they were learning an instrument as a child. Usually a parent forced them to practice long past the point of enjoyment, it created friction in their relationship, and as a result they resented practice and maybe even the parent. Or maybe they had a negative experience with a music teacher in the past. I’ve heard tales of rulers coming down on knuckles or shaming the student when they failed to understand or perform.

Usually the second type of parent (play-for-education parents) played an instrument as a child and their parents “didn’t make them stick with it.” As a result, this type of parent can tend to come down a little too militantly on their own children, vowing not to make the same mistake their parents did.

Parents, I could just hug you. My heart goes out to you. Either path you choose, likely your children will grow up to wish you did the opposite in hindsight. However, whichever way you decide to treat music lessons, I want to help you to have the best relationship with your child you possibly can in the process. This will help avoid any negative feelings being associated with music, practice, and (most importantly) you. In this article I will help you create the system by which you implement a practice plan that will create the least amount of friction possible. When there is little friction, there is more energy and focus on learning and enjoying music!

So now you, as the parent/guardian, need to figure out - are you letting your child learn an instrument through private lessons for their own joy and self-exploration? Is this treated as an opportunity that maybe they have sought out or you have offered as something extra-curricular to their mandatory schooling? If so, you are a Type 1 (play-for-fun) parent/guardian.

Or are music lessons going to be something you insist your child take part in until a certain time or age? Often music is not taught in schools, or not taught enough. Private music lessons can make a huge impact on a child’s learning and it is totally OK to treat it as a necessity (like homework). If this is your approach, you are a Type 2 (play-for-education) parent/guardian.

Type 1. Your child is voluntarily in lessons. They want to play an instrument. However, young children cannot be expected to want to practice simply because they want to play. When they reach their late teen years they will begin to make that connection. But for now, know that you will need to put some things in place before they begin practice.

Here are Ms. Kat’s Five Elements of Practice. Set up each item on this checklist and you will be well on your way to happy practicing!

  1. Space

  2. Schedule

  3. Routine

  4. Chart

  5. Reward

Space: Your child needs a space dedicated to practice. It needs to be free from distraction (not in the TV room or in a main walkway in the house). Their music books need a place and they need a music stand. Ideally, if they play a stringed instrument, they need an instrument hook on the wall so that their instrument can stay out and ready to be played with a tuner handy. They also need an appropriate chair. (No practicing on the bed with the music laid on the floor. Talk about bad posture!) This is also where their practice chart and stickers should be hung. More on that later… Help them set this up so that they know where their practice will take place ahead of time.

Schedule: Decide how many minutes/week of practice is enough. Lessons are an investment of your time and money as well as the energy of their teacher and if your child is going to take advantage of this precious opportunity, they need to make an investment as well.

I decide minimum practice time based on age. Add a zero to their age, and that is the minimum amount of minutes per week a child needs to put in to make lessons worth continuing. If your child is 5 years old, 50 minutes per week. If they are 8, 80 minutes/week, etc. Divide that number by 5 days per week (2 days rest is good!). Now look realistically at your family’s schedule. Have your child help plan what days and times they will practice. Building the habit of practice is most successful when it is done in the morning and tied to something that is already a routine. For example, after breakfast each weekday morning. Whenever you decide to schedule practice, the most important thing is consistency.

Routine: “Go practice!” said every parent and music teacher ever! But what does that mean? Go play my favorite song 15 times? Review all the things I’ve ever played? Play all the easy stuff? That’s exactly what it meant to me as a child! We (as teachers and parents/guardians) should never assume that kids will voluntarily practice things that are challenging/frustrating for them, so they need a routine in place that helps them to cover a variety of musical aspects. All of my students have a 3-ring binder that includes the following tabs:
1) Technique - scales, etudes, etc. Their focus in this section is on how they play, notwhat they play. Starting practice in this way sets the tone for the remainder of their practice time.
2) Current Repertoire - The song/piece they are currently working on with details like “play this measure 5 X Perfect”, or “listen for intonation here”.
3) Group Class - all of my students take part in group class once/month. This section holds all of their group class music so that they always know what they need to have prepared for class.
4) Music Theory - This section is for flash cards of note names, definitions of musical terms, scale creation, etc.
5) Past Repertoire - Once a piece is finished, it goes here. Students should always end practice with past repertoire so they always have a song ‘in pocket’ should a friend or family member stop by and say, “Oh! You play the violin??? I
want to hear a song!” Also, it’s best to end practice with a win!

Students should do something from each tab every time they practice. That way they don’t play the same worn out song over and over, but they also don’t fry their brains trying to learn the newest, most challenging piece. They get a well-rounded practice session that (best of all!) they don’t have to figure out on the fly.

Chart: Tony Robbins (world-famous motivational speaker) said, “That which gets measured gets improved.” Print a monthly practice chart from the web. They are all over the place online and letting your child choose their chart is a fun way to get them to feel ownership of their practice! Get some stickers, like gold stars or smiley faces. Each day your child does their minimum practice minutes, they get to put a sticker on that day. Music practice is an intangible thing. Once they are finished with practice, poof! There is nothing to see to show for their work. Seeing the stickers add up day after day, week after week, is a great way to have something (besides their growing abilities) to show for all their efforts!

Reward: Maybe seeing the stickers add up on the practice chart is enough motivation for your young musician. Maybe they love the feeling of gaining new skills and they don’t need any other incentive… yet. Even if they are self-motivated at first to practice because learning a new skill is fun, at some point, practice will become a challenge. The music will get more challenging, they may feel lonely during practice time, they may experience frustration, etc. (For my Type 2 parents/guardians, often this was the point at which your parents let you quit and you’ve regretted it.)

At this point, it’s often helpful to say something along these lines to your young musician, “I know you love playing the violin/piano/guitar/whatever, but the practice is more challenging than it used to be. I’ll make you a deal. You meet your practice goals for the week and I will _______insert reward________." Once you agree on it, write this on their practice chart so they can see it.

The caveat is you must make it clear you will not remind them or nag them to practice because that is what creates friction. Music lessons are their opportunity, not just one more thing you need to make them do during the week. So it is their responsibility to remember to practice if they want to continue lessons.

Some reward ideas:
~Let them put on a concert for the family
~Let them stay up past their normal bedtime on the weekend
~Buy them a small toy
~Go out for ice cream
~Ask them for suggestions!

Make sure all the things are in place for their successful practice (space, schedule, routine, chart and stickers). Now here comes the hard part: resist the urge to remind/nag them to practice!! I can’t stress this part enough! Any - and I mean any - well-intentioned effort you make to ‘help’ them in this regard is only going to get you friction. And this is supposed to be for fun, right?

But here’s what you CAN and SHOULD do. Praise them each time they practice. “I see you added a sticker today, way to go!” Praise them for remembering, praise them for something specific you heard them do well. This will be good for your relationship and build the pride they feel in their practice.

If after one week, they meet their goal, awesome! Brag on them! Celebrate their accomplishment and follow through on the treat. If you don’t, they will remember.

If after one week, they do not meet their goal, take a moment to check in with them. Do they want to keep taking lessons? If yes, give them one more week to meet their goal. Tell them that if they don’t reach their goal this week, you will give their teacher notice that you will be stopping lessons.

If after the second week your child does meet their practice goals, awesome! They must keep meeting these goals for at least a month, by which time practice should just be routine.

If after the second week, they still do not meet their goal, give their teacher notice you will be discontinuing lessons. Depending on their policies, you may be obligated to pay for more lessons but do not force your child to attend them. You could ask if you might be able to take over their remaining lessons. Start checking off that bucket list! Maybe when your child is older they will come back to music or maybe they won’t, but either way they will hopefully have no negative memories associated with lessons.

Now I want to talk to my Type 2 Parents/Guardians. You have decided that your child will take music lessons and practice as a part of their well-rounded education. Maybe your young musician is hip to this idea, or maybe you’re getting some resistance. Either way, the more decisions you let them make, the better. Let them pick their instrument, or their teacher, or the time of day they practice. The more they get to choose, the more ownership they will feel.

Everything written above is exactly the same and applies to your situation… until you get to the second week of not meeting practice goals. At this point, since quitting is not an option, you will need to set up Rewards and Consequences. For young children, rewards/consequences need to happen daily. For older children, weekly will work.

Consequences may be something like:

~Lose electronics for the weekend (bore them into practicing, haha!)
~Lose time with friends
~Lose allowance

Whatever the consequence is, the key is this: deliver it with empathy. This is big, so take notes. You might say, “Oh no! I see you didn’t meet all your practice days this week. Bummer! Well, I guess I will call Jamie's parents and let them know you won’t be coming over this weekend. Maybe it will work out next weekend.” Say no more, and go make the call.

If instead you get angry at the child or make them feel bad or guilty, guess what? All their negative feelings get focused on you instead of their own actions! You become the bad guy and they will spend time feeling hurt or angry instead of figuring out how to make better decisions! So keep your cool, give a genuine smile, a hug, be compassionate, and be consistent. I can’t make guarantees, but I would wager you will be rewarded with the practice you want and the loving relationship you both need.

So there you are. I hope this blog proves helpful for you and your young musician! Let me know what works or doesn’t work for you. And also let me know what questions you have!


Ms. Kat



I wrote this blog because one of my studio parents, Veronica, had been having trouble getting her two sons to practice violin. (Mind you, she's *not* the first!) Their family home-schools and I understand that especially in that dynamic, it's important to have as little friction as possible when it comes to ongoing assignments/responsibilities.

Veronica came to me totally frustrated and said she had tried reminding, that became nagging, and was getting a lot of push back. I told her, "Hang on! Don't change anything yet, let me write up my thoughts and you can decide what to do from there!" So I wrote the blog, and here is what Veronica had to say about it in regards to her two sons:

"I have to say this method of yours is genius. It's almost like magic...I'm astonished. The boys (ESPECIALLY Elijah) are actually WANTING to practice! Elijah is practicing as we speak! He's gone waaaay above his expected practice time this week. I'm just amazed. Thank you so much. ♥ Elijah even suggested his prize and his conditions. He said his goal is to practice every day of the month and if he does that, then at the end of the month he would like to go to the Smart Shopper (a little discount store in Livingston) and pick out a toy that costs "no more than $4". LOL.... Elijah literally just said to me, 'I like practicing my violin better than school.' "

Later, Veronica followed up with this update:

"I'm happy to report it's still working and Elijah is practicing even more than the boundaries you set for him. He was beating himself up because he didn't practice this past Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but I showed him on his chart that he practiced Sunday through Thursday last week and that he still got his 5 days in. The visual is an excellent reminder tool of past progress and upcoming goals! :)"