22

Our son (7 years) is having piano lessons for some months now. Currently we want him to practice at least 10 minutes each day, but this is sometimes difficult if he gets home late after sports or other courses in the afternoon.

So my question is:

Should we insist that he practices playing the piano at least 10 minutes each day?

Pro:

  • since we insist on it, he makes good progress

Contra:

  • sometimes it is difficult for him to concentrate on practicing, if it is late in the afternoon (or early evening) and it is often not possible to start practicing earlier
  • 5
    I gave up on playing pipe organ when I was about 12, simply because it was fun when making progress in my pace, but it was a pain to practice whenever someone asked me to do it. – PlasmaHH Jan 29 '15 at 13:04
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    Something that helped me engage better with practicing was having a teacher who would be visibly disappointed -- not angry, just sort of let down -- when I blushed and admitted I hadn't made any progress since last week. I also was helped somewhat by the pressure of recitals (I HATED making a mistake in public!) but that was on the whole negative, since I still have silly nightmares occasionally where I realize I have to go perform and I am totally unprepared. – Acire Jan 29 '15 at 13:20
  • 13
    I think an important part is missing from the question. Why do you want to require it? Why is he taking lessons? Is this a hobby (something to do for fun), or do you feel it's important to learn an instrument to grow into a complete person, or something else? Is the expense of lessons a significant factor? If you don't require it, how often does he practice? – Joe Jan 29 '15 at 16:14
  • 5
    It depends, does your son want to learn to play the instrument? "Currently we want him to practice at least 10 minutes each day" sounds to me like learning an instrument is something you want him to do, and not something he wants to do. If he doesn't want to do it, you can't and shouldn't force him, it will only lead to resentment. If he does want to do it, it is important to explain to him that if he wants to be good he has to practise, and then offer incentives and rewards for his practising. If he's too tired because of other things, he's probably doing too much and should stop one of them. – Pharap Jan 29 '15 at 16:28
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    10 minutes a day is almost nothing. If it's a struggle to get him to do such a tiny amount of practicing, then he's clearly just not very interested in the instrument. Quit the lessons. – Ben Crowell Jan 31 '15 at 5:35

15 Answers 15

28

The key to getting a reluctant practiser to practise anything (a musical instrument, reading, physical exercise, whatever) is to change from:

Time for you to go practise X!

to

OK, time for us to do your X!

I don't mean stand over him with a timer and glare to ensure he doesn't stop at 9 minutes 30 seconds. I mean you show your enthusiasm for the starting of the task. You listen intently to what he's doing. You talk to him about it. You point out where he's noticeably improving - that passage is so much smoother now! - and directly tie it to the work he is putting in. You smile and react and show your involvement. You turn the pages of the book, or suggest what to play next. You really intensely care about the piano practising, or the kata repetition, or the reading. And when it's done, you praise the work that was put in.

Long term improvements like learning the piano or becoming an A student are hard to see progress on. But being able to land a jump or play a passage that you couldn't do last week is a huge motivator. Seven year olds (and twelve year olds, and some thirty year olds) may not notice - but if you're there to point it out, they will. You will come to enjoy those ten minutes a day together, and the chore will become something not quite so chore-y.

  • 1
    thanks - I'm doing that already, but that's really very good points! – BBM Jan 29 '15 at 12:41
14

Insisting, forcing him to do something will most likely not work in the long term. Yes, he may improve, but it'd be much much better if he wanted to improve.

You should talk to your son, ask him whether he wants to learn to play well or not. If he doesn't - I think you shouldn't force him. I admit that he will eventually learn, but it'll cost him much and he won't be happy.

If he wants to play - try the write it down tactic. Talk about practising and together come up with a reasonable "schedule" for practice. Like parents will continue paying for piano lessons, but son acknowledges that he has to practice at least three times a week for at least half an hour beyond paid lessons. Be reasonable, but don't make his commitment too small. You have to both be happy with what you come up with. Write it down, sign it together, hang it somewhere visible (if you don't have a whiteboard or stick-board it'd be a great opportunity to get one) and remind your son about the deal from time to time, if necessary.

The idea behind this plan is to make the kid either want to practice, or agree to practice by himself. He will know that he could've stopped learning, he decided not to, and will motivate himself to practice, to progress.

  • 2
    +1 for this. Get your son's buy-in. Agree on a schedule that gives him one to three days off, but then enforce the schedule. Also, make sure he likes his teacher and enjoys his lessons. If he doesn't, look for another teacher. Also, if he didn't choose the instrument, ask him if he likes piano or would prefer something else. I speak from experience - my parents did this, the result was great. A friend's parents did the opposite - they chose the instrument and the teacher but where uninterested in the practice. The result is that she never learned much and hates playing any kind of instrument. – Sumyrda - Reinstate Monica Jan 29 '15 at 16:08
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    +1 "ask him whether he wants to learn to play well or not" this has the potential to prevent years of resentment and unhappiness. – Pharap Jan 29 '15 at 16:30
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    I don't think the contract thing makes sense with a 7 yo. I'm not a parent, but I'm 25 and I think I wouldn't keep agreeing with myself for too long at that age - ie, won't care about what I've written down two weeks ago. – mgarciaisaia Jan 29 '15 at 17:05
  • @mgarciaisaia that must actually be quite a big problem for you. How do you fulfill your long term commitments, how do you do your job? Anyway, it's just an idea, it may or may not work depending on many factors. It won't hurt to try, though. – Dariusz Jan 29 '15 at 17:34
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    @Dariusz: I grew :) At 7yo I wouldn't care about what I've said a couple of weeks before - I think it wasn't me anymore. Now I may feel similar to that, but with really longer periods of time - I may not agree that much with something I've promised a year before, and that's why I try to really think before committing to anything. – mgarciaisaia Jan 29 '15 at 17:35
11

Without exception, every adult I know who took piano as a kid but no longer plays, including some who were quite talented, had it turned into a chore by their parents. It is absolutely essential to find a way to keep it fun.

So I would make your busiest days fun days, where you still expect him to play, but let him play whatever he wants. It might surprise you what he chooses. Yes, he will review fun songs that are now easy for him, but when I was a kid, I also used that time to tinker with very hard songs that I loved but were way above my level. Those songs eventually brought my level up.

If this is happening nearly every day, you might want to re-prioritize. Perhaps let him take piano lessons at a slower pace or drop some other activities. Perhaps find a different time to practice. For a while in high school, the only time I could find was before school.

  • 1
    I like the suggested strategy in this. My "fun" time was playing favorite songs or working on memorization, my "work" time was scales, chords, or remembering what all the terminology was. Unfortunately my parents rarely let me do only the fun ;) – Acire Jan 29 '15 at 18:04
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    @Erica: My piano teacher told my parents to more or less butt out. She gave me fun stuff when there was some reason to (bad week at school or as a reward for doing something I didn't really want to do), and she gave me work stuff when I was "in a flow." I would make weeks or months of progress in just a few lessons when I was in a flow. I'm convinced that a good music teacher is as much a psychologist as a musician. – Calphool Jan 29 '15 at 23:19
10

I would get him to play more on days when he is does not have sport or late finishes, and get him just to do a couple of scales or something on days when he has more on. As he starts playing for longer he'll also start enjoying it more as he'll start becoming more creative.

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    When i learned to play trombone, I would practice scales while reading my school notes. I put them on posters and played along to the syllables. A surprisingly good memory jog later on! – Gusdor Jan 29 '15 at 15:45
6

I'm going to add a little contrast to the other answers. I think you should insist, but carefully. Focus on having your son set goals, encouraging your son / being there for him, setting a routine, and possibly finding a better teacher.

I have been playing the piano for more than 10 years, and I never would have made it this far if my parents did not "force" me to practice. At this point in my life, I absolutely love playing the piano; I happily practice for hours on my own. But it was not always so.

Goals

When I first started playing the piano, I was very determined to learn. While my mom was the one telling me to practice, I was happy to do so. Why? Because I had a goal: surpassing my sister. Which later became surpassing my brother. This is very key. Goals are extremely motivating. Now, even with that goal, I needed prodding and help from my parents. My mom was still the one telling me to practice.

There was a time where we kept a chart of practicing. If I practiced 15 minutes on a given day, I got to check it off. Enough checks resulted in a fun little reward. Give him something to work towards.

Encouragement / Always Being There

My mom didn't just send me off to practice. When I was practicing, she was always right there next to me, not actively helping me learn (after the first couple years, she could not because she is not musically talented), but she always sat there in the same room as me. Without fail, if she left to go do something, I would stop practicing. And when she was there, she could hear my progress and pointed it out to me, giving me encouragement.

Routine

A routine was very important to getting me practicing. I was homeschooled, so during much of my childhood, 8-9 AM was the practicing time (naturally, the length of time depended on how old I was). I knew that when 8 o'clock hit, I needed to be practicing the piano. I'd often practice without prodding from my parents because of this routine. Routines work wonders.

Fast forward a couple years, and I was taking a class that started at 9 AM, requiring me to leave the house at 8. This threw my routine out-of-whack. During this time, I rarely practiced the piano. I knew I "had" to practice the piano every day, but struggled doing so. Until I found a new routine, practicing was very sporadic. I might practice as soon as I get home at 2 PM, or I might practice at 8 PM, or at 5 PM - there was no schedule behind it. Eventually, I set a new routine that I would practice at 5 PM every day, the same time when my mom started cooking (our kitchen is next to the room with the piano, so she could still give encouragement and I still felt her presence). When I set that routine, suddenly my practicing became regular. It became rare for me to miss a day. Note that a set time works much better than something like "right after you come home from school" (assuming that that time actually changes).

Teachers

At some point, who your child's teacher is actually matters. It becomes hard to improve once you reach a certain point (actually, there are many points where this happens). Practicing becomes frustrating because it feels as if no progress happens. At this point, a good piano teacher can be really encouraging. I know a certain piano teacher who, when I took lessons from her, managed to get me extremely enthused. I would practice without care of how long I was spending. And no matter how little progress I made, I felt appreciated by her; she'd always be encouraging, never saying negative things, instead telling me "how to make it even better." This same teacher has done the same with kids that I was teaching (way more recently); I couldn't figure out how to get them excited for the piano, but as soon as they switched over to her, they loved playing.


When I was struggling with continuing the piano, my parents did force me to continue a bit further before deciding. I am so grateful that they did this. If they did not push me past the rough spot, I would have quit playing the piano, yet the piano is such a big part of my life. I absolutely recommend that you insist that your son play the piano, but do so smartly. Do not randomly send him to the piano. Set a routine with him (he should know when it is practice time). Be there with him (it's his job to practice, but you are still there supporting him in it). Have him set goals (perhaps he should find competition with other young pianists; this might be hard until he's older). And just be overall encouraging. Try to make practicing the piano fun.

5

You could ask him what he wants. Ask him if he wants to pratice a bit for getting good progress, or if he is too tired.

  • 3
    +1 If he's too tired he's probably got too many other commitments, which isn't healthy at all, especially in one so young. – Pharap Jan 29 '15 at 16:33
5

At the early stages holding a childs interest is far more important than practicing. the child must want to learn and forcing practice would make it a chore rather than a good time and you could stifle the childs own natural gifts. When i was taking lessons I did not want to show up for lessons if i had not practised for fear the teacher would look down on me. My roommate taught guitar and what we did at the end of each lesson was to have an "open jam" for 20 minutes or so with the student on lead guitar my roommate on bass and me on drums. the students couldnt wait to come to practice. make them WANT to learn.

  • Amen man. Tiger Moms suck, and Tiger Kids are often technically competent, but creatively sterile. You can't fake "love of the craft." – Calphool Jan 29 '15 at 23:14
5

When I was a boy of about 11, I decided I wanted to learn to play the piano. My parents didn't really care one way or the other, but they were pleased that I took an interest in something other than video games. They found a piano teacher who was also a relatively young elementary school teacher. I looked up to her like she was some kind of goddess, and she just loved kids and the process of figuring out how our little brains worked. She was almost like a therapist. If she saw that I wasn't progressing on something, she didn't assume it was because I was lazy. She would ask me probing questions, and get to the root of what was going on in my head (I didn't like the song, something was going on at school that made me not want to practice that week, or occasionally I literally was just being lazy.) She talked to me like I was an adult, but she talked to me with a lot of care and concern. She told my parents to leave piano teaching to her -- don't scold me for not practicing -- just be interested and be an encouragement when I made certain milestones.

The result? Well, I competed in various piano competitions in my latter teens, and I won a few. I still play fairly regularly, though it didn't become my profession. I was well on my way to becoming a virtuoso, but as I reached my latter teens my teacher took a job in another state, and my new teacher used a kind of "command and control" teaching approach. I hated her teaching style. I dislike it to this day. She destroyed my passion and berated me every time I made a mistake or showed any lack of interest in anything she decided to foist on me. She turned it into a drudge. As an adult I can look back at it and say "Well, I should have decided whether I wanted to be a virtuoso and just not let her get to me", but a young man doesn't think that clearly. In the end, I am a quite competent piano player -- I can play classical/baroque, popular, rock, jazz, etc. all equally well. I've played in a number of bands. People are always wanting me to play at churches, parties, etc. and I do sometimes. I generally work up a few things to play during the holidays, because there's always family around that wants to hear something.

Soooo..... long story short.... if you're focusing on "should I make my kid practice every day?" you might have already missed the boat. It's way more important that your child really has a great relationship with his teacher than whether he practices consistently or not. There were times where I'd practice continuously for hours and hours on end -- literally until my fingernails bled (because I'd had a great lesson and my teacher had really motivated me on something), and then there were times where something was going on in my life and I'd practice barely enough to make any progress that week. It's not so much about "you must get your 10 minutes in every day", it's about "Are you liking what you're doing? Do you like your teacher? Are you motivated? If not, why not?" Ask those questions and then, most importantly listen. You may have to go through a few teachers to find one your child clicks with. Don't worry about offending anybody. Different teachers click with different types of kids.

Of course, this is just my experience. There are Tiger Moms out there who'll say I'm full of bull, but I can tell you that for every kid who is taught to play using the Tiger Mom approach, there are 999 who quit because they couldn't stand it, nobody knows why they quit, and it had nothing to do with ability -- it was all about psychology.

P.S. Guess which piano teacher attended my wedding years later?

2

I think that, to answer a question of whether you should insist, depends on how important it is for you that he improves in that particular skill. I believe that insisting on something that he's not interested in doing is counterproductive and stunts learning, although it may be necessary in some circumstances, like school or domestic chores for instance.

So if we assume that learning that skill is important enough to insist, I'd cut down the time spent on other activities that are taking away from properly focusing on that one, and attempt to make him excited about learning to play the piano, before actually forcing him to do so. If those aren't options, I'd consider a different schedule, increasing the time of the practice session but doing so only 3 or 4 days a week, if that fits better with the rest of his schedule. It may also make for a more special event, if you can tell him that "it's piano day!"

1

Ten minutes of practice each day seems like a reasonable thing to ask of him at this age. It may be a little much for him to handle if he's also doing sports on certain days though, so I can understand your hesitance.

On days where he's had to go to sports practice, you could try asking him first if he's willing to do is practice. If he's not, then offer him a compromise of just 5 minutes. Encourage him to practice his scales, and stay with him during that time.

You should also make sure he's enjoying it, if not all the time then at least when he's doing the practice and isn't exhausted from other things. Forcing him to enjoy piano practice is not going to do him or you any favors.

If, however, you know that he enjoys it, keep encouraging him, and make sure he practices every day. Learning a complex talent like playing an instrument takes dedication and discipline, and by keeping him to a schedule, you're teaching him that at an early age. There are of course some exceptions, but unless they're genuine remarkable circumstances, keep it up, and reward him for his progress. It's hard, but it's a lesson that is well worth teaching.

1

The one thing it might be worth to make him realize is that with playing, just like with many, many other things, you make most progress while sleeping.

So if you practice something and don't make any progress at all, that feels quite frustrating. And maybe after a few times of that, it starts working even though you don't do anything different. And that's not because you've been an idiot, but because one does not improve during practice. Instead, one prepares the topics for one's sleep.

So procrastination and finally practising on lesson day does not work. And being driven to work on something until it is right does not work either. Your just setting up your sleep work.

So pretty much the most frustrating thing you can have is a "helpful" parent pointing out what you are doing all wrong and getting impatient when you don't "fix" it.

And even muddling through a few minutes before sleep can be a helpful reminder for the sleep work of the night.

But nagging the child is not likely helpful: just make him realize that it does not matter if there is no progress to be seen in a particular session.

1

Yes, I play violin. I am 13. You lose progress if you go too long without practicing. Oboe, trumpet, horn...whatever. But hard instruments...namely string ones are important to regularly practice. Piano is also in that category. Even just 5 minutes. I gets that it often turns into a chore, but sometimes you need to do things because they just need to be done, this means you don't really need to reward him for practicing, simply sounding good is reward enough. You might instead set up a time everyday. Where he can squeeze in as much practice time as possible.

1

Both as a (one time) child who took violin, and as the (current) parent of children who also take violin, I think anything that you want to improve on needs to be done at least 10 minutes each day (or at least that should be the goal --no one meets it 100% of the time). Outside of that, the child will never get better and you'll be wasting his and his teacher's time with the lessons.

In the larger picture, I don't believe in forcing a child into any activity they absolutely don't connect with, but assuming both you and your child agree --for the most part, on most days --that piano is something he should do, practicing regularly is a necessity.

Personally, for my son, I switch between days when practice is really focused and directed, and days when I just let him have fun with his instrument based on his mood, level of energy, and what else has happened during the day. In other words, some days we need to really work, other days, I just want him to have the instrument in his hands.

  • "Practice makes perfect" has been demonstrated to be a half-truth in psych literature. Practice is important, but you only progress during focused practice, otherwise you're just practicing mistakes, which actually makes you worse. That's why it's important to monitor a child's thinking while they're learning a difficult long-term skill like playing an instrument. If they're not liking it, they're not going to progress much. – Calphool Jan 30 '15 at 13:07
1

Maybe the real issue is that your son simply has too much on his plate. You say that he has piano and sports and other courses going on, not to mention school, homework and maybe other commitments. Does he have enough time for unstructured playing?

If you want him to learn the piano, the solution may be as simple as eliminating a few other of his commitments. Look at the total number of hours that are already planned for him. When I grew up, I usually had at least two or three hours per day for free play time, and that still feels like a good number.

  • I agree with you, but he does not want to give up any of the courses. sports is very important for his health/development, so we don't want to cut them down as long as he enjoys those activities. – BBM Mar 15 '16 at 20:11
1

Do you play as well? My dad made me learn violin as a surrogate for him never having done it. I hated it and gave it up at 18 and didn't play another note until...

...when my kids reached primary school they joined the local brass band and I suddenly had this urge to play too. So they gave me a clarinet. So I had to take lessons and practice every day, and they saw this a a thing one just does. My daughter and I sometimes practiced together, we had a book of duets. If fact when she comes home we still go and play Mozart in the cellar.

Professionals practice for several hours every day. Good musicians will practice every day. Hobby musicians might never practice except for in band practice. A beginner may not be able to play every day, their hands hurt. 10 minutes a day is better than nothing, but for a little kid 20 minutes every other day is better. Your kid has to want to play. Make sure the teacher gives him fun things, not just the most boring things Mozart every turned out on a bad day.

  • yes, I do play an instrument as well - I had lessons for >12 years. At the moment I only rarely have the time to play. – BBM Mar 15 '16 at 20:09
  • Find time. It will do you good, as well as motivating your child. I have a fixed time, 7 pm, when I go in the cellar practice room and play my sax. If I have to go out or so I'll do it earlier. Though I may miss once a week or so, this is a constant in my life, and kids and husband have got used to it. (I changed to sax after 20 years, suddenly I'm really motivated again!) – RedSonja Mar 16 '16 at 8:29

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