Turn “Practice” into “Playtime”

“So how much practice time did you get this week?” I’d smile nervously and make up some casual number so that my teacher could nod and sigh, knowing that I hadn’t practice nearly as much as I could have or should have. Later in my life, when I began teaching myself, I’d ask the same questions of my students, but instead of making up some sort of white lie, they would tell me, straight up, “Oh, I was busy.”

What I wanted to say was, “You’re in elementary school! What are you busy with that you couldn’t get thirty minutes in a day to just play your scales, babe?” Of course, berating a student doesn’t make for a very good lesson, now does it? But, I know how much we could have gotten done had they just done the tiny bit of work ahead of time. I just want my students to care as much about their success as I do.

Often times, a young student practicing their instrument also takes a bit of an investment from the parent. Because kids are kids, right? Kids don’t like sitting still. Kids don’t wanna do what they think is “boring,” even if you explain the inherent value of it. Especially when there are so many digital devices to distract us in the here and now. And parents don’t want to be the bad guys either. They don’t want to fight their children on practicing when they have their own things they are trying to navigate and manage.

So, what is the answer? How do we get our kids to not just practice without them throwing a tantrum or getting upset with us?

Here are 4 ways to turn practice time into playtime.

Reframe “practicing” into “play time.”

This may seem very childish, but we are working with children, right? “Practice” sounds boring. “Play” sounds like fun. When introducing them to a practice schedule, don’t frame it as something they have to do, but something that they get to do. That subtle shift in attitude can make a difference. I used this with my elementary and middle school students, and what I saw was an increase in practice time and a better use of lesson time.

As a teacher, I had to switch my language up, and rather than asking how much practice time they had in between lessons, I’d ask, “How much did you get to play this week?” Often times they would brag about how much play time they got, and they were more excited to show off the difficult passages they were finally able to play.

Set some easier benchmarks.

For a young musician, pushing them to practice thirty minutes a day might be too much for them. Not to mention if your child has a learning disability or ADD/ADHD, it can be quite difficult to get them to focus on one thing without feeling discouraged or distracted. Modifying the expectations of your child might be a great move.

For some young musicians, as little as ten minutes of dedicated, focus playtime can make all the difference. Having said that, we need to make sure that it’s not just sending them off to their room to practice alone. We need to be there to encourage our young children and be a part of their experience (and to make sure they aren’t just goofing around). Being there, sharing that experience, showing you care about their progress will greatly increase the likelihood of successful playtime.

If they are a bit older, one could have thirty minutes of play time broken up over the course of a day, in ten-minute increments. That way it’s not taxing on either the parent or the child. Again, this may vary on the child, so tweak this idea as needed.

Game-ifying their practice time.

As humans, we are wired for reward, and this technique is an easy and fun way to your child to engage in a whole different way with practice.

Some parents have used tokens (something like shiny beads, pennies, or even quarters) in this process. One idea is to place three or four tokens on the music stand, and if a child has a particular measure or passage they haven’t been able to play, you focus directly on that area. When the child plays the passage correctly, they can move the token to the other side of the music stand. The hope is to play the passage correctly three to four times. If they mess up, they have to start over. And if they complete the task, they keep the tokens or coins.

Tokens can then be exchanged for something your child loves, like a new toy, a special treat, $5 deposit into their piggy banks, or maybe some tickets to the orchestra! And if you’re using actual coins, they get to keep the cash. Simple as that.

Mix up the practice time.

If your child gets antsy with routine, don’t be afraid to move their practice time to different times of the day or even to different areas in your home. This can be before they go to school (which might be a bit difficult with all the morning tasks one has) or after school or even in the evening. You know the mood of your child and you can read the mood of the moment. If you know asking your child to play their instrument when they are having a particularly hard day, maybe wait till the mood lifts.

Another idea is not to just pack up the instrument when playtime is over, but to leave the instrument out and accessible to your child throughout the day (in a safe place, obviously). This encourages your child to pick up the instrument whenever they fancy and allows for more play time. And this will more than likely be your child’s own improvisations, and may not sound great all the time, but allowing your child to develop a healthy relationship with an instrument is key in their development as a musician.

As a young musician gets older, it’s important to begin the transition from being super involved with their practice times and helping them be independent, usually around ten or eleven. But again, by that point, as you’ve been leading your child and training them up, the hope is to lead them to a natural love of practicing their craft and making it their own.

Now that we’ve got all these fun ideas, let’s go play!

Want to learn how to help your child engage with music in a more full way? Learn about what lessons and services we offer at B-Sharp School of Music