If you’re having trouble getting your kids to practice, you’re not alone. Your kids are normal, and there’s hope for the future. In my experience there’s a very rare kid who will practice without much direct parent involvement or effort – maybe 1 in 20 or so. And there are some who take only a little parent effort – maybe 1 in 10 or so. Those kids are mostly from families where music practice happens – they see parents, siblings, friends and/or other relatives doing it and recognize it as just part of the culture they’re immersed in. Speaking from experience as a Suzuki Parent, one parent’s example isn’t necessarily enough – my own kids needed both structure and time from me in order to practice, together with a playful spirit – so I have amassed some helpful thoughts not only from my 30 years of teaching, but also from my many years as a parent of young music students. Here are some tips for those struggling to get your younger kids, particularly in the first couple of years, to practice:

  1. Figure out a good time for practice – when you can both enjoy being together and working together. The more clear and consistent the routine, the better.
  2. Make a clear agreement with your child in the presence of the teacher.
  3. Give them a heads up that the time is near, beforehand. Allow a little flex time, so that if your child is immersed in something, or having a hard time in that moment, you can offer the option of practicing in 10 minutes instead of right now. (Would you want to come home from a long day at work and have a really big person tell you that you have to stop everything and go practice, when you were needing a moment to just sit and recover from your day, or in the middle of a great thought, or a good book? Assume your kid MAY be having that kind of experience, and give them 10 minutes).
  4. If they choose to delay 10 minutes, set a timer where they can see it.
  5. A couple of minutes before it goes off, take out the instrument and start practicing yourself. Start playing the game linked here, or one of the practice games I’ll mention below – by yourself. They will see that you’re making it a priority. They’ll also see that you’re available to work with them in a fun way. Once the timer goes off, it’s time to practice. You don’t tell your kids to brush their teeth and then when they argue say “oh well, I guess we’ll have to skip it today.” No – you say “ok it’s time, gotta do it.” Feel free to invoke the teacher’s name – saying “remember, you promised Lisa that you’d practice every day at 4:00.” Take advantage of any opportunity to keep it between the child and the teacher. Teachers can take the heat, and for my students, I’m there to support you.
  6. Have a list of ideas of ways to make it fun. Vary the games you play – here’s a link some below to get started, but figure out what inspires your kids. Keeping the focus OFF of what feels really hard an ON a spirit of game which measures repetitions is critical, especially in the early stages when they really haven’t yet had the direct experience of seeing the progress from practice.
  7. Keep in mind that one slightly tricky thing practiced many times each day can lead to great progress overall. Most of music practice involves 1) clarifying in the brain what needs to happen; 2) connecting the brain to the muscles that produce the results; and 3) repeating that small action enough times well to allow the muscles to take over the task on their own, so that the brain can go on to the next step.So:
  8. Keep your goal small, but do as many repetitions as your child’s attention lasts, without going on too long.
  9. End the practice with them wanting more, when possible.
  10. Practice every day. While there are some families that successfully practice 5-6 days a week, and this is ok, I do find that with families having a challenge getting their kids to practice, any day off opens a greater possibility of opportunity for the child to argue that “we didn’t practice yesterday, so can’t we skip today too?” If the parent establishes that practice happens EVERY day, just like brushing teeth happens every day, then in my experience there’s less opportunity for arguments arising. (In many cases, it’s fine to decide on a alternate plan – perhaps every day BUT Wednesday, etc, as long as that’s clearly understood up front. And certainly there are days when it’s just about impossible to fit it in – again, just make sure you follow through on picking the routine back up the next day, and hold your ground). Less than 5 days a week will probably end up with more frustration and slower progress.
  11. Be prepared for argument for the first couple of weeks, and just make it clear that this is a priority, and again, refer to a specific agreement they personally made with their teacher. Once you’ve established the routine, it will be easier.
  12. Keep a spirit of fun during practice time, regardless of your child’s mood.
  13. Challenge yourself to always say something positive – this will encourage them to keep going. Instead of “try to make that clearer” maybe say “Did you hear how much clearer it was the first time – wow! – could you do another one like the first time?” or “I liked the way your sound got clearer at the end – do you think you could start the sound that clearly next time?” If you’re having trouble working together, try to count 20 positive comments before you make a single suggestion for improvement. There’s always something positive to say, even if only “We’ve practiced today – that’s a good thing that we got started! Once we start practicing more, it’ll be easier. Here’s a list of games we could try tomorrow – does one of them sound good?”
  14. When playing counting games, set the bar appropriately high – the first few times you might just count one for the effort; then you might ask that the next few begin with a clear pop; then the next few notes might need to have the left index finger wrapped underneath and supporting the flute fully; etc. Set the bar according to your child’s mood, and what you know is just challenging enough to engage their interest and move them a tiny step forward, but easy enough to avoid debilitating frustration.
  15. Recognize that a short practice is fine. In the early stages, establishing the pattern of practicing every day is the most important thing – even if it feels that nothing was accomplished. Please remember that you did accomplish the task of practicing – and as this becomes part of the routine, the pavement will be laid for longer and more productive practice sessions.
  16. Most commonly, one parent will be more involved and one less involved. It can be tremendously valuable to engage the support of the less-involved parent, particularly if challenges arise.
  17. If your child has two homes, one with each parent, your challenges will be greater. In most cases, one parent will be very involved and the other will not be. Children tend to practice in one home but not the other, so this can sometimes lead to frustratingly slow progress. But not always! The more both parents can be informed and involved the better. And I have had situations where one parent can make it work even if the other parent is not involved – so all things are possible, but it’s more likely if there’s involvement from both parents.