We all want what is best for our children and you likely are already aware of the benefits of learning an instrument at a young age. However, it’s not always smiles and sunshine when you try to motivate your child to practice music. Just like school, sometimes they will be raring to go other times you get apathy and tantrums instead.
Consistent practice is the only appropriate way to learn a new and complex skill. Therefore, mastery over any instrument requires many hours of practice.
Creating an atmosphere of fun and discipline around learning is incredibly important. It's necessary for your child’s progression and for your sanity. Doing so will allow for fewer occasions where your child is resistant to practice.
Self-discipline is a life skill that many adults still haven’t even mastered.
Self-discipline is an amazing gift to impart to your kids at a young age. Learning how to create an enthusiastic student of your kids should help them in all areas of their life. Practice with an instrument is a good place to start.
There are many ways to create a more engaging learning environment for your child. We have researched methods backed by educational psychology and science. With that in mind, let’s have a look at some tips to help your child become a committed and happy music student!
It is entirely unrealistic to set a child off to work on a piece of music for no reason. Put yourself in their shoes. Would you want to do something difficult over and over again for seemingly no purpose? Probably not.
Goals can be big or small and you should use a combination of both. They give purpose to practice and help to keep your child motivated.
An example of a small goal could be to be able to play a short section of music 3 times in a row without messing up. Another could be to be able to sight-read notes on a musical stave. You could use positive reinforcement to reward these small goals. There are a few different ways to do this, some of which we will discuss later in this article.
Bigger goals could be anything from performing in the school band to being able to play their first piece of music to the family. Large goals give the learner a feeling of accomplishment when they are overcome. Achieving these goals is often a big enough reward on its own to cultivate motivation within a student.
Having a goal that seems unattainable can be extraordinarily daunting. This may actually prevent progress. The solution to this is the break that goal down into smaller chunks.
For example, your child may have a concert in a few months. To play this they must learn a piece of music that seems beyond their abilities. Getting them to concentrate on something as small as a single phrase at a time can make the immense task more measurable and attainable.
This method can apply to a number of scenarios to help speed up the learning process.
Is your child having trouble with a particular phrase of music? Break it down into its notes one at a time with the metronome slowed down compared to the final play speed. If you yourself do not play an instrument you can still help with this. Metronomes are cheap or even available as free apps.
A simple way to understand why it is important to scaffold learning is to think about reading. You can read a sentence until you know words. You can’t read words without understanding phonemes. You can't understand those without knowing the alphabet. Etc.
This method is likely employed by your child’s school or music teacher already. However, becoming explicitly aware of the process can help future problems seem more manageable. It also helps to prevent burnout or becoming overwhelmed.
Use your scaffolding to create a plan for the big picture. Write them down and involve your kid in the process.
ZPD is an educational theory developed by Lev Vygotsky. It stands for the Zone of Proximal Development. It sounds complex. Yet, it is just a fancy way of saying to aim to teach students things that are a little beyond their own capabilities but not so much that it is unachievable. If their work is too easy they will become bored and distracted. If it is too hard they will become overwhelmed, frustrated, and unenthusiastic towards learning.
To apply this concept to music, let’s use an example of a student that has been learning the flute for about a year.
Getting them to practice a pentatonic scale for an hour at a time may be good to strengthen their fingers and their speed. However, that does not engage them as they perceive it as being too easy. This particular skill could perhaps just be a warm-up instead.
On the other end of the spectrum, the student would obviously have trouble learning an entire symphony with their current skill set.
In both of these examples, the tasks lie outside their ZPD where the best learning happens.
Challenging the learner without overwhelming them is perfect to keep them engaged.
We could use scaffolding to break down the symphony into smaller more learnable sections for the student. This would decrease the overall difficulty and move the task into their ZPD.
Getting your child to feel responsible for their own learning is an incredibly powerful way to keep them motivated. They are eventually going to have to get all their work done without your input anyway. So, it is good to provide them with the skills to do this as early as possible.
“The more we can do to involve children in learning which relates directly to them and their view of the world, the more the children will see relevance.” (TJ Davidson Jr et all.) Perceived relevance encourages them to be more open to learning a subject.
When children get involved with the decisions they are more likely to commit to their practice without a fuss down the track.
Here are a few examples of how you can involve your child in decision making for music specifically.
That is not to say that a 4-year-old knows exactly what they want to get out of their time practicing. They will need guidance but even just involving them a little can give them a real edge in terms of motivation.
Gentle reminders of the goals you have set together with your child can help them feel a sense of responsibility to achieve them. You must be very careful though as it may lead to them putting too much pressure on themselves.
That is why it is very important to listen to the concerns of your child. It may not be the best time to talk during a meltdown because they “don’t want to practice”. However, that tantrum may have happened because they feel like they can’t do it or they are feeling too much pressure. Both of these scenarios could continue to affect their future efforts. Talking it out when emotions aren’t so high will help find out what the issue really was or if it was just a kid being a kid.
If there was an underlying problem, involve them in talking about how to fix it. Maybe you have to reassess some goals or to switch teachers or any number of other things. Involving the child in finding the solution will help them to feel empowered and responsible for their future learning.
Intrinsic motivation comes from within and extrinsic motivation is from external factors. Think of yourself at your job. An extrinsic motivator would be the pay that you receive for showing up and doing the work. An intrinsic motivator could be that you love your job or a feeling of accomplishment.
When it comes to learning music we want to cultivate intrinsic motivation for our children. It is okay to use some initial extrinsic motivators to get us there.
It’s likely that you have heard of Pavlov’s experiment with his dog. If not here is a brief summary. Pavlov experimented by ringing a bell every time he fed his dog and observed the dog’s behavior. He then started ringing the bell without feeding the dog. He found that the dog responded as though it was being fed by salivating more. This experiment was using a cue to reinforce the behavior. As it turns out human beings are susceptible to this type of thing too.
Let’s consider how Pavlov’s experiment can apply to learning an instrument.
Just like Pavlov’s dog, we can reinforce the desired behavior with small rewards. In this case, you could reward your child’s effort during practice. You could do this with some time on their favorite video game, or a little extra dessert at dinner time, or the first pick on family movie night. You get the picture.
You could even chunk the rewards to coincide with the goals you set together with the child.
Eventually, the practice will become a habit. When this happens, you can slowly remove the rewards as an extrinsic motivator.
There are tonnes of ways to make learning an instrument more fun for a child. You could turn practice into a game. You could design a game built around the whole session. You could even just use a short game at the start. This can help get your child to pick up the instrument and be ready for learning with minimal hassle.
It can be very tempting to respond to a tantrum or apathy with yelling, screaming, and punishment. This is negative reinforcement. It can be effective in the short term. It can even be necessary in certain cases but rarely leads to intrinsic motivation.
Starting with a negative emotion can mean that emotion becomes associated with the instrument. Needless to say, that does not come in handy for future learning.
We hope these tips make it a little easier to keep your child on task when it comes to their musical instrument. The most important thing is that you be as consistent with your help as you expect them to be with their practicing.
Remember that your child is an individual. Find what works for them and be open to adjustment. Wish them good luck from us on their journey to becoming a musician!