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Making Sweet Music

© Tamara Kulikova | Dreamstime.com

Getting children to practice their musical instruments seems as difficult as getting them to try a new vegetable. In my experience, they want to play an instrument, they just don’t want to practice with the instrument.

I understand. I want to lose weight, I just don’t want to eat less. But since this is about kids and not me, let me put down my cupcake and focus on them.

My husband and I decided not to force our two children to practice. His parents made him practice, and when his year of piano lessons was up, he was done, too. Part of him regrets stopping the lessons, but part of him knows he didn’t want to play, at least back then.

Based on my experience with our two children taking lessons for five different instruments over the past three years, the answer is: They practice when they want to. The goal then is to get them to somehow want to practice.

Like everything else, each child is motivated differently. My son loves an audience. If friends or company are over, ask him to play and he’ll be right back with his saxophone. Unfortunately, we don’t have company over five days a week.

My daughter is much more internally motivated. She has to find the need to practice. With each of the two instruments she’s tried in the last two years, at some point the desire to practice has kicked in. Often, it’s preparing for a school concert. Sometimes it’s whatever the teacher said to motivate her or even realizing she’s not playing as well as others (from what she tells me). Sometimes my son will join her in practice and we get a twofer.

Donna Murphy of Baldwinsville says her fourth-grader just practices the violin on her own. “She just loves it,” Murphy says of 9-year-old McKenna. Her son was a different story. “We probably bribed him some way,” Murphy recalls laughing. “If you practice so many minutes, we’ll get you a candy bar or something.” So when her son Hunter asked to stop the trombone, they let it go. “It just makes everyone miserable” if a child doesn’t want to practice.

The schoolteacher has offered some hints that work with my daughter. “Let them practice with the TV on.” Whoa. Well, if it gets her to practice, it’s still practice. She definitely loses interest in the TV show. Sometimes it means she may practice for the length of a whole Disney show!

Dick Ford has helped steer hundreds of students learning to play musical instruments. As executive director of Signature Syracuse, a nonprofit organization that helps students develop musical skills, and Signature Music Camp, he has developed and researched many theories on helping young people appreciate musical instruments.

Ford recommends several key steps parents can help students employ whether they take private lessons or group lessons in school:

Play first—before homework, sports, playing with friends, etc. Children need to learn that music lessons and practice are a priority. Doing it before everything else will send that message. Also, expecting a child to practice an instrument when tired will not help the child learn to enjoy the experience.

Play for affirming adults. “Give the child as much affirmation as you can so the child sees himself or herself growing in identity as a musician,” Ford advises. Sometimes this may include recitals, sometimes playing in nursing homes, he suggests. (Indeed, my son still talks with pride about playing his recorder with other students at a nursing home when he was in first grade.)

Parents should learn as much as they can about the child’s playing and instrument, especially if the parents do not have a music background. Parents should keep asking other musicians and music teachers, “What can I do as a parent” to support my child’s playing? That also may extend to providing a pro-music atmosphere in the home. Most musicians grew up with musician parents, just as lawyers often beget lawyers and so on. “It’s part of the culture you grow up in,” says Ford, whose own daughter, now 23, is a school music teacher.

As a camp director, Ford also encourages parents to send their children to music camps. Often when children are entering the adolescent years—which may include a desire to stop music lessons—a week at a music camp may prove inspirational. “Being surrounded by other kids with strong passion” may prove contagious, he says.

My daughter always asks me to tell her how long she’s been playing. One day I set the timer on the microwave and learned that she was practicing longer than I had thought! I always set it now for 15 minutes (what her teacher recommends as a minimum), but she usually keeps playing after it rings and racks up 22 or 25 minutes. The teacher rewards students who play nearly 100 minutes a week in practice with candy at their weekly lesson. I don’t think my daughter wants the candy, but I do think she wants the recognition from the teacher and among her peers, and she proudly records her practice time each day.

My daughter suggests that kids play together with friends and their instruments. She learned a new flute move from the fifth-grader who sits next to her in band. As a parent with little music background, my goal for my kids is not that they become concert musicians but that they can read music, understand how to play an instrument, gain appreciation for music (not just rock or pop or whatever their generation’s music will be), and maybe pick up something they enjoy doing.

The other night when my daughter finished playing her last song on the flute, she put it down and said, “Well, that was sort of fun.” Whew. It sort of is.

Eileen Gilligan, a mother of two, lives in Baldwinsville.

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York