I'm regularly asked by parents how they can help motivate their kids to practice at home. It's very likely that not all of these strategies will work for your child, but hopefully, you will find one or two that, at the very least, act as a springboard to another idea that will work. The first thing that I will say about practicing at home, as difficult as this may be, is not to pester or force it on the student. "But they should be practicing!!" I know, but think back to when you were in middle or high school. If your parents were harping on you about a particular task, what was your reaction? Uh-huh. (OK, maybe you weren't that way, but I promise that many of your friends were!) The goal is to remind them in such a way that doesn't annoy them - a daunting task when dealing with teens and pre-teens! So, let's roll up our sleeves and away we go:
Set Up a Practice Schedule
One of the most common excuses for not practicing is a lack of time. I propose that there is time somewhere in the week for students to practice - they just have to find it. Sketch out a weekly schedule for your child, including their after-school activities. Then, have the student pick out a day to take off (no practicing on that day). Fill in the rest of the week with 15, 20, 30, or 60 minute sessions, depending on how much time the student has available. Voila! Your child's practice schedule.
Math, history, reading... lots of homework to do! Instead of making your child sit for an hour and a half getting through three or four homework assignments, give him a break after each assignment is completed. Take out the instrument and play for ten or fifteen minutes. Let him play elsewhere in the house, or even outside (On very nice days only, please! Between 65 and 80 degrees, no rain). He'll get to move around, stand up, make noise, and not only will he come back to his next homework assignment refreshed and re-energized, but there's ten or fifteen minutes of practicing he's done as well! Aside from that, playing his instrument (which he likes to do) becomes a reward for finishing that chapter outline for his science class.
This one works better for younger students (7th grade and under). Set an empty jar out on the counter and label it with a goal line. Whenever your child completes a practice assignment and can play it for you, put a bean in the jar. I typically assign at least three or four exercises for students to do at home - there's three or four beans per practice session. Outstanding work can be rewarded with more. When the beans reach the goal line marked on the jar, the student gets a reward. Some ideas would be to take them to a music store and let them pick out a fun book or a nifty gadget, or let them pick out a CD or download an album of a professional who plays the same instrument as they do.
Group Practice (aka Practice Party)
Invite a friend or two from band over to your house and let the students practice together. Some giggling and goofing is to be expected and is OK, but they should be mostly playing their instruments. :-)
If you play an instrument, why not play along with your children every now and then? They get the practice time and help from you, you get quality time with them and the opportunity to brush up on your instrument. It's a win-win!
A tried and true study method, particularly if your child is having difficulty reading notes or counting rhythms. You can either buy them pre-made, or make them yourself. For my students: bring me a package of index cards and at the next lesson, I'll send home a set of flash cards.
Note: Can also be used in Group Practice so friends get the benefit as well!
Home Practice Chart
Also better for younger students; similar idea to "Bean Counting." Make a chart similar to a calendar. Each square represents a practice session in which the student finished all assignments. When the student finishes all assignments for the week, put a sticker in a square on the chart. Set a goal for how many weeks' worth of practicing you want your child to complete before he gets a reward. As the weeks go on, he'll be able to see on the chart how close he is to getting that reward. (Reward same as "Bean Counting")
Take your child (even the whole family!) on an outing to hear professionals play. You may be surprised to find that this can inspire a child. Even if she's not planning to be a professional, she still wants to be good, and live concerts present her with great models of discipline, excellence, and musicianship. It's also fun to see your instrument played really well!
Listen, and Give Your Honest Opinion
Every time is too much, but every now and then, listen to your child play at home. Then, give honest feedback. You may not be a professional, but you have working ears that can probably tell when your child plays a wrong note, is squeaking often, or is getting off beat. If you're not sure, ask him to play the part again. ("Hey, I thought I heard something funny. Can you play the beginning again?") Until they get into rather advanced music, the students' songs, exercises, and studies should make pretty clear sense to the ear. Ask questions, be encouraging, but do remember that not everything he plays will be wonderful - that's why we practice!
Make Lessons a Priority
Try not to miss lessons. If you do have to miss a lesson, try to make it up. Lessons are for learning new things, but we always listen to assignments the student had for the previousweek. It's difficult to monitor student progress if the student isn't regularly there. Plus, if your child sees that getting them to lessons isn't a priority for you, they may wonder why practicing at home should be such a big deal for them.