Developing a practise schedule and incentives for children

Practise is essential to progress, but it doesn’t have to be a frustrating chore!
Read on to explore ways you can help your child to stay focused:

  • Create a weekly calendar

A practise book is provided for every student at Misty Cottage Music, with space for the teacher to record things like current pieces, tips, and tasks for the week. If this is not sufficient, you could also use a colourful cardboard poster or whiteboard (Kmart and The Reject Shop carry them) on the wall near the piano. I will usually suggest an appropriate practise time length and frequency, which can be written on the board – as a general rule, 10 minutes’ practise, 3-4 times a week, is good to begin with. This will need to be increased over time, depending on their level. Write or print out the days of the week on the board, and create a grid with space to place a tick or sticker, when the activities have been completed (i.e. starting with a warm-up, practising pieces 3 to 5 times, filling in a page of the theory book).

You could add several “optional” days where there is no obligation to practise – the suggestion is then provided, but free of expectations they will probably develop a desire to approach the piano without any instruction.

  • Create a good practise space

Make music and practising as accessible as possible: the piano or keyboard should be free of too much clutter and the lid kept open if possible – it provides a visual encouragement to play. Is the room warm (or cool) enough? Is there a stool or comfortable chair at the right height? A lamp may be useful, as well any objects the child would like near them – for instance, you could allow them to display a toy, ornament or photo of their choice on the lid once a goal has been reached. You may want to hang certificates of completion nearby, or in a display folder. Provide a place nearby (e.g. a shelf or box) where their music books and materials can be stored and easily picked up for use. Even better is for the book to be kept open on the music stand!

Allow practise time free of interruptions, where possible, and observe whether your child prefers to practise alone, or with someone nearby. The temptation to “help” or provide constructive criticism may be strong, but should only be given when needed. Acknowledge them after practise with an encouraging word, and listen to any feedback they may have. You could regularly offer to listen to any pieces they would like to play for you, and provide opportunities when friends or family visit for their music to be heard, if the child is ready to share it.

  • Spontaneity or discipline? Opt for a mixed approach

Success and proficiency in any skill requires a level of discipline and determination, but it also has to be fun and creative. The emphasis is on progress, not perfection! Notice what times of the day your child is alert and better able to focus. Short bursts of focused practise are the key. Irregular long sessions are not as helpful, and practising while tired, upset or hungry will only create distress and is not conducive to quality practise or memory retention.

Choices may help too: encourage your child to choose a practise time from a selection of times that suit everybody. The best time may be after a snack, but before settling down to watch cartoons, or any other activity it will be hard to pull away from! However, if they are particularly enthusiastic, you may need to agree on a volume level that they must not exceed for more than a couple of minutes. For the students whose love of piano sees them forgetting or avoiding other priorities, you could provide a quick list of chores or important tasks they must accomplish before sitting down to play.

  • Recording

As time goes on, being able to listen to their own playing becomes important, particularly in the lead-up to a performance or exam. Computers, tablets and smart phones usually have recording tools – most kids pick up these programs and apps very quickly, so encourage them to play and record the piece how they would like it to sound for an audience. When they listen to the result, have them follow along with the sheet music and circle any problem areas of a piece that need a little more work – this can guide their practise better.

If you’ve brought a phone or iPad to a lesson, you might be able to ask the teacher to record a duet part that can be played along with, or record examples of tricky passages/pieces for practise reference.

  • Reward Systems

You’ve spent time and money investing in a student’s musical education, and you’ve made a commitment to developing this skill, so you may feel justified in nagging a little. However, if they have become un-enthused, guilt trips or punishments will never help! Instead, accountability to the goal itself is encouraged, whether that goal is the lesson plan, an upcoming performance, the completion of a music book, or something else the student would like to achieve. Progress is made through the correcting of mistakes and the corresponding sense of achievement, not through never making any mistakes in the first place. Most students are already aware of any mistakes they make, and other corrections are best made by the teacher in lessons.

Use genuine statements to reinforce positive messages or offer alternatives, like:

“That’s sounding great, would you like to play it for [a grandparent/visitor]?”
“I know the piece isn’t quite ready yet, but you’ll get there soon, don’t let this problem discourage you.”
“Which part is frustrating you? Can you slow it down or return to it later and try again?”
“Try working on the thing you like least first, and then do the fun piece – it won’t take long.”
“I can really feel the [exciting/dreamy/slow] mood, you’re conveying (or showing) the mood of the piece really well.”
“I know you were nervous but I can see that you did your best, and I’m thrilled that you attempted this.”

Avoid comments that reinforce destructive messages, such as:

“Hmm, that’s disappointing / I’m disappointed”
“Well, if you’d practise more…”
“You need to try harder / you should be able to do this by now”
“Don’t be lazy / don’t be nervous”
“You’re giving me a headache”

  • Provide tangible incentives

Prizes may be awarded by the teacher when a practise, progress, or performance goal has been met. You may also wish to provide rewards in the form of useful gifts or experiences. You could even create a “currency” that your child can save up and then barter, for appropriate rewards or treats.

Suggestions include:

Gifts of small percussion instruments (rhythm sticks, finger cymbals, castanets, a xylophone, etc.)
New supplementary music books with popular pieces (Disney, Christmas carols etc.)
Apps for phones or tablet devices (note guessing games)
A trip to a music store to browse and play
Tickets to musical performances (e.g. Arts Centres, the Melbourne Recital Centre) – don’t underestimate the impression these will leave!