Think of all the things we do in life which are habits: brushing teeth, locking the door, making the bed, feeding pets or folding laundry. Most of us accomplish these tasks without a thought, to the point that we may forget that we have even done them! Habits can be useful tools; they enable us to accomplish necessary tasks without having to expend a lot of energy trying to organize or motivate ourselves to act. It takes a lot of effort to decide to do something new, but once the task has become a habit, it becomes a snap.
For a child who has just started music lessons, establishing a habit of practicing is essential. Practicing is a new experience. Once the excitement of the new lessons, new teacher, and new instrument wears off, your child’s motivation may lag unless he has been able to establish a consistent routine. He will need your help to do so! Sit down with him before he attends his first lesson and agree on a practice strategy. Here are seven suggestions you may want to include in your plan:
1. Practice every day–for just a few minutes!
It takes time to establish a habit. For young children, it is important to start with very simple expectations, and an agreement to play his instrument every day, if only for a few minutes, is a great way to establish the habit of practicing consistently. Remember to keep it light-hearted and fun! If your child is enjoying himself as he plays, you will see five minutes stretch into ten. As your child matures and his skill level rises, expectations regarding the quantity and quality of his practicing will increase. Your child’s teacher can help you establish practicing parameters which are a good fit for your child’s age and skill level.
2. Practice at a consistent time.
You can make it easier for your child to get into a routine of practicing by ensuring that he practices at same time each day. That can be more than a bit tricky for busy families, especially when after-school activities vary each day of the week! Whenever possible, however, try to stick with the same sequence of events. Can he practice Monday, Wednesdays, and Fridays after coming home from school and enjoying a snack? Is there time on Tuesday and Thursday at 6:30, just after dinner? Try to pick a time when he is not likely to be tired or hungry. Map out the weekly schedule for practicing, and then stick to it.
3. Practice in the same quiet place
Do not forget to include logistics in your practicing plan! Establish one place where your child should practice. Your child will be able to focus better if phones, electronic media and games are put away, and if the location is quiet, well-lit and free from distractions and interruptions. Also consider where he should store his instrument and his music. What are his responsibilities for caring for both of them?
4. Write it down
Now that you and your child have agreed upon a plan, write it down! Having a schedule and guidelines enables both of you to know when he is on track, and empowers you to help him refocus if necessary. Post the agreement so that you and your child may consult it. Keep in mind that the schedule and expectations for your child will continue to evolve over time, so prepare to revisit them.
5. Track it
Grant your child the responsibility to document each practice session. Tracking keeps your child accountable and also provides him with an incentive; most children feel a real sense of accomplishment every time they mark off another day of successful practicing. Try using a practice planner, a chart or a whiteboard marked with dates and assignments. Your child may also find it satisfying to track his practicing on the computer. Remember to provide a space to keep track of theory assignments!
6. Model it
While your child is forming the practice habit, so should you! Carve out time from your own schedule to focus your attention on your child during his practice time. You can help him stay on task by being enthusiastic and supportive of his efforts. Show him that you are interested in his musical progress, and that encouraging him is a habit you are willing to establish and share.
7. Celebrate it!
Acknowledge anniversaries. Has your child practiced consistently for thirty days? Thirty weeks? Experts disagree about how long it takes to establish a habit–estimates are anywhere between 21 days and six weeks– but even after the habit seems to have been set in stone, remember that they can be unlearned just as quickly as they were acquired. As your child matures and becomes more independent, he may not need quite as much guidance; nonetheless, your approval and interest in his progress will always be important!