Whether we’re trying to motivate ourselves or our children to spend time practicing each week, a lot of challenges can present themselves. Years of working with students of all ages has given us some insight into the best ways to keep those practice sessions happening over the long term. We hope these ideas will help you and your family keep the practicing happening at home too!
As adults, we generally understand the basic principles behind motivation since these skills are sometimes required just to get through the week. But, reexamining how we’ve gotten ourselves into other good habits can be helpful in implementing new ones around practicing. Ideally, anyone who wants to learn an instrument has some intrinsic motivation already. Meaning, practicing in itself is already rewarding. The sound the instrument makes is pleasing, or the sense of accomplishment felt with the improvement of skills makes us want to return to it. There are ways we can play into these motivators to maintain our interest.
Recording yourself or your child playing can be very motivating in a few different ways. Hearing the music you are already able to create is a great way to document where you are in your journey and to gauge where you can improve. This type of recording doesn’t require a huge investment in recording equipment. You can simply record video or audio from your phone or other device. Be sure to save it and listen to it again after some time has passed to get a more objective perception of your performance. It never hurts to send it to grandma either!
Another way to play into your intrinsic motivation is to keep a practice journal. This works best for adolescents and adults, but can also be done with some help for younger musicians. It can be in a physical journal or notebook, or a note or document on your phone or computer. This type of documentation can readily show the progress you’ve made over time in terms of skills, understanding, tempos, and techniques. It’s also a great way to reflect on your time spent practicing to gain insight into what works best for you. Taking the time to write about what exactly you want to spend your next practice session on also ensures the best use of your time. Additionally, simply seeing the accumulation of journal entries over time is often satisfying and motivating in itself.
Including some less structured time each practice session is another way to amplify you or your child’s intrinsic motivation. Allocate a portion of each practice session to simply explore your instrument, a favorite piece, or a newly learned skill in a free association. For many creatively minded people, having this as the reward at the end of the practice session is excellent motivation to get through the challenging or more disciplined tasks. And for others, allowing some time to flex those creative muscles will contribute to overall musicality. In either case, no one wants to just play scales – the whole point is to make music after all!
Sometimes extrinsic, or external, motivation will achieve the best results. This can be true for adults if we’ve reached a plateau or particular difficulty in our progress. For young musicians, it can be the only motivation they respond to initially. Planning a treat or reward after practicing is a good example. Many parents set parameters for their kids in which they can have so much screen time after they’ve met their practicing goals for the day. Sticker charts can also be very effective. In that scenario, each day a child completes their practice, a sticker is added to the chart. When the chart is completed, they get a special prize, activity or reward. At Heartland Music we use “music bucks” to reinforce good lesson and practice habits. The students can then spend the bucks for small prizes or save for larger ones.
A word of warning though - the use of extrinsic motivation for young musicians should be thought of as a stepping stone to intrinsic motivation. A student who never moves past the extrinsic motivators is unlikely to continue spending time playing music as they grow up. Be sure to regularly point out qualities that will eventually become intrinsic motivators. Emphasize the development of skill, a new understanding reached, the enjoyment of good sounds, and evidence of self-expression. Once a young musician starts to appreciate the qualities of music that are intrinsically motivating to them, much of the struggle of making practice happen will be overcome.
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Sarah Nation has taught guitar to all levels and ages of students for nearly two decades. She holds a BA in Music and a professional certificate in Jazz Guitar.