Striking a chord for painless practice
Tired of pestering your kid to practise the piano? Pick up their guitar? Work on their violin? Professor of Music Tim McKenry has some helpful tips to get your child practising their instrument.
When ACU Professor of Music Tim McKenry published an article on how to stop nagging your child to practise their musical instrument, his phone went crazy.
It seemed every second radio presenter had a reluctant child violinist at home, or a miserable memory of unwilling hours at the piano. There were also plenty of dubious parents, subjected to the unmelodic strains of beginners at work.
Loving music and understanding its tremendous advantages has not made Professor McKenry starry-eyed about the reality of learning an instrument in a typical family environment.
“There are real challenges that sit alongside the benefits of learning an instrument. Difficulty in finding time and motivation to practise, frustration over a perceived lack of progress, anxiety about performing in public, and unhelpful beliefs about innate talent being more important than practising, can make the whole process a misery.
“Parent encouragement, though well-intended, can quickly descend into nagging. And the reality of a child learning an instrument at home – the unpolished sounds, the seemingly incessant technical work (scales and arpeggios) – can challenge the family dynamic,” he said.
The benefits of learning music
Extensive research shows there are benefits of learning a musical instrument – cognitive, emotional and physical. A childhood investment in musical education pays off in a life-long skill that can be a source of enjoyment and self-expression.
But music lessons are expensive and practice is time-consuming. If the only obvious result is a bone of contention between parents and children, it’s easy to see why many students abandon their instrument before reaching the breakthrough point of satisfaction.
Supporting your child to learn an instrument
Professor McKenry is working to improve the educational experience for students, parents and teachers. He draws on a growing body of research into motivation and musical education, which shows that parents are enormously influential in determining the quality of the learning experience for their child.
“Nagging or bribing a child to practise only makes the activity feel like a chore. Children who are nagged to practise are likely to stop playing as soon as they can make that choice.”
So, what can parents do to encourage their children to practise? Professor McKenry identified the following tips, drawn from multiple studies conducted by musicians, teachers and educational psychologists.
1. Start young and keep it fun
Most young children enjoy singing and movement. They are also not overly self-conscious or concerned with self-image. While a teenager might baulk at singing or playing an instrument for fear of how their peers might react, younger children freely engage in musical activity.
Regular musical play normalises the act of making music and helps children develop habits that will, in time, underpin regular practice. A good early childhood musical program can help children shift gradually from play-based learning to a more structured learning when they are ready.
It’s vital these experiences are fun. The advice for parents? Join in! Show your child that music is fun by having fun with your child making music.
2. Praise their effort not their talent
The media generally lauds professional musicians as “talented”. What’s lost in the mythology our culture weaves around these people is that their seemingly effortless mastery of an instrument is in fact the result of much effort and learning.
Praising a child for being talented reinforces a fixed mindset around musical ability. If a child believes people are either talented or not talented, they are likely to view their own struggles with learning music as evidence they aren’t talented.
Parents should praise the effort their child puts into learning their instrument. This recognises that practice makes perfect.
3. Emphasise the long-term benefits of playing
Parent praise has less impact over time on a child’s motivation to practise. Teenagers either develop an internal motivation to continue learning their instrument, or stop.
But a ten-year study of children learning instruments shows children who display medium and long-term commitment to an instrument practice more and demonstrate higher levels of musical achievement. And children who imagined themselves playing their instrument into adulthood were more likely to be highly motivated.
Parents should encourage children to see learning an instrument as a useful skill that can bring satisfaction and joy into adult life. It isn’t simply this year’s after-school activity.
4. Encourage appropriate music
Children are often motivated to learn an instrument in response to a growing interest in popular music. But leveraging a child’s desire to replicate the latest Ed Sheeran song as a mechanism for motivation can be a problem.
While popular music can, and should, be part of any music education, the latest popular music isn’t necessarily fit-for-purpose as a teaching tool. This can result in great harm – ranging from disappointment when the music is beyond the ability of a learner, to very real damage to the voice or fingers.
Professor McKenry’s research shows using popular music as a way to get children into music education might meet a market demand, but is not always in children’s best interest. The adult environment that surrounds popular music sits awkwardly with a safe educational environment. Having a seven-year-old sing “Fever When You Kiss Me” strikes the wrong note.
Parents should choose a qualified teacher with a well-articulated teaching philosophy that emphasises gradual learning. Avoid teachers who spruik instant success on Australian Idol and, particularly for younger children, parents should prohibit sexualised repertoire.
Take an interest in the music your child learns. Get to know the names of the pieces they’re learning and ask to hear them.
5. Value your children’s music
Lessons, exams and practice schedules are all very well, but ultimately music should be a shared activity. Don’t always banish your child to their room to practise.
Create an environment where music is a vital part of the household. Encourage your child to perform at family occasions. As they learn, empathise with their struggles and celebrate their triumphs. Never begrudge the money you spend on lessons and never, ever nag.
Professor Tim McKenry is a music researcher, composer and pedagogue. His research interests include the evolution of art music in Western culture, issues of ethics in music, Australian art music, music pedagogy and music theory.
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