I am often asked “How much should my kid practice?” by parents and it always reminds me of being five years old and asking my parents “How many more bites?” at the dinner table. In our household, the evening meal was like a hostage negotiation with green beans instead of people, and rather than holding my captives at gunpoint, I had to eat them.
My exasperated mother would haggle shrewdly over both bite number and size, and even once the terms were agreed upon by both parties, I would doggedly hunt for loopholes in our contract. Had it not been for her outright tenacity, I’m pretty sure I would have died of scurvy before reaching the age of six.
A lot of kids tend to think of practicing their instrument (along with many of their activities) in a similar way they think of their vegetables; that is, as more of an obligation than something that will enrich their lives. They probably know that on some level practicing is good for them (why else would their parents nag them about it?) and it can even be enjoyable sometimes, but because there is a quota to fulfill and expectations to meet, it just seems like another liability, one more brussels sprout if you will, on a plate that is already crowded with schoolwork, sports, scouts, plays, and the whole spectrum of extracurriculars they’re involved in nowadays.
It’s no small wonder that practicing is often the first to get stuffed into a napkin, snuck into bathroom and discreetly flushed down the toilet (metaphorically speaking). Here are a few of my theories:
- The consequences are the less stern for playing poorly at a lesson compared to, say, getting a bad grade or missing practice for an organized sport.
- There’s a misconception that lessons themselves are better for improving skill than individual practice.
- The rewards for getting good at an instrument–particularly rocking out to music they love–are at the end of a long road paved with years of tedium and discipline and in the end they still won’t get half the praise and attention as their school’s star athletes and homecoming courts.
There are a few ways to address this issue. We could force all music students to practice four hours a day or until they bleed, whichever happens first. We could televise more American Idol-esque competitions with impossibly high expectations and continue perpetuating the myth that the only reason to pursue music is to become rich and famous. Or maybe parents and music teachers just need to stop being so nice and start cracking some skulls.
Or maybe we should all focus on making these veggies taste better.
Yes, obligation and discipline are a huge part of growing up and developing character and music is a great source for both, but most kids don’t respond well to this do-it-or-else ultimatum; it just makes them want to do it even less. We need to demonstrate the importance of music and give young people access to it instead of guilting them into making an effort.
Teachers need to come up with creative ways to engage and challenge their students. We must give them shortcuts to play the music they want to play and fill in the gaps in their knowledge as we go. This is considered a mid-level blasphemy in the music education community, but we need to face the fact that we’re not teaching in the same world we grew up in. Students want a reason for why music is worth putting time and effort into and we need to be prepared to give it to them fast.
Parents, share the music you love with your kids; they’ll listen even if they don’t fall in love with it. Take them to concerts and festivals. Make music a part of your family culture and show them that it’s an important part of life. In addition to creating a unique bond with them, this will also help you support their teachers by giving both of you insight into who your kids are and what makes them tick.
And students, be bold. It’s a common mistake to convince yourself that you can’t do something without really giving it an honest shot. Go out on a limb and really try hard. If you fail, try to leave a crater. Don’t be so quick to say “It’s too hard,” “I can’t do this,” or “I’m really bad,” because it won’t help you. At all. No one but you can make you love playing, and it takes effort and courage to make it happen.
Alright, pep-talk’s over. Grab a carrot stick or two and go play.