Ending the Practice Power Struggle


“Billy, I’ve asked you several times, don’t make me ask again: Get your practicing done before you play.” Mom’s patience has worn thin. What’s the point of paying for lessons if he’s going unprepared half the time? Maybe it’s time to call it quits and end the power struggle. She wants Billy to gain the benefits of learning to play the piano, but it has turned out to be just one more thing on her own plate that she simply can’t handle right now. This isn’t what she had in mind when she imagined him increasing his independence.

Does this sound familiar? It’s a tough and frustrating position to be in. If you can relate to this, we have great news for you! It doesn’t have to be that way. There are some simple guidelines that can end the power struggle and motivate your autonomous child to practice.

The Practice Domino Effect

You may have seen signs in the studio that look like this:

This is what happens when a small child doesn’t practice.

        LESSON DAY 100%           

        Day 1        No Practice

        Day 2        50% lost. Without practice, 50% of what has been learned in the lesson is lost every 24 hours.

        Day 3        75% lost       

        Day 4        87% lost       

        Day 5        93% lost

        Day 6        96% lost

        Lesson Day    97% lost       97% of the material has to be re-taught at the next lesson.

    It’s clear why piano quickly loses its luster without practice. The idea of playing the new song is invigorating, but without progress and success to keep the interest level high, soon it no longer matters how passionate a child is about a song. Practicing within 24 hours of a lesson helps solidify what they learned at their lesson and creates an early success that makes continued practice both easier and more enjoyable.

With this in mind, if you only have enough time to help your child practice once a week, the first time (within 24 hours of the previous lesson) is by FAR going to have the most impact. This helps carry the energy and excitement of the lesson into the home environment and practice.

Consistency Is Key

Nan once taught a student who was involved in several extra-curricular activities and didn’t always have 30 minutes to sit down and practice. She tracked her practice to the minute, turning in practice sheets that said,

Monday – 7 minutes

Tuesday – 32 minutes

Wednesday – 14 minutes

Thursday – 4 minutes

Friday – 2 minutes

Saturday – 46 minutes

Some of the days didn’t look impressive on their own, but the effort and consistency added up and allowed her to make notable progress despite all her other activities. Some of her practice times were short because she was snatching opportunities when they came, no matter how short they were. (Like practicing for a few minutes while waiting for her family to be ready to leave.) When Nan asked her what she did during the 2 or 4 minutes of practice, her student responded, “I ask myself, ‘What can I accomplish? How can I make the most of the time I have?’ Then I put all my focus and effort on that one thing.” Whether she knew it or not, she was following principles that made her practice effective. In case you didn’t catch it, those principles are:

  • Recognize and act on opportunities to practice. Some time is better than no time.
  • Focus on one skill, such as a new scale or a tricky part in a song. (More on this in a future article).
  • The amount of time isn’t nearly as important as the amount of effort. Five minutes of focused, intense practice accomplishes more than fifteen minutes of just playing. 

Motivating Your Child 

Ok, so it’s clear that practice is essential to success on the piano, but how does one encourage practice without the power struggle? You may already know that we are big advocates of reward systems here at Harmony Arts, and that’s because it works. Sometimes parents worry that practicing for a reward will lead to selfishness and increased dependence on extrinsic motivation, but when a reward system is setup and followed, it actually does the exact opposite!

Intrinsic motivation comes with confidence. Confidence follows progress; progress follows consistent effort. In short, consistency is the key to becoming intrinsically motivated, and positive reinforcement (a reward system) is the most effective way to improve consistency. Another way to put is that rewarding effort leads to accomplishment. Rewards are tangible recognition of effort and are essential until intrinsic motivation develops.

So how do you get your child to want to practice without your nagging to remind him? Find the 1 thing that motivates your child the most. Create a reward system using whatever that is. Make sure both sides (the effort and the reward) are measurable.

Examples

Goal: Practice 100 minutes each week

Reward: 20 extra minutes of screen time

Goal: Practice five days each week

Reward: Bike ride to the park with Mom

These are just examples. Adjust the practice goal and reward to what is realistic and motivating to your child. Be clear when the goals are met: “You earned this; I am so happy giving you this reward because I see the effort you are giving.” Following a predetermined system is NOT the same as a bribe. Give this an honest and sincere effort. If you need help or ideas, feel free to talk to your child’s teacher. That’s what we’re here for. We’re happy to be a sounding board to help create a reward system both you and your child feel good about.

Enjoy the Change

You can do this! A reward system takes far less effort than the power struggle. There may be times when the reward needs to change as interests change, and that’s ok! Make changes when needed and stick to the new system. Your child will choose to practice on his own, he’ll remember more and progress faster, successes will add up, confidence will build, and intrinsic motivation will grow! There may come a time when the rewards are no longer needed because the enjoyment of achievement will be enough. You are simply setting the foundation so it can happen naturally.