Why you can’t tell if your child enjoys playing a musical instrument by whether or not they practice by themselves.

Practising your musical instrument between lessons is one of the most important things for children to do when learning an instrument. And it is also one of the hardest things to get your children to do, and can cause lots of arguments at home. Why is it important? Well, I have written a whole blog post about that which you can read here. There are lots of reasons it is important to practise, but two big reasons are:

  • Learning an instrument is a physical skill as well as a musical and expressive one. You need to learn those physical skills involved – your muscles need to get used to holding your instrument as it needs to be held, you need to learn how to use your lungs and diaphragm for wind and brass instruments. These, like any physical skills, take practice to master and you need to build up your stamina to play for any length of time.
  • When you start playing a new musical instrument you only know how to play one or two notes, and you need to be able to play those properly before you can move on to learn other notes. The pieces you play at the start of your musical training can, therefore, be quite boring. By practising, learning more and more notes, and more and more about rhythm, then you can start to play more interesting pieces of music. You need to have a certain level of skill at playing your instrument before it starts becoming fun. Practice is the way to achieve this.

At my children’s school, all pupils are offered one year’s tuition on an orchestral instrument in year 3 at no cost to their parents, something I think is brilliant. If they want to continue the following year then we have to pay for the lessons, but that first year is free. Towards the end of the year, parents are asked if they want their children to continue with the lessons (you will not be surprised to learn that my children were signed up to continue the lessons almost as soon as the email came out. There is, of course, a lot of factors to take into account when deciding whether or not your child should continue with their lessons including:

  • Does my child like playing this instrument?
  • Would a different instrument be a better fit?
  • What is the cost of the lessons?
  • Can we commit to practising?
  • What other things, clubs/homework/other instruments or extra curricular activities is my child doing?
  • How much homework do they have to do and are they comfortable managing this?
  • Is adding learning to play an orchestral instrument into their schedule going to be OK for them?
  • Will they enjoy playing in a band/ensemble/orchestra with friends later on?

One of the things I heard some parents talk about when discussing whether or not to continue though was whether their child’s interest in practising showed whether they liked playing the instrument or not. For example, I hear one parent say that if their child liked playing the instrument, then they would practice it, and as they don’t then they can’t enjoy it all that much.

There may be some children – a few, a very tiny few – who immediately take to practising by themselves. But those children are almost like unicorns. Most children need to be asked, reminded and cajoled into practising. When I was a child I loved “putting on a show” for my parents, playing for a minute or two and then standing to take a bow, but I did not like to practice, and would certainly not have thought to get either my violin or guitar (neither of which I play now incidentally) out to practice without being asked to do it by my parents. My children live in a house where music is very much encouraged, and where there is all out always some music on. They see me practice, but they still need to be asked and encouraged, and even told to practice – our rule is that they can only have screen time before dinner once homework and practice has been done.

Practising, even for professional musicians can be a bit dull at times, musicians have just formed the habit of practising. You are not just playing pieces and performing brilliantly all the time. You can be playing tiny sections of music over and over again until you can get it right, or get it better. It is a habit that needs to be cultivated and encouraged, ingrained if you like. And the way to get that habit ingrained into your children is to ask them, encourage them, to practice a little each day – only 10-15 minutes or so a day when they first start out. We would not expect our children to just pick up a maths text book and start working away at the exercises there on their own without expecting to remind them they need to do it, so we can’t expect that they do that with music practice.

Then there is the complication of other things that either need to be done- homework, eating, showering, actually going to school etc, as well as the stuff your child really wants to be doing- playing Mario on the Nintendo Switch, playing with dolls or drawing and colouring for example – or that’s what it seems to be in our house at the moment. There are so many calls on our children’s time, that it is easy for music practice to slip their minds. Finally, self motivation, managing their time, working away at something until they get better, are skills that your child has to learn over time. It isn’t inherent, not with the vast majority of people.

With musicians, as with all arts, you often hear people talk about someone who is very good at playing an instrument, singing, composing etc as being very talented, having a natural talent. This makes it sound like music, art, acting etc is something that only a few blessed or gifted people can do. In truth, that very talented person may well have some natural ability, or affinity with music, they may enjoy it more than many people, but they will also have practised, practised, practised and practised some more. It is said that on average, a professional musician will have racked up around 10,000 hours of practice by their early 20s – now there are a lot of factors involved in someone becoming a professional musician; I am not saying that if you’re child gets to that magical number of hours practice they will become a professional musician. What I am saying is that to become good at playing an instrument, a musician will have spent many, many hours practice. They are not just “talented” or “gifted”.

The only way to become a musician, whether your aim is to become a professional musician, or just to be able to sit down and play something as a break from your other studies or work, it all needs practice. And the more your child practises, the more fun they will have with it, the more options they will have as to what to play, when to play and how serious or not they want their musical journey to be. It may even make learning some of the skills they need for other studies (like self-motivation or team work) easier for them in the long run.

In short, don’t assume that if your child doesn’t practice that they don’t like playing. Encourage them to practice, give it time and see if their love of music develops. If not, then at the very least they will have learned some incredibly valuable skills as they are doing it.

If you have enjoyed reading my blog post, thank you. I am always looking for ideas for the blog, so would love to hear from you with suggestions for topics you would like me to cover in the future. Also, if you would be interested in supporting me to keep this blog running, buying the books to review here, and supplies to make the DIY instruments, for example, I would be absolutely delighted if you would consider buying me a coffee using the following link: Buy Me A Coffee Thank you!!

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