Piano Practice Motivators!

How do we help the aspiring pianist practice at home between lessons?

Things I hear most often regarding not having practiced from...

Parents of students:
"________ didn't practice very much ... "

Students of all ages:
"I forgot to practice."
"I had too much homework."
"I was busy this week."
"I didn't have enough time to practice."

This is heard between weekly lessons, and after coming back from small holiday breaks.
Yes, everyone needs a break (even teachers!), and I too am a culprit of not practicing everyday.

Growing up, I loathed having to practice.
It was a struggle, and sometimes even resulted with fighting with my mother about practicing piano on several occasions within one week. First of all, this doesn't lend to a loving relationship between parent & child, I know this first hand. It develops anxiety, non-love, even animosity because of all the negative experiences developed, albeit small, but it gradually builds over long periods of time into this incredible ball of negativity. DO NOT LET THIS HAPPEN. A loving bond between parent & child is more important than getting them to practice. Trust me.

Looking back and having taught for several years, witnessing the similar "I don't want to practice" pattern, I feel like I did not enjoy practicing because I felt like I was forced to. There was no fun element, flexibility, or meaningful connection to myself. All I knew was: I have to practice because so-and-so says I have to, or, I have to practice to play without mistakes. This is not fun at all - especially for a growing child!




For Parents:
- please remind your loved one to play piano once in awhile during the week
- remind them 3-4 days in advance that piano lessons are coming up!
- if you had music lessons or a music background:
use that to your advantage and suggest to play music with them! Pick up your guitar and strum along as they play their pieces assigned that week, play the harmonica while they play! Any instrument is able to play along with your child as they play (...practice ;) ) their pieces. It takes a little improvisation on your part, perhaps polishing up on a few basic chords, but it will benefit both yourself and your little one :)
- if you have a piano background:
sit down at the piano side by side with your loved one and play their song with them, as a duet, or even just the same notes :) Count out loud with them, perhaps even point out different elements in the music such as dynamics, or details to spark awareness of these tiny details in music
- if you don't have a music background:
don't you worry! you are still able to sit down beside your loved one and ask them to teach you their song. Ask them a few questions about what you see in their music, "how many counts does this note get?", "what note is this?", "what does this picture mean?". Even without knowing how to play an instrument, you are able to clap along or try to sing the words in the music while they play :)
- suggest to "surprise" the teacher with their best playing of one item at the lesson (eg. the scale we've been working on, their piece of choice, even a song they've made up!)
- try using words other than 'practice' to get them to the piano, such as "play"
- there will be days when they just don't want to play anything assigned for the week, if this is the case, suggest making up or creating their own song as a surprise for the teacher! :)
- the bottom line: it's wonderful if your child practices what is assigned, but the main goal is to have them spend time at the piano, to move their fingers, to explore the different sounds, perhaps even discover sound combinations that they enjoy hearing, and reporting these finds at the lessons!
- sometimes, you encounter a child that wants to practice alone, and that is perfectly okay too. Some like a little privacy when practicing, perhaps because they will feel more okay making mistakes without having someone right there to hear it, as they learn :)

For Students:
- practicing is not torture, at least, it's not supposed to be :)
- do your best to be mindful of sitting at the piano for 4 days, MINIMUM per week. Everyday is the best, even 5 days is still pretty good, but 4 days will make sure things will progress forward instead of falling backwards
- when you practice, I understand we do not all have 60 minutes -even 30 minutes- to dedicate to piano practice (although, if we use some video game playing time, iPad game time, even computer time... I'm sure we could make 60 minutes open for piano practice ;) ), think to yourself to practice for about 120 minutes - DO NOT SET A TIMER, this is useless because you will be focused on the timer instead of putting your brain energies into meaningful piano time. And if you happen to sit there for longer than 15-20 minutes, WONDERFUL! :)
- choose 1 or 2 things to do from the list, and focus.
Tell yourself: "today I will focus on this _______, I will play it about 6-10x, and my goal for today is when I finish 6-10x I will feel more confident with this part", or, "I will feel I improved on this finger pattern/technique/trill/dynamics, etc. when I finish my practice today" ---- if you do this each time you sit down to play, you will feel the improvement, and feel more successful every practice session.
- create a brain shield, or a force field around yourself when you sit at the piano, what I mean by this is, do not let any other outside thoughts distract you from what you sat down to do.
Block out thoughts like: "what's for dinner?", "I have so much homework to do", "What am I doing this weekend?" - these other thoughts will still be there when you're done, and if you feel it is something very important, write it down so you know you will remember it. Then, you can block it out :)


Sometimes, nothing seems to work.
No amount of kind reminders, even strategies set up by the teacher to motivate practice.

It's time for DEFCON 5:
- MONEY: set up a jar on top of the piano, every time your sweet child practices for 15 minutes, put in a quarter (or any other combination of time and $). This is a concrete way for a young one to see the results of practice in the form of money ... that they are able to spend on whatever they like. Almost like an allowance, earned through practice.
- TREATS: if candy or other sweets are not usually allowed too often in the household, consider having treats as a reward for x amount of time practiced. Eg) 30 minutes of practice = treat (bite size, full size... you decide!)
- Other Rewards: clothing items, coveted Shopkins - Hot Wheels - Lego - other toys or items that are wanted and you're okay with purchasing before their birthday/Christmas/gift giving holiday. Make sure that the amount of time practiced is equal to what you feel is deserving of the price of the reward! Perhaps your child doesn't fancy toys & items, but values experiences instead: consider these as rewards as well - a family outing to a waterfall, an extra trip to their favourite nature park, etc.


Rewarding RCM Exams: usually students who choose to go down the path towards accomplishing an RCM Examination all on their own is unlikely to need too much coaxing to practice using rewards or outside motivators. Due to their awesome drive to succeed, they too should be rewarded for their independent efforts! Surprise them with a gift of some sort for outstanding accomplishments they chose to do all on their own, for achieving a wonderful mark and for their continued dedication towards becoming a self-driven musician :)


To be fair, I don't only hear words of "____ didn't practice".

There are parents who do report their lovely child practices all on their own without needing to be reminded to do so! These self-driven students are quite amazing, as they know what they are aiming for with goals in mind, very self-sufficient in following weekly notes and accomplishing the small tasks and goals discussed at the previous lesson, and self-motivated to learn more and more!

"_____ is practicing a lot more, and I don't have to remind them at all."
"_____ practiced for over an hour one day!"
"_____ practiced all on their own! Without needing to be told"
"_____ learned a song all by themselves!"


Give these suggestions a try :)
Let me know how they work out for you and the aspiring pianist!