How do you get kids to practice their instruments?
That's the question of all parents who can't help having occasional misgivings about the large outflow of cash going toward music lessons. As far as I can tell, the only honest answer is, "I don't know. It's different from child to child, anyway." Nonetheless, I have made a couple of observations while visiting Heather and family and will set them down for what they're worth.
- Every child here over the age of three takes formal piano lessons. The just-turned-four-year-old is eagerly awaiting informal lessons in the summer, and the start of the "real thing" in the fall. They all enjoy their lessons, partly because their teacher is one of the best-loved in the area, and partly because she's also known to them as Grammy.
- Everyone over the age of six walks or bikes to Grammy's house for his lesson. Not only is this convenient for their parents, but I believe it helps them "take ownership" of the lessons. It also means that if they forget their music books, they're the ones who have to turn around and go back, so responsibility is naturally encouraged.
- Even with these advantages, practice time was hit-or-miss, until a simple change was made. All the kids have morning and afternoon chores, which they are (mostly) in the habit of completing with minimal fuss, "Practice piano" was simply added to the list, and voilà, regular practicing.
- Best of all, the piano is located in the middle of everything. You can hardly go from one place to another without passing the piano. It gets played a lot, because it's there.
- Here's something I'd never have thought of: practicing is a whole lot more fun because the piano is not just a piano. It's a "real piano" rather than just a keyboard, but it is actually an electric keyboard built into a piece of furniture. Thus it comes with all the extras of a keyboard: the ability to record one's playing, multiple timbres, the ability to split the keyboard (have different instruments in the bass and the treble), and more. Yes, this leads to a lot of fooling around, but how many times do you think the kids would practice a particular piece or passage on a mere piano, compared with playing it with the piano sound, then the bagpipes, then organ, then flute, then with various sound effects? Multiple repetitions, painlessly.
I still don't know the secret to getting kids to practice. But I can recognize good tools for a parent's toolbox when I see them.