It’s about time I wrote an article for all of you rockstar parents!
Getting your child to practice their instrument, no matter whether it’s guitar, piano or any other instrument, can be a big challenge – especially in the first few years of learning.
Some parents like to get really hands on and force their child to practice, much like they would with homework – which on paper makes sense, as effective instrument practice is considered to be the most important factor in learning to play. Others prefer to let kids be kids, and wait for them to pick up the guitar themselves.
But what’s the best approach to getting your child to practice their instrument? I’m going to give you a bunch of general tips and strategies to try out, plus some approaches which are tailored for specific problems.
Firstly, I want you to accept these 3 rules:
Rule #1: Great Guitarists LOVE the Guitar
Let’s face it, you’re never going to get great at something if you don’t love playing.
That doesn’t mean everyone will instantly fall head over heels at the thought of practicing their guitar. Passion can take many years to develop.
Ultimately, you need to keep guitar as fun as possible for young students so they can grow to love playing the guitar.
In other words, guitar is NOT the same as schoolwork, and it should NEVER be a chore, so don’t try and treat it the same way (even though supervising guitar practice may be a bit of a chore for you in the early days!).
It’s also important to prioritise enjoyment over technical skills or knowledge for the first part of any student’s journey, and ensuring that the enjoyment remains a large part of your child’s experience playing the guitar.
Rule #2: Kids Need Direction to Learn
I have met and taught some Mozart-level prodigies, who are playing light-years ahead of other students their age.
That doesn’t mean they should be left to choose all of their own practice schedule and materials. Would you let a 5 year old decide what they’re going to eat for every meal?
Of course not, because kids make stupid, short-sighted decisions (even more so than us kids-at-heart). If it was up to them, they’d be eating chips and ice cream every meal and be hospitalised in a month.
Similarly, no matter how great your child is at guitar, they can’t be allowed to choose 100% of what they practice, or they’ll only learn what interests them in that specific moment.
This direction should come from your teacher, but it’s often up to you as a parent to be aware of this direction and make course adjustments to keep everything on the right track between lessons.
Rule #3: Guitar (and Music) is Not for Everyone
To be clear here, anyone CAN play the guitar, and I’d argue everyone SHOULD learn a musical instrument, if only for a short while, as it’s a great way to broaden your interests and appreciation of our oldest art form.
However, not every child is going to grow up to be a professional musician. In fact, statistically, 0.045% of the population of Australia are professional musicians, so the odds are definitely stacked against your kid! (for those terrified of that tiny figure, bear in mind that doesn’t include all the jobs in the music industry, just straight performers and teachers).
The important thing to remember is that this is NOT your decision to make, but your child’s. I have spoken to so many adults who are STILL upset with their parents for either forcing them into boring (usually piano, for some reason) lessons as a child or telling them they couldn’t fit in music with sport/school/whatever at a young age.
At both extremes, just remember: if music is important to you, it may not necessarily be important to you child. Similarly, if you don’t “get it”, it’s not for you to decide whether your child should continue with their musical tuition or not.
Let them make the decision themselves, coaching, encouraging and supporting along the way as best you can.
Quick Rant about Sport vs Music
I don’t want to go too off topic here, but this line from parents always upsets me: “My child had to decide between playing footy this year or playing guitar.”
If your child is great at sport, that’s fantastic – I totally agree that all kids should be doing lots of physical activity.
But please don’t ever compare sport to music, even if you consider yourself a “sporty family” or “a musical family”. They are completely different areas of education, and you should never make your child CHOOSE between sport and music – especially at a young age when kids aren’t capable of understanding the future consequences.
If I had been forced to make that choice, I’d either be unhealthy from lack of exercise or unhappy from lack of music today – not to mention pretty upset with Mum and Dad!
Onto some more specific tips for helping your child practice. Unfortunately, it depends a lot on the person and their personality.
Towards that end, I’m going to give you tips for 2 common types of young students to help you work out the best approach for your child. Which one sounds the most familiar?
Enthusiastic Ethan (AKA The Master of Distractions)
Got a rockstar who just can’t put the guitar down? Awesome, you don’t need this article!
“But wait,” I hear you interrupt, “Ethan plays the guitar all the time, but never plays what his teacher tells him to!”
That’s a bit more of a challenge!
So what’s the actual problem? Simple – Ethan needs direction to make sure he’s progressing as a guitarist, getting a suitable challenge and finding new things to excite and motivate him longer term.
Luckily, you won’t need to encourage actual practice for Ethan, as he’s already got the drive to play.
Instead, it’s up to you to tame and direct a hurricane.
Let them play what they want, when they want – AFTER they have done their allocated practice
I developed as many skills from doing things I wasn’t told to on the guitar as I did from my actual guitar lessons. All guitarists and musicians I know have had similar experiences.
It’s great fun – the exploration, the simple repetition, the joy of learning one of your favourite songs.
So, we don’t want your child to stop any of their current playing. Instead, we want to make sure they do what they NEED to do first, then you can let the hurricane loose again.
The easy way to do it is to set the required practice as the warmup. “Promise me every time you pickup the guitar, you’ll play these things for 5 minutes first.”
If you can do that, the 5 minutes will become 10 minutes, and soon they’ll start doing many of these things on their own in no time. Often, the challenge is in getting the ball rolling for something new, unfamiliar or challenging.
You can also use the fun practice they want to do as a reward, but be careful not to make out any of their guitar practice to be too “homework-y” in the process.
Set Challenges and Make Requests
The single best statement to make for an Enthusiastic Ethan is:
“I bet you can’t learn how to play this by tomorrow”.
Replace play this with “play this faster” or “name all of these notes” or “memorise this passage”, and replace “by tomorrow” with an effective timeframe (minus one day – it’s a challenge after all) and you will soon have yourself a self-driven rockstar practice pro.
I often use this trick with extremely unreasonable expectations – stuff I personally couldn’t do in the timeframe I’ve given – which I challenge as though it should be dead simple.
9 times out of 10 the student exceeds my expectations and do exactly what I challenge them to do plus more.
Why is that? Simple – as the experienced, respected (debatable) teacher, I know what should and shouldn’t be possible.
But Ethan doesn’t. All Ethan knows is that he’s been set a challenge, and he can learn anything.
Yes, you’ll sometimes have the 1/10 times where the student tries and fails to achieve the challenge, but this failure is a great experience too – I’m usually rapt with the student for having a go, and will tell them so. Sometimes, I even admit the challenge was much harder than I let on.
Similarly, you can also request your child to learn something for you – a favourite song, for example – in time for a special event.
Many children are motivated by the responsibility, trust and confidence this implies, in much the same way as the challenge.
Find a suitable, challenging environment to learn in
Lastly, don’t let your Wunderkind sit back in traditional kids guitar lessons at school (or wherever else), or they will be bored stupid and will either lose their enthusiasm or at the very least waste their energy.
It’ll depend on your teacher, but many of our Enthusiastic Ethans either:
- Get thrown into adult classes
- Are pushed to take extra lessons to speed up the learning
- Are set performance challenges
- Are encouraged to self-teach themselves at home
- Are encouraged to assist in teaching classes or teach others at home
This will sound like a plug for our guitar lessons in Ringwood, but if you’re limited for choices, you can also encourage some of these activities yourself.
Don’t be afraid to get your student to a different school or teacher – sometimes they’ll simply outgrow their current learning environment.
To give you an example, many young students come to us after they’ve done an introductory program through school and are getting bored, and we similarly refer on many Grade 6+ classical students to dedicated classical guitar specialists as that’s an area where you really need a niche classical guitar expert to learn from.
Your child’s needs will probably change over time, and that’s ok.
I myself have learnt from 3 private teachers, a ton of online courses and books and music classes at schools and universities. Most professional musicians have a similar background, and I don’t think of any of these experiences as a waste of time.
Apathetic Alyce (AKA I’ll Practice Later)
Got a child who just doesn’t want to do their practice, despite insisting they enjoy guitar and want to learn?
Almost all students go through this stage, and it is common for phases of apathy to crop up later in life too (I still have occasional weeks where I barely touch the guitar now).
The problem here is that Alyce is missing the discipline, repetition and routine she’ll need to become the great guitarist she envisions herself becoming one day – and if you don’t address the issue early, the disappointment due to a lack of progress will eventually hit hard.
Make Guitar Practice Routine with Micro-Commits
They key to regular, effective practice doesn’t lie in a magic number of practice hours, or the perfect learning materials.
The key lies in forming a habit – the habit of picking up and playing the guitar.
You don’t need to get your child to play for an hour a day. All you need to do is get them to pick up the guitar each and every day and have fun while doing it.
Who cares if they don’t do everything they’re meant to? Who cares if they lose interest after 10 minutes of playing?
The point is they are getting used to the guitar being part of their life – something they do every day. This will slowly build out into a genuine desire to play all the time as they learn more skills and songs.
Feel free to slowly push the boundaries of micro-commits by making your young rockstars commit to more and more guitar related activities.
Do they want to watch TV? Sure thing, just get them to play one bar of their song in each ad break (or between episodes if you’re a streamer).
Is 5 minutes easy? See if they’ll commit to 10 minutes of playing, or maybe even a few smaller sessions spread out over the day.
Make sure you don’t frame it as homework. This isn’t something your child has to do – it’s something they want to do, and you’re just positively reminding them that they want to do it.
Focus on Fun, Not Checkboxes
Sometimes, the reason why your child doesn’t want to pick up the guitar is because they simply aren’t doing anything at the moment that interests them.
That’s partly a problem for your teacher to resolve, but you can definitely help out by focussing your child on playing their “favourite” song, chord, riff or whatever first.
If that means they’re going to spend a month having a blast playing Smoke on the Water and pretty much nothing else, that’s totally fine. The confidence, enjoyment and skills they develop in this month will set them up for broader success later on.
It’s also important that you consider your success in getting your child to practice in terms of enjoyment, not whether or not they have practiced.
Don’t pat yourself on the back for getting them to play everything they were meant to if they finished their practice session relieved to put the guitar away. Instead, if they’re looking a bit frustrated, ask them to play one thing you know they love to finish up – even if they haven’t “checked all the boxes” on their practice schedule.
That way, they’ll come out feeling happy, satisfied and a little better at guitar than they were yesterday. In the end, that’s all every student needs from their practice sessions.
Make Guitar a Social Activity
Guitar is not a solo instrument. It’s meant to be enjoyed with others.
If your child isn’t enrolled in group lessons, bands or performances, get them into it as soon as possible.
Many young students will flourish in an environment where they can share their love of music with others, as motivators, helpers and friends.
Whilst this is true for all types of students, it’s particularly important for Apathetic Alyce as learning a song “with my friends” is often much more of a motivator than learning a song “because my teacher told me to”.
Similarly, you can encourage performances at home (but don’t push too hard) or even sing along with songs if your kids are younger (it’s ok if your singing sucks, don’t worry). It’s a real shame that many Australian families don’t regularly make music together at home as a matter of course – your skill level doesn’t matter, just get together and make some noise!
I’ll give you some more practice tips and tricks to try over the coming weeks, but for now I want to leave you with a framework I learnt from martial arts instructions.
The aim of every karate class was to have students:
- Smiling, and
These 3 principles apply well to guitar too, but I’d like to paraphrase them for you as practice supervisors. By the end of every practice session, I want you to make sure your child is:
- Smiling and
- Ready to practice again tomorrow
Becoming a musician, no matter your instrument, is a never-ending journey. There’s no final end goal. There’s no completion.
All your child needs is to have fun and get a little better, every day.