Practice at home is a real struggle…time to quit?


One of the reasons we hear in the studio for wanting to quit is “Practice is a nightmare”. Often this is coupled with “my child doesn’t enjoy practice and/or the instrument anymore”. We hear parents often (sort of understandably) make the leap of “doesn’t like lessons” or “doesn’t like practice” to “doesn’t like the instrument” or “doesn’t like music”. Certainly that can be the result of a miserable situation that goes on too long. Usually, though, these are separate, solvable, issues.

It seems like practicing is loved by the masses about as much as 2 year olds love naps. Or we love stepping on dog poop in bare feet. On our way to the bathroom at 3 am. While we get almost immediate rewards for 2 year olds napping (things we like to call “the only way we stay sane and binge watch netflix”), and of course not stepping on dog poop is it’s own reward; when you are paying what feels like a years’ rent for weekly lessons in exchange for nightly practice battles, the future rewards don’t look quite so shiny and awesome.  Just having the neighbors not call social services because they can hear the screams of practicing protest would be reward enough, thank you, increased math and language scores be dammed.

We carefully titled this post to talk about practice struggles as the reason to quit, but forgive us a bit of a detour here. Do a double take if you’re a parent who has a kiddo who doesn’t like lessons. If your student doesn’t love (or at least like) lessons on a regular basis, change teachers. If you have a good teacher that you trust, they should know ASAP if you’re hearing that your student doesn’t like lessons. There are a lot of reasons that lessons can be a struggle, and some of those struggles are the good kind, but they shouldn’t last for a long time. And they should be a nice cupcake and sardine sandwich- waves of awesome “ooo, delicious cupcake! (oh, gross, this is all salty and doesn’t fit with the cupcake) oh! here’s the delicious cupcake again!”.  If life is all sardines and garbage sauce when it comes to lessons, ask around for lesson recommendations. Try a few trial lessons with other teachers, if you can find them. If your teacher actually approaches you about switching teachers- don’t be offended! Often, it’s just what a kid needs to get going again.

OK, the quitting.  We see some common themes related to practice that quitting comes up:

  • Burnout
  • General practice issues/home practice culture

In part two we’ll cover the idea that maybe “misery” is…good? Also, nope, it is definitely time to quit.

Burnout first (that burnout link is for childhood athletics, there is good reason to just read all sport science literature with the word “musician” plugged in for just about any sport). Actually, we’re up for a whole article on burnout, it’s a thing and we don’t recognize it in the music world as often as we should. For now, you can check out periodization, which is how most athletic coaches help professional athletes avoid burnout. We’ll keep it simple for now: take a break! It can be scheduled in advance (the best kind), and last a week or a month or a summer. Arguably the best for instrument learners is week or month long breaks scheduled in advance.

General practice issues happen for everyone. Or at least, we are still waiting to meet even a professional who always enjoys practice (or for that matter, is very good at it).

Of course, even if our children didn’t enjoy school every week or day, we probably wouldn’t let them quit. Find a different schooling situation, maybe, but quit when they still believe that all math can be done on two hands? You’re just ensuring your future daughter-in-law lives in your basement, forever. AND EVER! Your kiddo still not know how to play one single Chopin violin etude*? Meh, no one cares.

*Yeah, there aren’t any. So of COURSE they’ll be fine. Point still stands!

In general, American culture in recent years (decades?) views musical study more as a privilege, than part of a well rounded breakfast. Just the cost and accessibility issues alone! The demographics of just about any conservatory in the country lacks a certain diversity in socioeconomic status. Wondrously, we no longer publish books like “Operas Every Child Should Know” (this particular book, incidentally, is superb bedtime reading. It seems like it will be a promising fairy tale, the liberettos are heavily laden with princesses and crazy story lines- but it delivers like an ambien to any child we’ve ever attempted to persuade to chose it over the usual bedtime fodder. A word of warning: they don’t seem to fall for the trick more than once). We like our toddler-time sing-alongs, but when it comes to actually valuing music as a part of a well rounded education?

*Ehem*, stepping off soap-box. If practice is a struggle each and every day, check out your daily home’s practice “culture”. Is the choice between TV and practice? Don’t test us on that one- we’ll pick TV every time, even if all we have left is Bachelorette from 4 seasons ago. TV always wins.

Does everyone in the family have a “chore” or “work” that has to be done every night as well? Or does the instrument learner have to go off to saw away while the rest of the family chills out?

View the practice like sports practice. We all know that you go to practices to improve, and sports practice happens most days of the week. The only difference is that instrument practice happens at home (usually), on our own. That makes it utterly devoid of peer pressure (until youth orchestra years), which gives you the very distinct lack of a very powerful ally (well, at least for now. Peer pressure you two sided jerk)!

Are you stuck in a cycle of bribing? If so, it’s probably time to re-evaluate. Bribes work excellent-town for short term, and they’re terrible awful no good for long-term. Sit down and talk it out with your student and figure out another method of encouragement.

Since everyone battles these practice night fun-times (hah), sometimes it helps to make friends with another family that plays music and has values you are on board with. Talking with them can create some lovely schadenfreude for you, but also help with ideas for creating a sustainably sane practice culture.

Until you reach that awesomeness work in progress that is practice perfection, here’s a cute panda.