How to Get Kids to Practice
How do you get kids to practice music? Music teachers and parents are excited about the practice aspect of music lessons. At-home practice is going to be an opportunity for their child to learn about self-discipline, to learn about perseverance, to learn about problem-solving, and for the music teacher, practice is a pathway towards musical excellence, but for the child, practice can feel like a heavy burden.
How Much Do Your Students Really Practice?
Perhaps the child does enjoy their weekly lesson, but they don’t enjoy the practice part. Have you ever wondered what percentage of your students really love to practice, what percentage of your students look forward to it, what percentage of your students live up to the practice expectations that you or your teachers impose on your students, or expect of your students? I have a feeling, and it might not apply to everyone, but I have a feeling that percentage might not be what you would hope that it would be.
Music Lessons and Academic Rigour
Some parents look at music lessons as more of an academic activity. They expect them to be rigorous. They expect lessons to be about building character and helping their child gain a competitive edge. They believe that learning to play an instrument will make their child smarter, and will help their child with math. Sure, it’s nice if their child enjoys the music lesson, just like it’s nice if their child enjoys going to school, but the music lesson is an expectation, just like going to school.
Even if the child doesn’t enjoy it, the parent’s still going to expect them to go to their music lessons, and if they don’t practice, the parent is going to be on their child’s back, and then there are other parents who simply want the music lesson just to be a fun and enriching experience, just like any other after-school activity.
The Truth About Student Retention
Even though these two different types of parents might have different motivations, at the end of the day, if the child’s not happy, if the child complains enough, if the child doesn’t live up to the parent’s expectations, parents will pull their child from music lessons. That’s why I feel like it’s so important to focus on helping the child fall in love with music and to feel successful in their efforts, to focus on this at the very first lesson.
Love and Resistance
I feel like the first four to eight weeks of music lessons are a real make-or-break time for a child. This is where a relationship is formed with music, where feelings are formed, where love or resistance is developed. In the second episode of the practice problem, I talked about how to market to parents your practice expectations, or specifically, how to help parents develop a new attitude or understanding towards practice, to reframe practice, to use practice as a metric for success in progress, but to also point out to parents that the lesson in of itself is an opportunity for significant progress and that practice is something that the child’s going to work towards. You need a plan if you want to know how to get gets to practice.
Getting Buy-in from Parents
Practice isn’t necessarily something that the child is going to do coming right out of the gate. Again, this is my approach to practice, and I’m sharing this with you because it worked for me. I was able to get buy-in from the parents. I was able to get parents to rethink practice. The moment a parent says to you, “Look, we’re going to drop out of music lessons because my child’s just not practicing that much,” it’s too late. At that point, it’s too later to try to reeducate them or to get them to rethink at-home practice.
How to Get Kids to Practice
The reality is the parents are also saying to you, “We’re going to deny our child the many benefits, the many life lessons that music will teach our child because they aren’t practicing. They aren’t doing this one aspect of the music lesson.” Practice is one aspect of your product. The music lesson is also just an aspect of your product, the customer experience, the ambiance of your music studio, the way you make customers feel. That’s also a part of your product.
It always broke my heart when a parent would pull their child out of lessons because they weren’t practicing. The parent was also denying themselves the dream that they had. The dream that parents have is that their child’s going to take music lessons, they’re going to be a happier kid, a more confident kid, a more well-rounded kid, but the child’s complaining about practicing.
Why Parents Sign Up For Music Lessons
That’s why it’s important that at the very beginning of the relationship with your customer, that you share with them what your hope is for their child, and your hope should be in alignment with the parent’s hope, and most likely the parent hasn’t really thought that much about what their hope is for their child. They’re signing their kid up for music lessons because that’s what you’re supposed to do.
Everybody else is doing it, and the parent has these narratives in their mind regarding music and childhood development. By talking about the personal development the child is going to experience from your music lessons, you help the parents connect with their feelings. You help the parents articulate their feelings. My music school was focused on ensemble performance, so I would say to parents, “My hope for your child is that through music, through the lessons that they’re going to take here, they’re going to develop the skills that they need to be able to get together with friends that play other instruments and be able to play music with them, to be able to jam with them. I would focus on the idea that music really is a social and communal experience, and we want your child to be able to have access to that communal experience.” That’s an attractive statement to say to parents.
Music and Community
Parents typically are focused on personal development through the hard work and the struggles that their child will have in lessons and the confidence that playing an instrument will bring to them. They’re thinking about it typically as a more private experience for their child, but I would introduce this communal idea that parents really found attractive. I’d even say things like, “If your child can develop these skills now, this is something they can take with them when they go to college. This will be a great way for them to connect with other students. Perhaps after college, your child’s going to move to a different city, and he’s not going to know anybody. If he has the ability to play music, that becomes a way to connect with people.”
How Has Music Impacted Your Life?
Parents eat this up, but it’s all true. One thing I encourage you to do is look at how music has impacted you. Imagine what your life would be like without music, and share that with parents, not necessarily your story, but use those memories and those emotions and weave that into your marketing, because that is something that their child can potentially experience, and like I said earlier, at the end of the day, the child has to love the music lesson. If the child isn’t loving the music lesson after a month or two, some parents will pull their child out. Other parents might say, “Well, too bad.”
How to Improve Music Student Retention Rates
“We expect this of you. We want you to at least stick with this for the school year,” but ultimately, those parents too will pull the child out of the lesson if they’re not loving it and they’re not practicing. Practice is a part of the deal. If you can cure this practice problem, your student retention rates will skyrocket. If your retention rates can improve, you’ll have to spend less money on trying to attract new students. Student dropout is often this hidden number or this hidden metric in a music school.
The Secret to Improving Customer Retention
We’re all focused on getting new students, you had a great month in May, you got 10 new students, you cracked open the champagne, but maybe you lost four students. No, that’s fine. You’ll replace them with new students, but what if those four students that dropped out each month, or maybe it’s even less than that drop out, what if that could be cut in half? What would that do to your growth? The secret to improving customer retention is curing the practice problem. Okay, so now, I really want to get into the details of what I did in my lessons to cure the practice problem, and this really worked for me.
Play Music on Day 1
Some of this might work for you, some of it might not so take what I’m about to say with a grain of salt. Some of these things that I might say, you might be able to apply or infuse into your music studio. Some of it simply might not work. So first, I want to talk about the musical goals that I had for all of my students. I wanted all my students to come out of their first lesson and know what it feels like to play music, to play music in time, and I wanted them to play the music that they were actively listening to, and I also wanted them to be able to improvise at that first lesson.
I wanted the child to come out of that first lesson and feel like playing music is actually much easier than they thought it was going to be, and that they’re much better at it than they anticipated. Most kids, going into their first lesson are intimidated and they have this idea that playing an instrument is really hard to do. The reason they feel this way is they look at people, or they listen to music, and these are professional musicians, and what they’re doing, “What they’re playing sounds impossible. It sounds like magic. How are they able to do that?”
Why Kids Feel Playing An Instrument is Hard To Do
Maybe they’ve even seen music performed in front of them, and they scratched their heads, and they don’t even know what’s going on. “How was this person able to create and produce all this music with just two hands?,” or, “How were these three or four people able to produce such a big sound?” Well, what the professional musician is doing is hard, takes years and years of hard work to get there, so that’s what the child’s bringing into their first lesson.
I sat down with my staff years ago and I asked, “How can we get kids playing real music, music that they’re familiar with and that they love at that first lesson, and how can we also get them improvising at that first lesson?” Improvisation is something that kids aren’t really aware of. Even parents don’t really fully understand what that is. Maybe parents hear someone playing a guitar solo on the radio, but many of them just assume it was some composed piece of music and that the guitar player is reading off the sheet music.
Why Playing an Instrument is Easy to Do
I can’t tell you how many times adults have said to me, “Did you know that the Beatles couldn’t even read music?” Well, of course they couldn’t read music. Most rock musicians can’t. They don’t need to. There’s no point in being able to read music.
Pop music is based on repetitive patterns. All you have to do is memorize these two, three, maybe four patterns, and you got it, and it’s best transmitted verbally, as opposed to writing it down. The traditional music lesson focuses on teaching kids how to read, read music in order to play music. My approach to music lessons is to teach children how to play music while they build a desire to be able to read music. The traditional music lesson relies on at home practice as a time for the child to refine what they’ve been learning in the lesson, as well as tackle a new challenge.
Why Do We Ask Children to Practice?
For years my approach was, “All right, student, you have a basic comprehension of this exercise. I want you to finish up the exercise at home, come back next week, and play it for me.” Ultimately, at-home practice for my students became an opportunity for the child to recreate what happened in the lesson, that the lesson experience was the main focus, not at-home practice. My goal was to make the music lesson so fun, so enjoyable, that the child was eager to go home and recreate it. This approach is key to understanding how to get kids to practice more.
Instead, I would say, “Next week in the lesson, this is what we’re going to do.” Whether they practiced or not didn’t really matter. If they practiced, it sped up the process for them, and then this is where internal marketing comes into play, and this is what I talked about in the last episode. By constantly sharing with the parents my teaching strategy, I was able to get them to rethink practice. I was able to get them to back off and give their child space. I invited the parents into each lesson to show them what their child had accomplished and what goals we were focused on.
Allowing Parent to View the Progress
I had all my teachers invite the parents into the lesson for the remaining five minutes to see what their child’s doing, to make a video of what their child’s doing, so that they could see, “Wow, my child’s making progress,” and at the end of the day, that’s what parents want. They want their child to progress. They want their child to grow. Yes, they want them to learn the skills of self-discipline that at-home practice provides, but again, that’s a goal to work towards.
Teaching Music Like a Language
All of my teaching was based around this simple idea that we teach kids how to play music the exact same way people learn how to speak a language. Music is a language in and of itself. This is how we teach kids how to play it.” They listen to what the teacher’s doing, they imitate it, they then learn how to speak music, they learn the basics of grammar or music theory, and they learn how to read music, and my music school,
I wanted the kids on day one, to get up on the horse and see what it feels like to ride a galloping horse, to ride a galloping rhythm. It’s a hypnotic experience-to play music in time. One thing I focused on with my teachers is getting the students to play in time as much as possible. If a kid makes a mistake, just plow right through it. Keep that hypnotic rhythm going. By using a drum loop or accompanying the student you can help add to the hypnotic effect of playing something in time for a minute or two.
How To Make Music More Enjoyable
The more a child plays something in time, the more their brain relaxes, the more hypnotic the experience becomes, and the more enjoyable it becomes. During the early stages of teaching, I would give the students very little instruction. It was a lot of,
- “Play this. Good. Now, play it like this.”
- “Good. Now, after you play this, I want you to play this. Good. Now, the first thing you played is called C minor. We’ll talk later about what that means, but just remember, that’s called C minor.”
- “The next thing you play with these two notes, this is called F minor. Really quick, quick game. Let me hear you play the C minor one time. Great. Let me hear you play F minor one time”
- “Great. Here, I’m going to play a chord for you. What’s the name of that chord? Good, it’s C minor.”
I’m going to show this off in front of the parent at the very end of the lesson.
- Can you play for your mom a C minor chord?
- Great. Now, let me hear you play an F minor chord. Perfect.”
Mom’s so impressed. She might think “Wow, I don’t know what all that stuff means. It sounds like music talk. I’ve heard these ideas of minor chords. I don’t really know what they mean, but my kid knows.” “My kid, within 30 minutes, now has a greater understanding of this music thing.”
Play More. Instruct Less.
During the early stages, there was very little instruction. The goal was trying to get the kids to play as much as possible. I used a teaching approach called Play it and Name it. Have the kid play it first, and then name it.
- “Play this. Great. This by the way is called a G major.”
- “Here, kid, play this note. Good. That note is called G flat.”
- “Let’s look up here on the page that G flat note that you played, here it is on the staff.”
- “Go ahead and play this note on the staff.”
- What’s the name of that note? Good. It’s G flat, right there.”
It’s all about gamifying the whole learning process.
Teach Music Kids Are Familiar With
I always kept an eye on the Billboard top 10. I wanted to see what the top 10 hit songs were because I knew most likely, new students would know these songs, and I would just Google “lyrics and chords” for each song, I’d find songs that had simple chord structures. Songs with chords changing every measure or more as opposed to within a measure.
A lot of pop songs just vamp between two chords. Perfect, those are great songs to work on with students. In that first lesson, I had my list of the top 10 songs in the country and I’d say to the student.
- “Do you know any of these songs?”
- The kid says, “Oh, yeah, I know six of these.”
- “Great. Out of these six songs that you know, which one’s your favorite?”
- “I really like this song by Billie Eilish.”
- “Great. You’re going to learn the Billie Eilish song today,”
How to Have Students Playing Within Minutes
Let’s say the song was just an A minor to a G minor chord change, A minor for two bars, G major for two bars. I would just show the kid the dyad in the right hand on piano. A and C sharp, in the right hand, and the bass note A in the left hand. I have the student play along with the music. This could all happen within three to five minutes. I’m not telling the child yet what anything’s called. I’m just saying, “Here, do this. Now, play this.”
If you’re a piano teacher and you rely heavily on reading music, you might not be familiar with building chords without sheet music, it’s an easy skill to learn. I focus on removing any barriers to access to music. Opening up a book at the very first lesson creates a barrier right away. The minute you open that book, a child is likely to think, “This looks hard”.
Teaching Music Lessons Without a Method Book
I won’t introduce a method book until four to eight lessons in. No book, no sheet music, not until it’s apparent that the child is connecting with music and is loving music, and on their own is just playing it at home, is recreating the lesson.
For a guitar student who chooses the Billie Eilish song, I might have her just play the bass notes of the chords on the E string, the notes A to G, and have her play along with the Billie Eilish recording. This feels really good to a kid. Something I talked to my staff about is to focus on how the child is feeling during the lesson. Not to focus so much on the amount of information that you’re communicating. That’s something that I really got bogged down with during my early days of teaching. I felt this pressure to demonstrate to parents that I am teaching their child a lot. “Look at all this information I am sharing with your child.”
The Parent Trap
I wanted parents to think, “Wow, this guy’s a really good music teacher. He knows his stuff. I don’t understand any of it, but it’s impressive.” I was focused on impressing the parent, but eventually, I learned that I need to focus more on the child, getting that child to eliminate the belief that music is hard. To eliminate that belief that they aren’t talented enough, that they probably won’t be successful at it.
With a guitar student, I would teach them inverted power chords at that first lesson, so in the Billie Eilish song that we’re talking about here, I’d have the student play power chords up on the first string, the high E string where they just barre across to the B string with one finger.
A’s the root on the high E string, and the fifth would be E on the B string all with one finger. They just slide that finger to go to the G chord, and they can play along with the song. I’ll eventually introduce a power chord on the E and the A string with that student, but again, I’m just focusing on, “How do I get this kid up and playing music within a few minutes?” Drum students, “We Will Rock You” drumbeat, first lesson, first thing. I’ll have them play along with the Queen recording.
“Have you heard this before?” If they haven’t, it’s going to blow their mind. “Good, we’re going to learn this right now.” Instant results. Something I would also do in that first lesson is I teach the child how to improvise.
If you’re not familiar with improvisation, it’s easy to do. I’m going to share with you now how to make it easy for both you and your student. For a piano student, a guitar student, and a bass student, I’ll just show them the first three notes of a scale. Let’s say we’ll focus on this Billie Eilish song that’s in A minor.
I’ll show the student the first three or four notes of the A minor scale. I’ll have the child play those three notes over and over. I create different note combinations with that. I focus on the kid getting a good workout with their hands, but playing in time as much as possible, accompanying the kid using a drum loop. Metronomes are great, but drum loops are much more enjoyable, much more fun for a kid to play along with.
Teaching Using Simple Language
Now that the child’s pretty comfortable with these three notes, I’m going to have them improvise with them. I just tell them, “I want you to create different note combinations with these three notes. Some of your notes can be long and slow, some of them can be short and fast.” I’ll then model for them how to improvise.
I’ll start improvising with whole and half notes with just those three notes, and I’ll say to the child, “how would you describe what I just did?” “Was I playing long and slow notes, or was I playing short and fast notes?” “You were playing long notes.” “Okay, good. Now, I’m going to play again. Tell me what I’m playing”, and now, I’m going to improvise using quarter notes and eighth notes,” and I’ll ask the student “Okay. Was I using long and slow notes or short and fast notes?”
“Oh, that was short and fast.” “Okay, great. Now, what about now?” Improvise again, and I use a combination of whole notes, half notes, quarter notes and eighth notes, and I ask the kid, “What was that?,” and he said, “Oh, that was a little bit of both.”
I’ll say to the student, “I want you to use these three notes and create your own little note combinations, but it’s all going to be slow, just like I did the first time,” and the kid starts getting in, gets his feet wet, starts improvising with those notes, and I might say, “I want you to play fast notes,” and I model again for the child.
I’m not using the words quarter notes, eighth notes, half notes, whole notes. That type of information is intimidating and potentially overwhelming. Save the language for later. I’m just trying to get the kid to play music.
Get Results By The First Lesson
Keep in mind this is all happening at the first lesson. Mom comes in at the end. We turn on Billie Eilish, and there’s her child playing along with the Billie Eilish song. Maybe she’s playing whole notes. The chord changes are too fast for her to play quarter notes.
Maybe she’s playing a tied whole note since it might take her eight beats to get to that G chord, and then after that, the student improvises over the song in front of mom. Within 30 minutes, this kid’s life has been changed. They’ve had an amazing musical experience. They’re walking out of that lesson feeling like music is much easier to do than they thought it was, and that they’re much better at it than they thought they were going to be, and that first lesson, in those first few months, maybe even beyond, I want 80% of that lesson to be feel-good moments where the child’s playing music, they’re playing in time, they’re experiencing the end result. The end result being, being able to play music in time, being able to play music with another person.
By accompanying your students, you create this atmosphere of an ensemble. You pull a drum loop up from YouTube, and you accompany the student, and they’re playing, now you really sound like an ensemble.
Take Your Students Emotional Temperature
It’s important to remain mindful and sensitive to how the child is feeling during the lesson. Are they feeling successful or are they feeling overwhelmed? Look at their body language. Are they checking the clock?
One thing I talked to my teachers about was the importance of not over-talking or talking too much during the lesson, not over-instructing. The minute you begin to talk to the child, it’s important to ask yourself, “How can I get this kid playing the idea that I’m talking about as quickly as possible?
Creating Feel Good Moments
When you say to the student, “Play this note,” great. “Now, let’s play it in time. Here’s the rhythm,” that’s focusing on feel-good moments. The moment you say, “This note was called G,” I wanted all of my teachers to devote a majority of the lesson to feel-good moments. I also said to my teachers that, “In every lesson, I want the child to have a musical experience that they can’t replicate at home.”
They can replicate parts of it, but not all of it. That’s what keeps them coming back, so sure, they’re going home and they’re recreating the lesson, but you’re not there playing along with them. The only way they’re going to be able to get that is to come back next week. Even if they’re playing it in time with a drum loop or a metronome, they’re not experiencing the added harmony and rhythm that you create when you accompany your students.
Helping Your Students Feel Less Self-Conscious
It also helps the child to relax when you’re playing along with them. When you’re just sitting there, listening to them, they might feel more exposed or self-conscious. When you’re playing along with them, they’re more inclined to relax.
You’re working as a team at this point. I would encourage my teachers to sing as the song is being played. You’re working through the Billie Eilish song and you’re just singing along quietly under your breath. Maybe when you practice the song without the recording, you’re still singing what you’re doing. You’re modeling for the child what they should do when they’re at home practicing.
If you’re playing this A minor chord and you’re holding it for eight beats and you move it to G, and you hold it for eight more beats, but you’re singing, that’s what the child’s going to do when they go home. They’re going to sing, and it’s going to become a more enjoyable experience. I would never ask my students to sing in the lesson. Some actually would, but the parents would tell me that their child is singing at home as they play, and I would say to the kid, “Hey, sing along with this at home.”
Creating Status Through Music Lessons
In episode two of Curing the Practice Problem, I talked about the social equity that you can give your students, that is when a student or when a kid goes to a friend’s house and goes to their piano and plays the Billie Eilish song, they’re building social equity.
They’re friends impressed with that, the friend wants to show you off to their friends, they call their mom and they’re, “Mom, come and listen to this. Listen to what Billy can do on the piano.” They obtain social equity when the family comes over for Christmas dinner, and the kid plays their Billie Eilish song, these are the moments that kids crave. They want to be able to show off for their friends and family. It’s hard to do that with the Hal Leonard Guitar Method book.
No one recognizes what you’re playing. Even teaching classical music means that you’re teaching the child music that’s not really a part of their life. Start them out on pop music. Just like dance studios, start your children, their student side in hip-hop. That’s a familiar dance form to them. Then, from there, they transition into tap, ballet or jazz. Why not do the same in your music school?
Using Emotions As A Metric for Success
My cure to the practice problem is to first focus on the narrative that parents tell themselves about the role that practice plays in a child’s musical development. That practice is one metric to use to measure success. Emotions are another metric to consider. What if a parent can be ok with a child that loves their lessons but doesn’t practice as much as they had hoped. They don’t really practice that much, but we’re staying because my kid’s experiencing personal growth, an improved work ethic, lessons of perseverance, and the importance of follow-through.
The first cure to the practice problem is helping parents to think differently about practice, to think differently about music lessons, and to help them understand what they want out of music lessons for their child, to help articulate for them what is that they want.
Eliminating False Beliefs About Music Lessons
You can do this by talking to parents and having them say out loud for the first time what hopes they have for music lessons. The next part of the cure to the practice problem is eliminating negative thoughts that the child has about music lessons and their ability to be successful.
If the child can walk out of that first, second, third, and fourth lesson, thinking in themselves each time, “I can’t believe I just did that,” “Never experienced anything like that before,” “I’m pretty good at this music stuff,” once the child believes they’re good at music, once they love it, they’re going to become frustrated. Now, they want to get better, and that’s when things start getting a little bit more interesting.
That’s when that method book becomes a little more relevant. That’s when practicing starts to just organically happen for them. Whatever your approach is to teaching, if the child doesn’t love the music lesson experience, and if the child isn’t excited to run home and practice, there’ll be limitations in your ability to retain students. The child always wins the battle with the parent when it comes to music lessons.