Tariku loves music. He’s a terrific drummer and an even better dancer. But lately his music lessons have been becoming more and more of a pain, with whining and wheedling and foot-dragging and falling off the piano bench onto the floor once every 30 seconds. Even with Scott’s monk-like patience, it’s enough to make you want to gouge out your own eyes with the nearest drumstick.
There are a lot of reasons why practice is challenging for T. First of all, learning an instrument is just plain hard. If it were easy, we’d all do it. I personally took three years of piano and all I have to show for it is one scale, a C chord, and the lyrics to “Good King Wenceslas,” so that’s useful. Secondly, T works hard holding it together in school all day, and when he gets home he lets it all hang out. Right around dinnertime we can usually count on some bonkers behavior. We generally try not to pay it too much attention, but in this case we needed to figure out a way to address it or his practicing was going to go out the window. I wasn’t willing to let that happen, both because he’s really talented and because I think it’s important to lean into the tough parts of valuable endeavors. It builds self-esteem. Having the grit to keep at something not immediately pleasurable is a learned skill. Plus, music is important to our family, and playing together is something T and Scott love to do. Every time I watch them jamming downstairs, I know they’re creating really special memories.
So how do you get past the epic annoyingness of trying to strong-arm a kid into practicing their instrument?
I found that threatening him with taking away his TV time didn’t help all that much. It was usually just followed with more bargaining and whining. I could see that we were going to have to rethink the whole thing, so Scott and I sat down to try to come up with some strategies. These moments give me a new level of respect for the creative, out-of-the-box teachers who have really made a difference in Tariku’s life. Because you know what? I don’t feel like being inventive about his practice. I just want him to sit down and do it while I get dinner ready. But no one asked me what I wanted (see: parenthood)…
A couple of months ago, T started working therapeutically with horses. It’s profoundly regulating for him, and gives him a chance to address his feelings in a non-threatening way, by talking about the animals. He has a lot of responsibility at the horse ranch, and keeps track of all his tasks with a whiteboard checklist. He LOVES that checklist. So I dug a little whiteboard out of the garage and have been making a checklist for his music lesson every day. I make sure to build in choices for him. He has to play 3 songs, but he can choose what songs those are. And in between piano and drums, he gets 5 minutes of indoor soccer, so he can get his sillies out. Then we incentivized his practice with little treats for ten completed checklists, so he has both immediate and long-term goals.
Btw, this method is also pretty much exactly what I do to keep myself disciplined and motivated about my work. I feel overwhelmed and distracted and don’t generally want to sit down and write in the morning, either. I use checklists and timed tea breaks and little treats and big goals and it gets me through.
So far it’s working! We’ve had a few straight days of non-obnoxious practice. I’ll let you know how it progresses. What do you do to encourage your kids to develop the habit of practicing?