Making Music Practice Less Annoying

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?

Thanksgiving Part 2: The Thankful Part


Here’s a picture from the first year we brought T to Thanksgiving. Cute, right? I think we managed to stay for about 20 minutes. From the beginning, social situations have been scary and challenging for T. I still shudder when I recall my dear friend stooping to say hello, and T responding by punching her right in the snout. At that time, aggression was a daily occurrence for us. I was covered in bite marks. Scott and I would struggle to smile, while vigilantly monitoring him at gatherings. We were masters of the quick exit. The car ride home from T’s first three Thanksgivings were tear-filled. I think Scott may have even offered a few drops to the communal river.

This is T now, at the drums in the front of the room. Just look at that confident kid.


At first, he wasn’t super-psyched about Thanksgiving, because all of the kids attending were older and he was worried he wouldn’t have anyone to play with. Then, the other kids (the most terrific teens in existence- they give me hope for the whole species), had the idea to have a family jam. I mentioned it to Tariku and he immediately lit up and begged to bring his drums. I very hesitantly asked if we could bring his kit, while acknowledging that it was potentially the world’s worst idea. They responded with a resounding YES.

The other kids even learned the Phineas and Ferb theme song to play with him. Scott jumped in as well. At six years old, Tariku sat in front of a room full of about twenty-five people and was funny, focused, and good.

When Scott was a kid, discovering music saved his life. It gave him a passion, a sense of purpose, something to dream about, something to work for. For me, that thing was books. Through books, I felt connected to the world around me.

At Thanksgiving, I believe I was seeing the seeds of that very process for my own son. As soon as he sat down and started to play, he was glowing with pride and purpose.


And you see this guy I’m sitting next to… I’ve known my friend Colin since I was seventeen years old. Back then he had really long hair and always wore a black motorcycle jacket. I had really nineties hair and wore…well, I generally wore a lot less than I do now. His teenage singer/songwriter son blew me away. How strange, these 10,000 miles of road behind us. How surreal and incredible to see our kids now the ones at the front of the room, playing their hearts out. I’m so thankful we’ve made it far enough to see this happen.

Every year we write what we’re thankful for for on the tablecloth. Here is this year’s contribution: