A student’s lack of practice is a constant source of frustration for guitar teachers. As musicians and guitar teachers, we generally find it hard to understand why a child is not self-motivated to practise. We practised our pieces and were motivated enough to eventually sit for exams and study music at a tertiary level. On weekends we played in a band with the local kids in their parent’s garage. We were enthusiastic and motivated, so why do our students need to be coaxed to practise or worse, nagged?
For a guitar teacher teaching very young children, it is important to be aware of their characteristics and know what they are dealing with. Typically, young children would rather play than concentrate on academic subjects. Classroom teachers will often work with this trait and educate their young charges through play. Because it is fun, children will learn and sometimes do not even know it.
A young child generally has their needs met by their parents. They are fed, clothed, and sheltered and assuming responsibility for goal achievement is still a way off. Young children have not yet worked out that reward comes through hard work. Typically, they seek instant gratification and want to play an instrument without exerting too much effort. They are only just starting to assume responsibility for making their breakfasts and tying their shoelaces. However, most the time, the responsibility for practising their instrument and honing their skills is left to the child. Considering their stage of development, it is little wonder that the call to practise their instrument goes unanswered.
Guitar teachers will sometimes bribe students to practice. Some teachers give lollies or stickers as a motivational tool for practice. This still requires the reward be held in abeyance for an effort that may be a week old. Others may make use of a practice register which is required to be signed by the child’s parent for every practise session.
But what about young children who play piano or violin like they’re possessed? There’s lots of them, and they may also play another instrument plus chess and football. How did they become so good? And where do they find the time for all that practise?
The children studying with the Suzuki method seem to be well represented in this congregate. From what I understand, parents are encouraged to be present in the child’s lesson and learn the instrument alongside the child. The parent assumes responsibility for their daily practise session at home and it becomes part of the household daily routine. Most non-Suzuki music teachers don’t have the luxury of having dedicated Suzuki type parents. Most of the parents of children I teach draw breath at the idea of having to invest time into practising an instrument for hours a week with their children. Most of the parents of my children are busy working and really are not interested in that level of commitment.
However, having at least an enthusiastic parent is a huge motivator for young children. Children with at least one parent who is actively supporting them will be motivated, enthusiastic and will progress faster than children who are left to account for their own progress.
The Covid-19 crisis has been interesting. For a time, I had to give lessons via Zoom. It was interesting because it gave me insight as to the practise routines of my students. Even though in lessons we sit on chairs, use footstools and music stands, some of my students practiced on the end of their bed or at the dining room table with no music stand. Some students were very disorganised for their zoom lessons. They had to find chairs to sit on and prop their music up on something. It led me to believe that if they didn’t have simple things like a chair and a music stand organised by now, there can’t be too much practice going on at home and have very little if any guidance from mum and dad.
I certainly don’t have all the answers and would be keen to hear from other guitar teachers on this issue, but until a child is old enough to take responsibility for organising their own focussed, effective and disciplined practice routine, these are the steps that I currently take to get the best from my students:
I use a book that is child friendly. It is written especially for young children that addresses their particular needs and challenges.
I make use of parental involvement wherever and however possible.
I have uploaded videos of each lesson that I teach to YouTube. I inform parents that this facility is available to them to make use of and it’s free!
I ask the parents that a space be made available for the child to practise and not necessarily in their room where they are shut off from the family.
I encourage parents to provide their children with all the equipment they need and I can assist them with this if necessary, by renting out my own.
I will frequently record a child during their lesson and send the file to their parents. This gives the child a reason to practise and the parents enjoy seeing what their children are up to.
I organise half yearly concerts that engage all of the students by having everyone on stage at all times, encouraging them to play together and practise!
It is easy for a student not to perform if nothing is expected so set expectations with your students around how you both want the lesson to go.
Use positive comments and positive reinforcement. Commend a child for actions that you want to see more of and remember that they don't always have to be moving forward, sometimes moving sideways is ok too.
Generate enthusiasm and set a positive example for your students and play the instrument yourself. This could include a visit to their classroom. I have been asked many times to come and play for the children by the classroom teacher.
Author: Bryce Leader
Bryce is a teacher trained conservatorium graduate who has been teaching guitar since 1978.