Tag Archives: music practice

Do you want to understand your child better?

Boy playin violin

It’s almost a silly question isn’t it? All parents want to understand their children better so that they can build a stronger relationship with them, communicate more effectively, help them with their problems, and share their joys. The same applies to teachers – if we know our students well, we can understand what motivates them and adapt our teaching accordingly.

The TAT Test

A few years ago I came across this fascinating technique, the Thematic Apperception Test, or TAT. It’s simple, fun to do and it gives insight into all sorts of issues. Underlying motives can be revealed, concerns expressed and views aired in a non-confrontational way. All you have to do is show the child a relevant, but ambiguous, picture and ask them to make a story up about it.

Motivating music practice

This was a conversation with one of my piano students, Edward, aged 6 as he studied a picture of a boy playing the violin.

Me: What is the boy in the picture thinking? Can you make up a story about him?

Edward: He’s feeling sad because he has to do his practice and his prep so he never gets to play with his friends.

Me: Does he like playing the violin?

Edward: Yes and he wants to play well … He might like to have a year of playing and then a year off. He might ask him mum if he can do that.

Me: Then would he have to practice even more, to make up for forgetting a lot in the year off?

Edward: Oh I hadn’t thought of that.

Me: What advice would you give to this boy?

Edward: Probably he could see his friends on some days and practise on others.

Me: Does he have any friends who play?

Edward: Yes – his friend, George plays.

Me: Would he like it if George came into some of his practices every week?

Edward: Ooh yes!

Me: They could make up some music together and play duets.

The outcome

Subsequently, Edward began playing duets with his friend, really called George, whom I also taught. Edward started practising much more regularly and enthusiastically. Everyone was happier!

Here’s an easy piano duet to try…


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What do children really think about doing their music practice?


Why practise?

I loved doing my piano practice as a child and I never needed reminding to do it, probably because I never thought of it as ‘practising’ but more as doing the real thing – I was just having a nice time playing the piano. It is a pity, I think, that we use the word, ‘practice’ instead of ‘play’. Rather than suggesting enjoyment, ‘practice’ conjures up a tedious, isolating and difficult activity that is necessary to prepare for the real business of ‘playing’, which seems to be conceived of as some time in the future.

Why do children begin playing an instrument?

The ABRSM Making Music report (2014) found that the main reasons children wanted to begin playing were because they enjoyed music and because they liked the sound of the instrument, yet teachers thought that the main barrier to pupils making good progress was lack of practice / motivation. It seems paradoxical that children said they wanted to play and yet did not feel motivated actually to do it.

What do parents think?

I would love to know (comments welcome) what parents of musical children think are the reasons for the following:

  • why their child takes music lessons
  • why their child does their music practice, or not
  • why progress is being made, or not.

My own views on motivation to practise

I am guessing that my own experience as a piano student was fairly common in that I was never taught how to structure my practice, nor even told how much practice I should do. I just played until I could play better but, gradually, I devised strategies of my own, which I have continued to develop over years of study and teaching. In fact, as a teacher, one of the things I find endlessly fascinating is finding ways of engaging each individual student’s interest in practising effectively, using a whole range of learning strategies that continue to expand as the child’s knowledge, technique and capacity for learning develop.

I have come to the conclusion that I need to make a substantial part of lessons a template for what to do at home during the week’s practice so that students understand how, as well as what, to practise and, hopefully, feel motivated. I also welcome parents sitting in at lesson time and, if they prefer not to, I like to talk to them after lessons to update them on progress, for the child to explain to them what they have learned that day and to say what I would like their child to do over the next week.

Why do children want to do music practice?

I once asked all my younger pupils why they wanted to practise. Before I asked the children the question, I summarised my own assessment of their achievement, motivation and enjoyment of playing. The balance between these factors varied according to the child’s individual personality and preferences and I was able to see a fascinating connection between my prior assessment and the responses given, with just a few surprises.

This was the question

‘Why do you want to do your piano practice?’

Here are some of the responses.

I wonder if you can guess which children practised, which ones enjoyed their playing and who were the high achievers – my prior assessments are at the end.


I had this really horrid piano teacher before and I never wanted to practise. He used to shout at me. If you get a nice teacher you want to do it for them. Sometimes when you have a practice your friends come in and it’s annoying. If you’ve got a grade coming up you’ve got an aim so you want to practise, and the same with concerts.


I want to practise to be a good pianist and to get onto my grades quicker. I enjoy it at all times. It doesn’t make any difference what I play. I get them off by heart in my head and then start playing them. I’d think of the notes sometimes where I was going wrong and sometimes I’d just get them straight in my head.


I’d always wanted to play. I played with this lady up the road but she shouted and it didn’t work out. I like practising now because it learns me to play better things and you’re more encouraging than that other teacher was. She didn’t explain how to play the notes right … she just said play it.

When I start a piece I think, ‘I can’t do that!’ but then I practise it and I think it’s easy and I want to do the next one.


I know I’ve got to practise otherwise I’ll fail the exam. I want to play something I like … it’s more important to like it if I’m not doing an exam. I don’t like my parents listening – it embarrasses me.


Sometimes I’ve got nothing to do so I practise.


A tune you know and like, if you’re determined to get it right. I’m practising for my exam because I want to pass and I like the pieces.


My mother says, ‘Your lesson’s tomorrow and you haven’t done any practice. Don’t you think you’d better get on with it?’

Sometimes I practise to avoid doing homework … I enjoy it once I’ve started.

I like it when my mum says, ‘That was nice, the piece you played today.’ I wish my dad would like it when I play and listen to me.


Wanting to learn … I enjoy learning new pieces. And Mum makes me. It’s a good thing she makes me practise, otherwise I wouldn’t learn and she’d stop my lessons.


Because it helps you to learn. Whether I feel like it depends on what sort of tune I’m playing. I like dances. It’s better when someone listens to me … Mum listens and Gran and Grandpa.


When I’ve got a tune in my head and I want to play the music, like a TV tune. You practise when you’ve got time.

My prior assessments

I assessed motivation by how regularly pupils practised and, more subjectively, by obvious enthusiasm for playing, how cheerful they were in lessons and improvement from one lesson to the next.

I was able to keep a fairly accurate track of practice because most of the pupils attended a preparatory, boarding school.


Highly motivated to practise, good progress, evident enthusiasm


Highly motivated to practise, good progress, evident enthusiasm


Highly motivated to practise, good progress, evident enthusiasm


Motivated by exams, but otherwise does insufficient practice, enthusiastic about some pieces


Practises sporadically, making slow progress, seems to enjoy lessons


Highly motivated to practise, good progress, evident enthusiasm


Variable motivation to practise, making some progress, seems to enjoy lessons


Well motivated to practise, steady progress, seems to enjoy lessons


Well motivated to practise, good progress, evident enthusiasm


Motivated by exams, otherwise usually practises only what he enjoys most, which is often his own compositions

Four main reasons for practising had emerged overall:

  • Achievement
  • Enjoyment
  • Approval of family and /or friends
  • Because of their teacher (which was pleasing!)

What do you think? What can you do?

I think that teachers and also parents of children who have music lessons would find it revealing to repeat the process and I would be really interested for you to comment on what you find out.

Help with practising Aural Tests (suitable for ABRSM and Trinity exams, all grades)

ABRSM (2014) Making Music  http://gb.abrsm.org/en/making-music/4-the-statistics/44-how-learners-learn/

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Filed under Music education, Music practice