How I Trick My Kid Into Practicing

I’ve been writing about principles of intrinsic motivation for a couple years, but now the rubber meets the road. My six-year-old daughter is taking piano lessons and is expected to practice every day.

The other night, I told her it was time to play her piano songs, and her little whiny voice cried out, “But I don’t FEEL like playing piano right now!” (We all know the feeling.) However, thanks to The Sawyer Effect, she was gleefully playing her pieces within in a few minutes.

Musical Monsters

My daughter has been taking group lessons using Michael Stegner‘s Musical Monsters method. This ingenious method integrates reading (with minimal notation), singing, ear training, composition, and dance parties into a fun and fast-paced learning environment. She loves playing with her little buddies, and she adores her teacher Anna Freedman, a stellar pianist and singer-songwriter.

Courtesy of Michael Stegner

Stegner’s method incorporates games and learning activities that reinforce the science of skill development. My daughter’s favorite game is “Island”: the teacher draws a big outline of an island on the whiteboard, and after each repetition of a song or passage, the students tell the teacher which animal to add to the island.

The Sawyer Effect

These games harness the power of The Sawyer Effect—turning work into play. In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom faces the daunting task of painting his aunt’s fence. When his friends come around, Sawyer pretends that painting is a joyous activity. Soon, his friends gleefully take over the task, even offering Sawyer gifts for the privilege of painting.

Earlier this week when my kid didn’t want to practice, I asked her which game she wanted to play. Although she rejected the first few suggestions, she agreed to be the teacher and give me a lesson. I played through her songs, and she stood at the whiteboard drawing animals for a game of Island. When we switched roles, she asked for a Star Wars themed Island. The process took about 45 minutes, but soon she was laughing and having fun, while also working on her piece for the upcoming recital.

Complete Game of Star Wars Island

We also come up with our own games. This morning, she made a robot costume and I programmed her to walk around the house, and then play piano.

Robot costume

In a brilliant parenting moment, I made up a game where I lay on the couch and she tries to make me go to sleep with her songs!

On the surface, some of these games are silly, but there is serious learning happening. We learn through curiosity and play—and aligning skill development with intrinsically rewarding and social experiences lays the foundation for a lifetime of music making. The novelty will eventually wear off, but igniting curiosity and engagement can lead to good practice habits over time. Demanding discipline and compliance can be effective in the short term, but practice becomes a battle, chore, or drudgery. This may explain why 80% of beginning piano students drop out within the first three years of lessons. (See Karen King’s thesis).

But it’s not all fun and games, she struggles and gets frustrated with challenging pieces. We talk about how effort, problem-solving, and repetition of skills helps our brain build new circuitry (growth mindset). She does enjoy seeing improvement over time, and the games make the process more enjoyable. These experiences are transferring into more perseverance in other areas of her life.

I tried these games with a group of middle school students, and they love the “mine turtle” game from Michael Stegner’s teaching manual. When one kid showed up late and asked what we were doing, another replied, “Mine Turtles! It’s how he tricks us into practicing, but it’s really fun!”

And this isn’t just kid stuff. Adults draw on the Tom Sawyer effect all the time. For many of us, going to the gym is a drag, so in order to get exercise, we join a sports league, go skiing, or take a spin class. How do you get your friends to help you move into a new apartment? Supply pizza and drinks and throw a moving party.

Goal-Oriented Play

We can draw upon this skill on a smaller scale, which I call “goal-oriented play.” As an example from my own practice, I turn work into play when playing long tones on saxophone. I often play with a drone and/or drum loop track in a challenging meter. I can work on breath, tone production, dynamics, intonation, rhythm, mindfulness, and improvisation at the same time. The play keeps me engaged in a way that’s aligned with my long-term goals.

Game Symphony Workshop

Play, novelty, and unpredictability are the foundation of my group improvisation workshops. Play dissolves fears and draws our attention into the present tense. Check out the updated Game Symphony Workshop site and video to see musical adaptations of improv theater games in action: