Posted on November 8th 2019
How Much Should My Kid Practice?
Parents of my private students frequently ask, "how often should my kid practice and for how long?" The length and frequency of practice sessions are pieces of a broader strategy to develop a musical practice that is effective, fulfilling, and sticks around for years.
Before we nail down the number of minutes, we need to build a foundation of ignition and micro-habits.
The Homework Problem
One common misstep that well-meaning parents and teachers make is treating practice as homework or a chore. This can give some short term results, but the problem is most of us quit doing homework as soon as external pressure is removed. Have you done any math homework or book reports since graduating?
If we want music to become a lifelong pursuit, we need a different model to make the habits stick. Luckily, self-directed learning fueled by curiosity doesn't feel like homework.
In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle describes ignition is the motivational fuel that sets us on a path of learning and growth. While skill-development is a series of baby-steps, ignition can strike like lightning.
Before committing to a practice routine, it's important to understand why you want to level-up your skills. Ignition sources are personal—some examples are:
- A desire to be part of a specific ensemble
- The social connection and sense of belonging in a music program
- Being captivated by the sound of the instrument
- Inspired by a famed musician (Rapper Lizzo's rise has boosted flute sales)
- Inspired by a peer who excels
- Enjoying the challenge of learning a new instrument
- A desire for personal expression through music
Sources of ignition evolve over time, but if the only motivational fuel is "mom and dad say so," the practice won't stick around.
This doesn't mean practicing is always easy or fun, but tapping into an ignition source helps us push through the hard parts. (Also see my article Igniting Internal Drive.)
James Clear's best-selling book Atomic Habits gives evidence-based strategies for building new habits (and breaking bad ones).
One reason only 8% of us stick with our New Years resolutions is we try to make massive changes all at once, setting ourselves up for failure. James Clear suggests starting with micro-habits and growing them over time. One of his principles is:
You have to start with a version of the habit that is incredibly easy for you. It must be so easy that you can’t say no to doing it and so easy that it is not difficult at all in the beginning.
If you want to start running every day, instead of starting with five miles a day, a micro-habit would be sleeping in your running clothes, getting up early, and standing on your front steps (then you can go back to bed). Once this habit becomes a natural part of your routine, you can add another—after a couple weeks, add a five-minute jog to your routine. Practicing your instrument for 5 minutes daily sets the groundwork for a more robust practice habit. And you will see more lasting results than taking six days off and trying to cram two hours of practice right before a lesson.
James Clear also outlines a technique called habit-stacking, attaching your new habit to an existing daily routine. If you say, I'll practice "when I have time," you may find you all your time has slipped away. Instead, commit to a micro-habit attached to an existing daily habit—walk the dog after breakfast, practice for 15 minutes after brushing your teeth, meditate for one minute after using the bathroom in the morning.
I ask my students to block out time to practice before or after another daily routine, like right after school, before dinner, or as a break from homework.
So How Many Minutes Should My Kid Practice?
Once we have tapped into an ignition source and built a version of the habit that is easy to do every day, we can tailor adjust the length of practicing sessions. When my daughter was four, she practiced piano 5-10 minutes a day. When working with beginning saxophone students, I ask them to shoot for at least 20 minutes a day, 5-6 days a week—and I give them enough material to keep them busy. Music majors or students preparing for auditions may practice multiple hours every day. Once the ignition and micro-habits are in place, the length of the sessions begin to expand on their own.
And our growth is directly related to how we use our practice time. I'm working on a follow-up article about practice strategies that are proven to be both massively effective and intrinsically rewarding. Subscribe to my email newsletter below to get future articles in your inbox.