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Motivate Kids to Practice Hard

Source: Singapore Piano Shop & Music Book Online Shop   Published: 7/8/2019 9:20:45 PM   Clicked: 1407

I’m a concert pianist, both solo and collaborative; I’ve been a teacher at the college level, and I regularly coach and accompany students from about 5th grade level on up through emerging professionals.

According to a recent survey by the Society of Human Resource Management, 97 percent of employers say that reliability is a very or extremely important qualification for an entry-level job; it’s at the top of nearly everyone’s list. How do parents help their kids learn to be reliable—people whom others can trust to consistently do their best work?
One place to start is to teach kids the importance of practice. Kids practice to reach all kinds of goals—writing their names, dribbling a basketball, playing a song on the guitar. But they aren’t always motivated to practice, and they don’t always practice in the right way.
A highly effective and well-researched technique called deliberate practice allows you to repeatedly work on a mental or physical skill with the aim of getting better in the future. Research suggests that children as young as five can start to understand deliberate practice, and children and adolescents who engage in it make gains in school achievement and motor skills.
By encouraging them to engage in deliberate practice as they get older, we can help our kids achieve their goals.
What is deliberate practice?
According to researcher Lauren Eskreis-Winkler and her colleagues, shallow practice is how most people study—they practice what they already know while they are only partly focused, which is not particularly effective. In contrast, they explain, deliberate practice has four principles:
Working on weaknesses: Rather than doing things that you already do well, deliberate practice focuses on the things that are hard for you. For example, you might replay the part of your trumpet solo with the hard high notes that you’ve been having trouble with, rather than the parts that you know well.
Full concentration: Deliberate practice is difficult when you face distractions that make it hard to stay on task, like noise, social media, or people nearby. Instead of writing an essay with your phone beside you while hanging out with your friends, you might go to a quiet library and tuck your phone in your backpack.
Feedback: Deliberate practice involves finding out what you got right and where you made mistakes by asking a teacher or coach or checking your work. For example, if you made mistakes on your long-division homework, you might review your work again and talk to your teacher about how you can solve those problems correctly in the future.
Repetition until mastery: Deliberate practice requires you to keep working on your weaknesses, stay on task, and get feedback until you master your specific goal.
How to motivate kids toward deliberate practice
How do you motivate kids to engage in deliberate practice, which tends to be more demanding than shallow practice?
In multiple experiments, Eskreis-Winkler and her colleagues studied American middle schoolers between fifth and seventh grade, as well as college undergraduates. They randomly assigned adolescents from multiple schools to two groups: One group learned typical study skills, and the other group learned the difference between shallow practice and deliberate practice using animated videos, prompts for reflection, and short writing activities.
In some of the videos, people shared their experiences with how hard deliberate practice is and some tips on how to handle the challenge:
Expect and be OK with failure: Famous people talked about how failure is a normal part of learning. They described having failed many times before they became successful and framed mistakes as a necessary part of deliberate practice that led them to their achievements.
Tolerate feeling frustrated and confused: A student told his life story, from growing up poor and having trouble learning in elementary school to graduating from MIT. He shared that you make a lot of mistakes as you work on your weaknesses, which can be frustrating and confusing, but it means you’re in the “stretch zone.” Rather than thinking it’s a bad sign and time to give up, this is actually the time to keep going. People can learn to tolerate their frustration more and more with practice.
Question your beliefs about talent: An actor, an athlete, and a musician talked about how practice led them to be successful in their different life goals—and none of them mentioned talent. People mistakenly think that talent is the most important factor because they don’t see all the hours of practice that go into people’s final performances—like an actor taking days to memorize lines, a swimmer waking up at dawn for months to practice the butterfly stroke, or a novelist writing for years to complete a manuscript.

To solidify this lesson, the researchers showed adolescents anonymous quotes from other students that described their practice habits and preferences. For example, one quote said, “I thought the kids who were good at fractions were just smarter than me. But in the past couple of months, I realized that by doing deep practice, I could get just as many fraction problems right as they could. When I work hard and do deep practice on my fractions homework, I come to class being able to answer just as many problems as the other kids.”
Finally, the researchers asked the adolescents to write a short letter to other students who didn’t know about deliberate practice to communicate the significance of what they had learned. (The researchers explain that “one of the most effective ways to persuade a participant of a message is to have the participant advocate the message to others.” Research shows that this “saying-is-believing” effect influences their later memory and impression of the topic.)
The researchers found that these brief lessons motivated adolescents to engage in deliberate practice on math problems and improved their achievement in math, course grades, and GPA after one academic quarter.
If you want your kids to tap into these benefits, tell and show them how much you practice to work on goals, how you experience failure on an everyday basis, and how you tolerate frustration and confusion. Remind your kids about how their favorite soccer players or swimmers work with their coaches to get feedback. Encourage your children to talk to their siblings, cousins, or friends about how they use deliberate practice to prepare for their tap dance performance so that they can reap the benefits of the “saying-is-believing” effect.

Besides helping kids cope with how hard deliberate practice feels in the present, another way to motivate them is to encourage good feelings about their desired future—according to a study on how deliberate practice develops in children.
Melissa Brinums and her colleagues studied 120 Australian four to seven year olds. First, the researchers showed the children three games that they could play: golf, ring toss, or cup-and-ball. Then, they were told that they would later be tested on a target game (say, golf) and could win one sticker each time they scored.
The researchers randomly assigned the children to two groups. Before leaving the room for a few minutes, they told one group, “If you like, you can use this time to prepare for the test.” They told the other group, “If you like, you can use this time to play with any of the games.” When they returned, they asked the children which game they played the most, why, and what they could do to get better at the games.
The researchers measured how much deliberate practice children engaged in based on which game they chose to play first and how long they played the target game. They also used the children’s replies to their questions to gauge their understanding of practice. The kids earned a higher score if they talked about practicing, improving, or being persistent than if they talked about fun or luck or couldn’t answer the questions.
The results? Six and seven year olds both understood deliberate practice and engaged in it without being cued. Five year olds showed some understanding and sometimes deliberately practiced. Four year olds did not understand deliberate practice yet.
“These increases in understanding of and engagement in deliberate practice may be due to age-related improvements in cognitive capacities,” explain Brinums and her colleagues. Episodic foresight—the capacity to imagine the future and act accordingly—begins to develop in the preschool years and improves throughout childhood. Episodic foresight allows us to predict how the future might make us feel. Compared to the younger children, the older children were likely more motivated to practice because they were better able to envision being tested and feeling happy about earning stickers for scoring in the game.
Although preschoolers may not be able to forecast the future yet, parents can encourage their school-age kids—who aren’t eager to practice piano, for example—to imagine how being well-prepared will make them feel during an upcoming recital.
Ultimately, parents can support kids as they learn to value practice, whether it’s in school, at their first summer job, or within their family and community. Deliberate practice may not guarantee them a gold medal at the Olympics, but it can improve their performance so they do their personal best. And that will help them grow up to be someone others can depend on.

Beyond that I wanted to add something that I believe is helpful beyond what was in the article cited here. Boiled down, the idea,as laid out in Dr. Thomas Parrente’s book, The Positive Pianist, How Flow Can Bring Passion to Practice and Performance, is that we do our very best work, we perform at our peak, when we are in what Csiksentmihalyi described as “Flow”.

I have found this to be true, and students whom I have taught to be aware of when they are flowing report similar positive results.

The relevance to deliberate practice? I have found that flow is attained when practicing when things are neither too hard for too long, nor too easy for too long. So what I do and what I advise my students to do is to structure practice sessions so that they mix things that are easy for them, shallow practice, with things that are difficult, deliberate practice. For many of us this means starting and ending with something easy. It helps us feel good about what we are doing.

Frankly, I didn't notice the emphasis in the article, because I LOVE TO PLAY THE PIANO. Playing it well gives me immense joy. After banging away at Islamey for about a year and having it well enough in hands now to perform it in front of others, I must tell you that thundering through the last pages is... a huge endorphine fueled high for me.

I forgot about people who were forced to play the piano for one reason or another.

That said, it is also my experience that without deliberate practice, the joy of my students in playing is greatly diminished by their inability to express the feelings they have for the music on which they are "working" (and it really is WORK).

The trick, I believe, is in making the work a joy, something that happens in Flow. When we're in Flow, time flies by, we lose our selves in the joy of our work. That is my experience, and why I brought it to this Forum.

For many musicians, it's actually the prospect of being able to play music (including specific pieces) very well that keeps them practicing, rather than the actual enjoyment of practicing. In fact, for many professional musicians, they regard it as 'work' - towards a specific goal.

I'm not a professional musician, but I can certainly think of quite a number of pieces that are in my performing rep which took lots and lots of agonizing practicing and repetitions and 'trying outs' of various strategies (not to mention a lot of time) just to get certain passages fluent so that the end result - playing the piece from beginning to end - is something I can be proud of, and can keep on playing for pleasure (if not profit). Did I enjoy the practicing? Usually not. It's far more fun to play something I've already got 'in my fingers', and can rattle off with little effort and maximum enjoyment. The element of a challenge (and overcoming difficulties) helps to keep my motivation up when practicing, but that in itself is not necessarily enjoyable.

And I'm lucky in that I've had good teachers for ten years when I was a student, and know what it's like to 'perfect' pieces (which I had to do for my exams, of course) as well as merely having fun playing (of which I certainly don't lack in experience ).

But playing the piano for an adult is often merely a hobby to be fitted in around the rest of his life, whereas for a child, it might be something his parents want him to do (and then he might want, of his own volition, to keep up with or surpass his peers - which Benjamin Grosvenor admitted was his main motivation as a kid, and look where it led him......). Kids are used to 'having to do' lots of things which they're told is good for them (school etc), rather than things they themselves find enjoyable (like kicking a ball). When I was a kid, piano was regarded as an education, not dissimilar to learning Shakespeare and calculus. Not as a pastime and certainly not as a showbiz/performance thing.

How to find a balance for an adult student wanting to master what is essentially a pastime (and one which the vast majority of their relatives, let alone friends, won't understand, unless they themselves are musicians) is always tricky. No wonder so many start and stop, and keep repeating the cycle (as we see quite often in ABF). Those who had lessons as kids - even if only for a year or two - have a head start, because they already have experience of how much time and effort it took to make little gains (let's face it: in comparison, it takes a few hours to learn to ride a bike; a few minutes to learn a pop song) and they probably have some fundamentals ingrained in their bones to call upon  - like moving their fingers effectively.

No wonder we see so many here looking for short cuts to quick progress, moving from one YT course to another, reading about effective practice from tens of books with similar titles (and almost always similar messages - after all, it's really not rocket science to tell people to work on their weaknesses, is it?) and having two or more YT teachers' videos on the go.

But the bottom line is - all the pianists who have good technical fluency and musicality have two things in common: they have been well-taught, and they have spent a lot of time practicing.

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