Practice Anxiety

I just got back from a very Chopin-centered practice session in the Sanctuary, and remembered that I'd written some thoughts on "practice anxiety" several days ago. I keep forgetting to actually post it to the blog, so I'll do that now.

A mom named Stephanie made an interesting comment in my "Great Piano-Practicing Pact" post of last week. She writes
This whole idea of yours touches a raw nerve with me... my son has just started taking piano lessons, and I find that I'm having a hard time even suggesting to him that he practice. He's not resistant - I am! It's from years (and years) of being forced to practice, myself. Am I weird on this? I feel, in this particular instance, like a very bad mother."
What do y'all think?

I don't know if Stephanie is weird or not. I don't have kids. But, like Stephanie and many others, I was also "forced" to practice at times as a kid. Blah.

So, here are some random thoughts for Stephanie on practice anxiety.

If you force your kid to practice and cause him to associate the piano with a sense of helplessness, resentfulness, or dread, then yes, I would say that you probably aren't going to win Mother of the Year. However, forcing someone to practice isn't the same thing as suggesting that they practice, or encouraging that they practice, or sharing your love of playing music with them.

If your kid seems uninterested in practicing and you don't want to nag, you can always institute a rewards system, e.g., if you practice five days this week, we'll go out for ice cream on Saturday. Or, if you practice five days a week this month, we'll go to the amusement park. (Be sure not to make the reward something like, "I'll buy you a computer game," which might threaten his time with the piano!). You can also work with the piano teacher, who may already have a reward system of her (his?) own--stickers, certificates, etc. Some kids are motivated by the reward of participating in piano festivals and competitions (I wasn't one of them, though).

As your son gets older and learns to play better, he may start to appreciate the more intrinsic rewards of practicing: "Oh, I played that scale perfectly," or "I love the sound of this sonatina when I play it!" It is that kind of thing that will keep him playing into adulthood, particularly if he doesn't pursue a career in music.

As I said, I'm not a mom, so I have no clue. I'm sure some of my other readers will have better, more experience-based advice.

Meanwhile, here's my story (no one asked, but still ...):

I was one of those kids who hated to practice the pieces I was learning in my piano lessons. Oh, I didn't hate the piano. I loved it. I played it all the time. I just refused to play the things I was supposed to be playing. It drove my parents and my piano teacher crazy. I'm sure my piano teacher, poor Mrs. Wood, wanted to throttle me on a number of occasions.

I spent a couple of years of struggling with Mrs. Wood and fighting with my parents. I begged them to let me quit. They wouldn't. I thought it the height of unfairness that they had let my brother and sister quit, but wouldn't let me.

They finally gave up. They finally let me quit. I was fourteen years old.

Two months later, I asked them if I could take lessons again. I think they were relieved. I think they knew it was coming. They said yes. But I went back to a different teacher, one with whom I hadn't burned so many bridges with my bullheadedness and bad attitude. And my attitude improved greatly after that.

For me, issues with practicing tend to be cyclical. You miss a few practices one week, so you don't have such a great lesson. You leave the lesson, discouraged. Discouragement drains motivation, so you end up missiong a few practices the next week, too. So your next lesson is even worse. You're even more discouraged. The less you practice, the more frustrated your parents and teacher get with you. Plus, you're playing like crap because you never practice. Even if your parents force you to practice, your heart isn't in it, and you're not interested anyway, so your practice sessions are less-than-productive. Vicious circle.

You don't want your son to have that experience. So don't give it to him. If he can practice without feeling "forced," then he'll have better lessons. And maybe that will also help motivate him to practice.

Am I totally wrong here? Anyone else have any suggestions for Stephanie?

Meanwhile, here's an interesting article from the Piano Education Page, titled "Motivating Students--Just Whose Job Is It?"


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