By Shirie Leng
One thing many parents don’t understand when they choose to start their preschool- or
kindergarten-aged child on an instrument is that the process of learning an instrument is not new to the child. The language is new, the physical motions are new, but the idea of doing something every day with the goal of getting better is familiar. They do this naturally. What’s not familiar is the command to “Practice!”. Kids don’t go to the playground and say to themselves “I’m going to practice my monkey bar skills today so I can become better at the monkey bars.” No, the monkey bars are fun so they do them over and over and, while having fun, inadvertently also get better. Parents don’t generally push their kids to get better at playground equipment right? Why not? The strength and balance required for gripping the bars, the understanding of the push and pull that make the swing go higher, the experience of centripetal force on the spinner are all pretty important in becoming a healthy, strong human being. We don’t push kids on the playground because we don’t need to. The motivation is already there.
And yet the first thing we tell kids when they learn an instrument is that they have to practice if they want to get better. This is actually an alien concept. Children from birth have the general internal motivation to master their environment, but they don’t do it by setting out a certain amount of time every day and calling it “practice”. A parent doesn’t say to a child “you’d better practice the monkey bars for 15 minutes every day” when the child falls off the monkey bars. The parent just picks the child up and says “try again, you’ll get it.” Believe me, if the kid wants to learn this skill, he’ll repeat it until his hands bleed, no exhortations to practice needed. This is intrinsic motivation that comes from having fun, mastering the environment, and being able to do it by himself.
Research suggests that intrinsic motivation requires at least two things: the ability to achieve competence and the feeling of autonomy. (Carlton and Winsler, Early Childhood Education Journal, 1998) In general, for a little kid, competence means being able to do it by him/her self. This ability, once gained, is a deep source of satisfaction to the child. The quality of the result, as adults would define it, means much less at first. First the child has to want to gain the skill. A kid won’t master the monkey bars if he hates monkey bars. Parents wanting their children to learn instruments because it is educationally valuable or because all the other kids are doing it or to get them into good colleges will not get far without serious and punitive extrinsic motivators. Once interest is established, the emphasis should be on presenting the skill and then stepping back and letting the child figure it out in his or her own time. Not on the schedule that is convenient for the parent, not bound by time limits or schedules. Success is defined by the child who, above all, wants to be able to do it himself.
If you want your young child to “practice” you can bet asking him to “show me what you can do!” will work much better than telling him to “go practice so you can get better.”
Shirie Leng graduated from The Manhattan School of Music in 1991 with a degree in violin performance. She studied there with Ani Kavafian. She also has a master’s degree in nursing from Yale, an MD from the University of Connecticut, and was a practicing anesthesiologist until 2011. She writes a medical policy blog: firstname.lastname@example.org and is the author of the book The Choice: Medicine vs. Nursing: Which field is right for you?
Always an avid musician, Shirie is active in the amateur chamber music community in Boston and plays principal second violin for the Longwood Symphony Orchestra. She studies with Peter Zazofsky at Boston University. She lives in Newton with her husband and three daughters.