How to Nurture a Love For Daily Practice

Emily Ann Peterson

Feb 14, 2017

After teaching music lessons to both adults and kids for more than a decade, I know a thing or two about what works and what doesn’t work to perfect your students’ practice regime.

One thing to mention is that I’m a fully trained and certified Suzuki Cello instructor, so this post is supremely influenced by the admiration I have for my fellow Suzuki teachers, parents, and mentors, including Dr. Suzuki himself.

The following quote pretty much sums up my #1 best practice advice for fellow teachers, students, and parents of students…

“First character, then ability.” — Dr. Suzuki

This quote is played out in the lessons that I teach by first considering the student’s character when “practice problems” arise. So, when a student shows signs of a lack of quality practice, I go first to their holistic story. I ask myself the following questions:

From those answers, the student and I (and sometimes the parent too) will determine the next steps to take. Usually, those steps involve some variation on the following three steps inspired by articles found in the American Suzuki Journal written by Suzuki parents: Rita Docter, James and Jacqueline Maurer, and Keitha Herron.…

Three Steps Towards Motivating Practice

1. Set a reasonable goal for daily practice

Learning an instrument is a lifestyle change, not just a hobby. Set your goals accordingly. For example, for the goal of running a marathon, you should start by trying to run a mile every day for 15 days straight.

Donʼt get stuck on progress plateaus. Some students see no improvement with 30 minutes of daily practice, but when they bump up their daily practice time to 45 minutes, they see a hint of progress. For this student I would suggest 30 minutes a day at least, ideally 60 minutes a day.

Don’t bite off more than you or your lifestyle can chew. If you’re trying to practice more every day, just add 10 minutes/week. I have found that adding 10 minutes to your daily practice time is a really manageable weekly goal. Related: If you have a recital or performance coming up, schedule your practice sessions to prove your own success.

Schedules are a fact of life. So are busy days. I wouldn’t want a student to beat themselves up for not practising as much as they wanted. But I do want my students to prepare themselves for those days.

Keep your practice time sacred. Schedule longer practice sessions on other days.

2. Set up a routine or plan

As my dad (who’s an army helicopter pilot) always told me: “Plan your flight and fly your plan.” Heʼd apply that phrase to everything. It definitely applies to practising, and I speak from experience.

Sit down and plan your practice sessions. Make a plan each week for your daily practice sessions — this is done within each lesson with my own students. I find that making a weekly objective is really helpful to keep your practice in focus.

Hereʼs an example for a basic practice plan I use with my own students… (Change it up to match your own goals and schedule.)

3. Celebrate and use rewards

I can only imagine how discouraging practice could be if this step didnʼt exist.

  1. Decide what the reward shall be. Something you like. Duh! (If youʼre a parent, something you like doesnʼt count.) Snacking treats, a token system (marbles in a jar, stickers, points, stars) to be awarded for small practice units and saved for larger rewards or exchanged for smaller rewards.
  2. The reward must be given frequently and in small amounts. It must be easy to earn many rewards during a practice session.
  3. The reward must be given immediately after the desired behavior. Some students won’t be able to save up rewards for a HUGE prize in six months. Most of them need immediate payoffs during/after a practice session. A practice jar or a “do it. done it.” jar is a good thing to have on hand.
  4. The reward must not be available away from the practice sessions. If you can receive the reward by doing something else, you risk creating a motivation to not practice.
  5. Be consistent. A reward system that is sometimes administered and sometimes forgotten will only confuse the parties involved.

A warning for parents and teachers: Donʼt use praise or love as a practice reward. Children look anxiously at their parent or teacher after playing, with an expression that clearly asks, “Was I good?” …not mind you, “Was my playing good?” but rather “Was I good?”

We want children to know their value as a human being, their lovableness and their self-worth does not depend on how well they play “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.” If you reward your child with love when he does well, you are telling him, by implication, that you will not love him if he does poorly. Of course, we donʼt mean to say this, but that is often how the child sees it.

On the other hand, it’s important a student knows when they played well and when they played poorly. It’s OK to be honest. Constant feedback should be given — but in a neutral tone of voice, not overly positive or negative, simple statements of fact and points of information. Criticism and praise should be given frequently, specific, not generalized, and aimed at the childʼs playing, not at the child themself.

If you’ve got anything out of this post or want to add anything, please leave a comment below! I’d love to hear all about it!

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I interviewed Erin Pearson, fellow music teacher and author of the book “10 Reasons Your Kids Don’t Practice Their Music: And What Parents Can Do About It” on my podcast, Bare Naked Bravery. She and I discussed all sorts of awesome stuff like “Ditch Day,” keeping resolutions, and most relevant to this article, how to do the things we don’t want to do.

Listen to that interview with Erin Pearson here.

Emily Ann Peterson is a teaching artist who spent 17 years with her cello. It was her second voice until she was diagnosed with a degenerative neurological hand tremor. Refusing to resign to fate and genetics, she expanded her skills to include the piano and solo songwriting. This act of neurological defiance broke through her creative glass ceiling and then swept her up in the expansive limits.

Her podcast, Bare Naked Bravery, features conversations with everyday heroes about the quiet successes and loud failures required to do the brave things for which we know and love them.

Peterson’s mission is inspire a global resonance and magnanimous community through the marriage of art and whole-person development.

Her music is available everywhere and at

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