One of the questions we like to ask new students and their families when they embark on music lessons is:
“Why do you want your child to learn music?”
On top of its inherent standalone value, music education boasts a long list of other benefits such as strengthening study habits, brain development, enhancing creativity and language skills.
One common response that teachers often hear from new students is “Our goal is that we just want them to have fun!”
This is a wonderful goal that stems from a beautiful place of intention – of course we want joy and fun for our students! But it also raises an important talking point, which is that if we want to fully reap the rewards of learning a musical instrument, are you setting yourself up for success if our top priority is to “keep it fun.”
Let me explain. After a lifetime of studying music and decades of teaching it, I have seen first hand that there is great JOY that comes from learning and making music. I have had more FUN experiences than I can count, and I am forever grateful that it’s something my parents made sure I learned.
But hindsight is 20/20, and if you asked me when I was studying as a young student, you would likely hear very different responses depending on the day. Of course there were days that lessons and practices were lots of fun, but there were also many days of boredom, frustration and an overall wanting to give up so that I would not have to practice. ALL of these feelings and experiences are natural and integral parts of the process.
Learning an instrument will sometimes be FUN, but it’s important to know that the type of work and patience needed to build this intricate and multi-faceted skill may often not be. Depending on the season, it may be a slow and arduous process and it often takes years of patience to reach proficiency. It calls on the student to perform countless repetitions in numerous ways, and to reinforce physical skills, while challenging all levels of mental focus. Students learn to stretch outside of their comfort zone to try new things in lessons, then test their skills again as they perform in front of others. These experiences certainly bring great joy but I wouldn’t necessarily describe them as ‘FUN’ as you experience them.
And that’s okay.
To be clear, I am NOT saying that you shouldn’t expect to have fun in lessons. What I’m saying is that when beginning lessons it is important to know that there will be periods of joy and fun, but also challenges, boredom and frustration. Similar to any other area of education but also magnified due to the many intricacies of what needs to be learned, combined with the solitary nature of the learning.
Private lessons allow for many adaptations to lesson plans to help each student feel encouraged, but here are 5 Signs that your need to keep things ‘FUN’ may actually be taking the long-term JOY out of the learning process
1) You view your music lessons as entertainment instead of education
Music certainly is a form of entertainment, but the process of learning it can feel quite different. It requires intricate skills to be built, knowledge to be cultivated, and a great deal of immersion and repetition. Consider the fact that learning to play a musical instrument is most similar to learning a language.
If your child were learning a second language, would you expect every aspect of their school work to be fun and entertaining? Or in that same vein, if they were struggling one day would you consider that there is something wrong in the process? They will surely have activities and exercises that they will like more than others, but when challenged we know it is par for course and offer them support. When we think of the process as educational as opposed to something that is supposed to be ‘entertaining’ it allows us to see the big picture to know that they will work through it.
2) You switch from pieces when they get challenging
Feeling frustration is a natural and healthy part of the learning process, in fact most recent studies have taught us that it is a necessary part of deep learning! It almost always happens just as we are about to push through to a new level of learning and accomplishments and so we can consider this a good sign. If you find yourself dodging pieces as they start to feel challenging or when you feel frustrated and opting to move to something more ‘fun’ to play, you may be missing a great opportunity to dig deep. Beautiful things happen outside of your comfort zone!
3) You expect to eventually ‘feel like’ practicing or need prizes and gifts to practice
Motivation is a wonderful feeling when it comes to you, but it is just that – a feeling! Feelings and emotions come and go so it can be risky to rely on these to help us reach our goals. It is normal to not ‘feel like’ practicing on, so be aware that you may not always feel like you ‘want it’.
It is important for young students to learn to rely on building strong habits with support from their families instead of allowing their emotions to dictate whether or not they will reach their goals. Practice identifying challenges and begin to celebrate every ‘small’ accomplishment to help stir intrinsic motivation. This challenge may feel uncomfortable while working through it, but the feeling of working hard towards your accomplishments will be far more gratifying than any external gift or prize could be.
4) A young child is given the responsibility to determine the direction of lessons
Obviously as parents and teachers it is important to observe and be attentive to the needs of young students, but remember that what a young child express their wants over their needs. Repeatedly asking the child if they would like to continue learning in formal music lessons is similar to if you asked that same child repeatedly if they would like to go to school, learn math, or reading and writing. By asking for validation and asking young children if they are enjoying themselves at all times in the process may leave them terribly confused when they inevitably have periods when they are feeling challenged.
5) Comparing the experience of an hour of sports practice to the feeling of instrument practice.
Children participate in many tedious tasks as part of a sports team whether they enjoy them or not, but this will feel quite different than the repetition of instrument practice because they have the physical movement and group momentum. Music practice will involve much mental activity, but will be a solitary activity. Don’t compare. Each set of activities that develop our children and students offer unique benefits, challenges and rewards.
So, how can we shift the mindset?
So, I’m not here saying that lessons are meant to be slow and painful torture, and just ‘eat your vegetables because it’s good for you’ but if your top priority is always to “make lessons fun” you are missing out on so many deeper layers of what can bring longevity and long-term JOY through your perseverance.
If you are feeling like you’re in a rut with home practice or enjoyment, here are some tips that can help:
1) Schedule your practice sessions
It may seem counterintuitive for this to be number one on the list, but I promise this is no mistake. Often we meet families who want to ‘keep lessons fun’ so they think it will be best to not push practice, but this actually has the opposite effect! The majority of the time, sudents who are sinking with feelings of motivation or enjoyment are not practicing regularly.
Learning an instrument is all about learning delayed gratification, which means that it will become more enjoyable the more you build your skills. No one feels good being unprepared and lack of consistent practice can create an inaccurate inner belief that they aren’t capable. Added support and structure may be needed at home to make sure that consistent practice happens each day. Do shorter sessions if necessary, but do them each day consistently. You may be surprised at how quickly enjoyment increases when practicing happens every day.
2) Gamify your lessons and practice – how can they be fun
Don’t avoid feelings of being challenged or frustrated, instead see it as the opportunity to cultivate a growth mindset that will serve you in all areas of life. Make the challenge the fun and gamify your practice sessions.
Gamify (turn it into a game): Need to play that scale passage fluently? No problem! Doesn’t mean that your drills and repetition have to be no fun. Gamify the repetition using anything such as a Jar and marbles. Each time you play a passage with the finger posture you want, then 10 times to ‘win’ the practice.
Or try it with dominos (each good attempt means a domino in a row, once you get to 20 you can knock them all down) board games, pencils in a box, YOU NAME IT. You are only limited by your imagination and ANYTHING can become a game if you want it to. Remember that the joy comes from the process.
3) Work with an engaging teacher that suits your personality
There is lots of work to do in lessons, so it sure does help to have a warm and engaging personality to work with. Being in an environment of constant support will be key to setting students up for success and feeling safe to work through inner and outer challenges. Your teacher should be positive and engaging while also keeping you accountable to get the work done that they KNOW you need to do in order to really bring joy through your playing.
4) Identify what may not be fun?
It is rare to find a student who has just played a piece beautifully and successfully who isn’t enjoying it. So when a child or student ‘isn’t having fun’, try not to hear it as a blanket statement, but rather as communication of how they are feeling in the moment and try to help identify and offer support around what they may be struggling with.
- Are they overwhelmed with a new challenge or piece they are working on?
- Do they have a home practice schedule in place so that they feel prepared and confident each week at their lesson? Do they have support in executing their practice schedule?
- Is there a performance looming that they may be nervous or in flight mode for?
- Have they been stuck on the same piece or section so feel like they can’t move forward?
Humans are musical beings, I believe that all people enjoy music when given the right environment to do so. Delayed gratification is associated with success in life. Cultivating a growth mindset that welcomes challenges working towards goals is one of the greatest benefits our children and students can learn through their lessons, and by digging deep through the process instead of aiming to play in the fun icing on the top, our young students have an opportunity for a immense growth while also learning a great deal about themselves.
True joy and FUN will come when the students are able to attach to the process, and they can feel genuine reward for their work and as they learn the musical language.