Finding Joy in Music This Summer

It’s nearly summer – beach days lie ahead, time spent with family – images of warm, star-filled nights and camp fires fill our head. A public school teacher friend I knew once called the summer a “long weekend” – The end of June is Friday night, July is Saturday and August is Sunday!

How to make the most of my summer is always the question I ask myself at the onset.  As parents we want to make the most of summer for our kids. We want that time to make family memories. Maybe we want to exercise or improve our health. We also want our kids to thrive, feel motivation while out of school  and to pursue creative interests. As parents of music students that means we want them to practice. Not only that but we have this hope that they will become somehow self-motivated to pick up their instrument and play it spontaneously over the summer. Before we know it, the long weekend of summer is coming to an end,  It’s August and we feel an inevitable bit disappointed over unrealized goals.

How can we motivate our children to practice over the summer? I’m left tonight thinking about how motivation works. I pretty much never am motivated to wash a sink full of dirty dishes. I do it anyway because it is a duty that must be done. Sometimes I leave the sink full in hopes someone else will take notice and pick up the task. Admittedly there is the some nagging and negativity towards a sink full of dirty dishes in my house. Are you familiar with that?

I think sometimes as parents we are guilty of treating our child’s music study like a sink full of dirty dishes – like drudgery! It’s someone’s job to get practice going. We nag our children and unpacking that instrument is almost as difficult as approaching that icky drain catcher thing where all the bits of food get caught.

So how to get our children to practice without nagging and negativity?  Some parents are tempted to just not bother with the practice struggle over the summer. After all we all need a vacation. But consistency is important. If you’re going to be successful playing a musical instrument, you’ve got to practice! It’s got to be part of the routine. Here’s the thing, maybe as parents we are asking ourselves some of the wrong questions about practice. The common question goes something like, “What is wrong with my child that they don’t want to practice on their own?” It’s as if we think there is just this inner spark that our children are supposed to have that spontaneously ignites making them want to run to their instrument, crack open their case or pull up their piano bench and dive into music. In all my years of teaching I can’t count on one hand the number of students who seemed to have such passion for practice.

As teachers we tend to emphasize the sheer power of creating a practice habit. Our answer to the parent’s question of “Why does my child not want to practice?” is to simply create a very consistent routine of practice. I think this answer is in some ways correct – sewing the habit of music practice in our children’s lives is a powerfully positive ways to impact their musical development and beyond.  But simply enforcing the habit of practice is only one piece of the answer. Why? Because playing music is not like doing dishes!

We need to remember that music is the great container of emotion – joy, sadness, love, even melancholy or anger. Music is not like doing dishes at all. Music finds its way into the inner workings of our soul – we know this! There are countless Instagram and Facebook graphics and quotes about how music stirs us on a deeper emotional level. It’s no big secret. To deny this integral aspect of music is to relegate it to a mere task.  We owe it to our children to recall why we wanted them to learn to play an instrument. If you ask most parents starting out why they are embarking on music lessons with their children they will say something along the lines of “because I want my child to find joy in playing music!”

Perhaps the next time you are tempted to say in the same, somewhat tired voice “did you practice violin yet today?” or “It’s time to practice piano,” you might ask a different question.  Seek to draw out of your child their emotional connection to their instrument.  Ask what is their favorite thing that they’re working on in their lesson.  Ask them about their hopes (or even gently and honestly ask about their frustrations). Talk about challenges as milestones. Evoke the powerful emotional connection that music hold in each of us. Find ways to nurture that. This is why it’s so important for students to attend concerts and play in concerts! These are powerful emotional experiences that music holds us within. These experiences are the fire that turns music study from drudgery into a habit that fulfills us and emotionally grounds us.  Connect to your child through music whenever you can, whether by singing together, listening to music together or just by being their best audience member when it’s time to clap your hands!

I challenge parents this summer to find ways to ignite the spark in their child for music. I don’t think I was all that great with consistent summer practice as a kid. My parents always continued my lessons through summer, but I undoubtedly spent more time poolside, riding bikes and on family vacations than I did practicing during the summer months. Yet one of my favorite memories of playing violin as a child was one summer when I brought my violin camping with us. I vaguely remember occasionally practicing in our little camper during our family vacations at our favorite Rhode Island campground. What I do very clearly remember is playing by our campfire on one particular occasion. A small crowd of people gathered around our campsite as I played and it turned into an unexpected little public concert of my review songs.  I felt nervous, exhilarated and proud. It was a moment of music under the stars, with the warm glow of the fire on my face. It was one of those moments that musical experience held a group of strangers together – I felt it. It was the farthest thing from doing the dishes or any other similar task! I thank for my parents for cultivating that moment. No doubt it carried me forward in my desire to pursue music.  It didn’t rely on habit. It likely happened because one of my parents invited me to get out my violin and play for no other reason than the shared enjoyment of music around the fire. It had nothing to do with correct bowings, accurate repetitions or curved pinkies (though surely my prior work on all that technique stuff helped!). At that moment it was just about finding joy in music!

I encourage you all – whether your child practices every day this summer, or only practices a handful of times – please seek ways to share the joy of music with them. That joy can do so much to carry your child forward in their musical study!

Wishing all families a summer of joyful shared moments, musical and otherwise!