Defeating procrastination during practice

Procrastination (what my mother used to call “dawdling”) is almost universal among kids. Here are some ways to prevent it from derailing practice.

If you tried a word association game with my daughter where the she has to complete the sentence: “We need to be more ….” there’s a pretty good chance she would say: “efficient.” The “E word.”

Of course, efficiency isn’t what’s most important about practice. Is she learning the music? Is she learning practice techniques that she can use as she becomes more independent? Are we working together in a way that builds the relationship of parent and child rather than working against it? But, the reality is that life is busy and moves at a pace that is faster than a child’s timetable. As parents, our heads are full of dozens of things that have to be accomplished during the day; and any little diversion can feel like a form of sabotage. When we have conflict in practice, it’s often about how ViolinGirl uses her time.

Some of the things that happen in practice that feel like efficiency-sinks include:

  • Trips to the washroom.
  • Going to the kitchen to fetch water.
  • Random comments that aren’t related to music-making.
  • Creative embellishments of practice games we’re playing.
  • Complaints about the process.

In lieu of becoming frustrated (which at times I’ve also done) I’ve tried to understand what’s behind the procrastination and distractions and tackle those issues.

Physical needs

Trips to get water are a common distraction during practice. We can solve this by making sure we have a reusable water bottle nearby in the practice room. Washroom breaks are mostly unavoidable; but if she can go before practice, that’s best.

Standing during practice encourages the best posture; but practice sessions can go on long enough that her little legs get tired. I try to have her stand for most of the practice; but when she gets to the point of fatigue, I’d rather have her sit than breakdown completely.

Finally, we may forget that most children have a certain motor restlessness - “the wiggles.” Confinement can feel uncomfortable to young children. Incorporating some movement games in the practice can help. And just offering to let them put down the instrument and stretch their muscles can help.

Random discussion

I love my daughter’s quirky creativity. She’s filled with ideas both profound and inane. But when it comes to practice time, she doesn’t always choose the best moments to express them. Sometimes they come out during the middle of a passage. This is tricky to deal with. I don’t want to squash her innocent enthusiastic creativity; but I want her to focus. Some strategies for dealing with random talk during practice:

  • First redirect, then ignore. The first time she starts to get off-track, I’ll make good eye contact and listen to the entire story. After she finishes, I’ll say something positive about it and ask her to tell me more about it after practice: “I’m fascinated with what would happen if you crossed a pig with a butterfly. Can you tell me more about that after practice?” The next time, I might be more directive: “Tell me about that when we’ve finished.” After that, I’m just silent then return to talking about what she’s working on in practice.
  • Make practice itself the subject of her creativity. I can have her come up with creative variations of a practice game. That way, she gets to exercise her creative impulses and I get more engagement in practice. Win-win.
  • Make the practice tasks as small as possible. There’s less opportunity for the mind to wander when the practice task is tight and well-defined. It’s an exercise in finding the very smallest bit to practice and focusing the repetitions on that part; then moving onto the next part.

How’s my driving?

The practice parent can also set a good example for efficient practice by being better organized himself.

  • Have a written, well-considered practice plan. The game is easier to play if there’s a planned strategy. ViolinGirl does much better if when we have a written plan for the session. She can check-off items as she completes them, giving a sense of progress. One of the drivers of procrastination is a fear that she’ll never be done. Kids’ sense of time is not the same as ours. An hour can seem like an eternity. I set up our practice plan for each day on a weekly basis. Even just a few minutes’ planning time the night before can help make the practice more efficient.
  • Keep a good pace. The perception of how time passes is elastic. We have a more positive experience of passing time, when there is a sense of forward movement. Use nonverbal cues to decide how much time is enough to work on something then move on. There’s always tomorrow.
  • Don’t talk so much. Avoid long soliloquies. The more I talk, the less my daughter listens. There’s a sweet spot for explanation. Too little presentation leaves makes you sound authoritarian. Too much causes the child to “zone-out.” If a more nuanced explanation is in order, then try to do it in an interactive way. “Can you see what would happen if you saved more bow?”
  • Avoid your own distractions. To the extent possible keep practice time sacrosanct. The FAA has a regulation known as the “sterile cockpit rule” that prohibits flight crews from engaging in conversation about things not related to flight below 10,000 feet. Enforce your own “sterile practice rule.”

Know your limits, and theirs

Sometimes the stalling will get to the point of no return. The key is to recognize that point through trial-and-error. There’s no good that can come of assigning blame for premature closure of the practice session. If something isn’t working and there’s no obvious recovery path, it’s better to just decide to come back later. We divide practice into morning and afternoon sessions in part so that we have the flexibility to do that.

Learning to let go of the temporal aspects of practice and an obsessive need to do everything can make for a less conflicted practice. We have to be careful about getting greedy with children who do well. There’s a temptation to push for ever-increasing levels of performance. Taking a step back and looking at the “big picture” appreciatively can help put efficiency issues in perspective.

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Written by:

Alan is the main practice partner and accompanist for a young violinist.