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How to Form a Practice Habit | Guest Post

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Based on the four laws of habit creation from James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits

Guest Post by Janna Williamson, NCTM


If you’re reading this article, you must be interested in supporting your child in his or her music study. It’s pretty obvious that there are two very practical ways you can do this - first, get your child to all of his lessons, and second, make sure he practices enough to make progress between lessons.


Some parents hold hope that their child will enjoy their music study enough to practice at their own volition on a regular basis. I’m sorry to say that unfortunately, this hope is regularly dashed! No matter how much a student loves playing an instrument, practicing is work. Following through on a practice commitment takes discipline, self-control, grit, and executive function that most children and teenagers do not yet possess.


It’s my opinion, after over twenty years of teaching, that the best way to ensure good practice is to create a practice habit. Just as you would expect your child to habitually brush his teeth at certain times of day or unpack his lunchbox upon arrival home from school, expecting your child to practice his instrument at set times of day teaches discipline and creates great results in musical ability. Students whose families help them build a practice habit are historically my highest achieving students, and the ones who stick with music study the longest. Parents of habitual practicers receive the most return on investment for the time and money they spend on music lessons.


On his website, James Clear claims that his book, Atomic Habits, is “an easy and proven way to build good habits & break bad ones.” I can vouch for the fact that his system works in my own experience as an entrepreneur and mother. I’ve recently been sharing this system with my piano studio families, and the clarity and practicality of it has been well-received. I hope that it helps you!


Clear’s four laws of habit creation are as follows:

1. Make it obvious,

2. Make it attractive,

3. Make it easy, and

4. Make it satisfying.


I believe that numbers 3 and 4 are the responsibility of the teacher.


Teachers can help make students’ practice easy by sending home assignments that are easily understood and completed. If your child is regularly confused as to what to do in his practice sessions, I would suggest contacting your teacher.


Teachers can make practice satisfying by assigning highly appealing pieces for at least a portion of each assignment. If your child regularly expresses that he does not “like” the music assigned, again, communicate with your teacher. However, I do have one suggestion on the home end of this: students who struggle to start their practice routine can experiment with the order of tasks, such as beginning with their easiest or most satisfying task as a warmup. Alternatively, they can save their favorite piece for the end of the practice session, like dessert after dinner.


That leaves laws 1 and 2 up to the student and parent to do their part in establishing a good practice habit. Here are my suggestions for these two laws:


1. Make practice obvious.

  • Create an environment that makes piano practice easy to start:

    • The instrument is easily accessible without much setup (pianos should be in the center of homes and free of clutter)

    • Books are easily accessible on a nearby shelf or drawer

    • Metronome, pencils, and other supplies stay in the practice area at all times

    • The room where the practicing occurs is distraction-free during practice times

  • Set a time of day that practice will happen. This is most easily done when stacked with another regular activity, such as:

    • Immediately after school (or after the after-school snack!)

    • After dinner

    • Before school, after brushing teeth and getting dressed

    • After another subject of study for homeschool students (ex: practice piano after completing math) or after another subject of homework for traditional school students (ex: practice piano immediately after math homework)


2. Make practice attractive.

  • Use a reward for completing practice at the set scheduled time.

    • For students who simply need to build the habit of starting practice, begin by rewarding just the act of getting started on the instrument, and later move up to rewarding thorough, thoughtful practice.

    • For students who need to build a long-term consistent habit, consider a reward for a full week of practice (at least five times at scheduled time) or multiple weeks of full practice in a row.

    • For students who bring a lot of “emotion” to their practice time, consider a reward for practice sessions free of complaining or other negative behavior.


Some parents have asked, “What would be a good reward?” This is a question that each family will need to ask themselves. Some families use candy while other families do not wish to tie food to behavior. Some families are ok with using screen time as a reward while others wish to limit screens as much as possible. The important thing is to find a reward that is motivating to the individual child, and then follow through on that and use it as an immediate follow-up to an action that helps build the habit.


I wish you all the best in helping your child regularly practice! While setting the habit of practice might require some extrinsic motivation, habitual practice leads to progress, progress leads to achievement, and achievement leads to intrinsic motivation.


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Pianist Janna Williamson runs an independent studio in the suburbs of Chicago where she teaches pre-college students of all levels. She coaches teachers through her YouTube channel, consultation service, and online courses. Janna holds bachelors and masters degrees in piano performance and is an MTNA Nationally Certified Teacher of Music. www.jannawilliamson.com







Link to the book Atomic Habits: https://amzn.to/3UInhcH


Link to James Clear’s website: https://jamesclear.com/


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