Getting young students to put in the needed hours of practice to achieve skill in musicianship can be challenging for parents and teachers in the best of times. During a period of social crisis and upheaval of familiar routines, the task becomes even more daunting. With social distancing, quarantines, and society-wide lockdowns becoming a feature of life during the coronavirus pandemic, kids may be learning virtually, with a family member’s guidance, or even on their own.
Regardless of the situation, experts in music teaching and human psychology have a few tips that can prove helpful in both normal and abnormal circumstances.
1. Provide the comfort of a routine
A sudden lack of routine is confusing for children, particularly when coupled with a natural fear of the unknown. Parents need to provide as much of a sense of structure and normalcy as possible, pediatric psychologists say, as a routine tends to foster a greater sense of stability and security. It also helps in keeping frustration and boredom at bay.
Experts recommend setting up a daily schedule that works for everyone in the household and sticking to it (to the extent that any of us can at present). Although it may be tempting to let kids oversleep when school is out, it’s better in the long run to boost their ability to focus and stay on task with a regular bedtime and wake-up time. Parents should also strive to work in scheduled meals, homework time, playtime, and of course, music practice time.
2. Respect a child’s agency
Other tips from the time before social distancing remain good advice, particularly this one: Give your child a sense of agency and control over his or her music practice.
Let kids help decide on the right number of practice hours at this time, as well as when practice needs to take place. Nagging and punishment—especially when everyone is under stress—is seldom if ever effective in encouraging attentive practice, and it can discourage a child’s engagement with music lessons.
You can help provide perspective by helping kids research how successful musicians of the past and present have kept up their practice schedules. It also helps to offer a special reward when your child sticks to a self-regulated schedule.
3. Foster respect for the gift
Spur inspiration by showing children the musical gift they possess. Help them understand that nurturing that gift is both an obligation and a privilege that relatively few people enjoy.
Great teachers in all fields of music do everything they can to instill in their students the idea that music is a gift that needs to be shared and that they owe it to themselves and others to allow that gift to blossom through diligence and determination.
If you’ve had your own struggles with staying focused and on task, share those with your child, and try to be honest about addressing regrets for less-than-diligent efforts as well as examples of achievement.
4. Build in healthy physical breaks
While you may not be able to maintain a picture-perfect lifestyle right now, remember that there are plenty of things you can do to help kids burn off excess energy and stay physically active.
In most communities under lockdown, healthy outdoor exercise is allowed and encouraged, provided it does not involve contact sports or violate safe social distancing requirements.
Unless someone at home is ill, it should be safe to take walks, runs, and bike rides. Additionally, this physical activity will set kids up to be more focused when it comes time for settling down to indoor music practice. Another option: Bust out some lively music at home and let kids dance all over.
5. Break for screen time—and music
While many families put strict limits on children’s screen time, experts say it won’t hurt—and may provide additional distraction and comfort—to relax those limits in the present crisis. In allowing for more screen time, try to suggest some fun and educational websites that offer opportunities for music appreciation.
YouTube can be a minefield of inappropriate content, but several enriching and deeply moving musical performances are widely available on the platform. These include thoughtfully produced, socially distanced performances by renowned individuals and ensembles. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, for example, offers a #SongsOfComfort series in which he plays Antonín Dvořák’s “Going Home” theme and other masterpieces especially suited to our present moment.
Another example of inspiring and socially distanced masterworks includes the Metropolitan Opera’s At-Home Gala performance of “Va, pensiero,” the poignant anthem sung by the Hebrew slaves in Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco. The Met’s April 25 broadcast of this and other performances also shows the inspiring level of technical creativity human musicians and conductors can achieve when circumstances call it forward. Each musician’s and singer’s performance was recorded individually and united on one soundtrack and screen, anchored by conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin in his living room.
The Met’s other At-Home Gala performances include Jules Massenet’s "Méditation" from the opera Thaïs, the Intermezzo from Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, and the aria “Ombra mai fù” from Serse by George Frideric Handel. This last performance is particularly meaningful since it was a tribute to Met violist and youth orchestra conductor Vincent Lionti, who died of complications from the coronavirus on April 4.
6. Go easy on kids—and yourself
Finally, experts in all fields of family psychology advise being gentle and compassionate toward yourself and your child. Every day is a new day, and if your carefully planned routines are only aspirational on certain days, it’s to be expected sometimes.
Adults have lost a lot of social anchors themselves, and the more love and understanding families can show one another in time of crisis, the more it will strengthen relationships—as well as everyone’s ability to achieve as musicians and as human beings—now and long after social distancing has served its needed purpose.