Practice: Getting Your 4-Year Old to Practice

How do you get your 4-year old to practice? Are they supposed to initiate practice every day? If they don't, does that mean they don't like the violin and that you are being a pushy parent?

Four-year olds don't practice on their own. Most of the time (99 times out of a 100) they are not going to volunteer to practice. Of course, there are exceptions, but the task of getting a young child to practice really depends on the adults in the house. If it is an instrument like piano they might go practice on their own because it is right there, easier, and doesn’t involve taking it out of the case. 

There are a few principles to understand for the parent that will make this process so much easier. First, the parent has to be committed to making some space in their life for the violin. A commitment of 6 months to a year is necessary before being able to decide if the violin is working out at all. It's not a great life example for your child to start an activity and give it up after a couple of months if you haven't given it a fair trial. 

Practice is important. Practice creates success. It's human psychology to like what we are good at, or to feel happy about something by getting better at it bit by bit. You don't get good at anything without practice, so practice is also a path for fostering an appreciation and love for music. Thus as a parent the most important thing you can do for your child musically is incorporating practice into your days and going to lessons consistently. This links back to the principle mentioned above, of the parent making space in their lives. Children do best with routines, so picking a consistent practice time each day works best for most people. Examples of times that work well are after school, after snack, before dinner, after dinner, before school, during a sibling's nap, etc. 

The other important element is one of attitude. In order to cultivate a genuine love of music and work ethic, it is best to have a non-judgmental attitude about practicing. Bribing your child will not work in the long run. It is not necessary to overtly praise everything they do - it is good to praise their efforts and focus instead. Children get the reward from their own learning and improvement that happens slowly.

As for the amount of practice, it is most efficient to do a little every day of the week, or at least 5 days a week in the beginning. I remember when my son Gabriel started learning the violin at four, it was a lot of fun the first two weeks because everything was ‘new’ and exciting. After that there were some days where we skipped practicing because I thought, "It's ok to not practice every day because he is so young." Personally I was also overwhelmed most of the time from having two toddler sons (Gabriel and Rafael), and thought I deserved a break here and there from doing so much for my children.. However, when we skipped a day, it took two consecutive days of practice to get back to where Gabe was before the skipped day. When we missed two days in a row, it took about four days to get back on track. So Gabe wasn't moving ahead when we skipped practice, and it was frustrating for both of us because he would struggle on the songs that had been easy to play before the skipped days. It was hard for me also as a parent to see him have to 'relearn' a song that way, when I knew Gabe liked to forge ahead. Part of why I 'skipped' Gabe's practice was also to avoid the guilt I felt when I basically ignored Rafi during our practice. I usually put Rafi in front of a short video while Gabe and I did violin, because at 13-months old Rafi couldn't be counted on to look at books or play with his toys for 10 minutes. However, I realized that it was a waste of everybody's energy if Gabe wasn't getting better since it took a lot of organization anyways to practice when we did. We could have quit the violin, but why do that when Gabe enjoyed it and it brought a huge element of beauty to our lives? Violin practice was different from going to the playground, museums, library, having playdates, and playing with Legos. It was magical and required a real focus. So instead of quitting I decided to commit and practice everyday and basically ignore Rafi everyday. After some time, this became our routine and Rafi has turned out fine despite being left alone. I also grew as a parent during this process, learning to accept making decisions that ultimately benefit all. Rafi actually benefited from watching Gabe practice from across the room by hearing and learning the Suzuki songs and he became respectful of Gabe's practice process. What allowed me to make the switch from sometimes procrastinating on Gabe’s practice to being truly committed was experiencing that the pain of avoiding practice was far greater than the short-term pleasure attained by not practicing. It was so clear that Gabe enjoyed violin, and that if his skills lapsed due to non practice, it was not his fault at all but mine. And if he was frustrated because he couldn’t do something right away, it wasn’t because he didn’t like violin. He just wanted to be able to do it, much like riding up a big hill on his bike. So daily practice yields the most efficient results and maximum musical experiences.

Also, it’s helpful to keep in mind that young children process time very differently than adults. When you are four years old, 24 hours is a long time (children look forward to their ‘half-birthdays’ and adults just want to forget how old they are) When you are starting an instrument, you're building muscle memory. It’s good for them to practice often, and it’s not as intense as for them as it may seem to the adults.


One tool that was very helpful for Gabe was a practice chart. It was very simple - I made a calendar of the month, and we put a check on the day after practice. He loved it. When we practiced twice in a day, we put a check and a circle. He got a real sense of accomplishment seeing the checks line up. I started doing this around the third month of violin study. After the fourth month of violin the practice routine had become so integrated into our life and eventually the charts stopped (I got lazy making the calendars).

Rafi’s practice evolved differently than Gabe’s. Rafi often complained about practice the first month- he’s more temperamental and stubborn than Gabe in general. I had to often coax him to do it, and he would pout and talk about how he didn’t want to play violin. He stopped grumbling and testing me after the first month, though, after seeing that I didn’t buy any of it. Also he started to enjoy it a lot after learning more songs. And around the second month, one night I heard him tell his sister, “I’ll play duplos with you after I do violin,”…yes!

Everyone’s experience with practice is different. It takes a bit of time to discover what works best and obviously it is important also to be flexible for other aspects of one’s life. Young children, however, do require a lot of parental involvement in the early stages, and though it may seem like a lot of work to the adult, the child does appreciate the efforts for them even if they are not able to express it so clearly.