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The Clarinet Diaries: Who Says ADHD Kids Won’t Practice?

Getting my ADHD child to practice her musical instrument took a passion for the clarinet and a friend.

I just got home from a hair appointment, where my stylist, Julie, told me how much her 6th grader, Madeline, is enjoying being Natalie’s clarinet practice buddy.

“She always comes home with a new Natalie story,” Julie said. I’m not sure I want to know the details — you never know what Natalie might do or say, due to her attention deficit disorder (ADHD).

In our school district, students have to opportunity to start learning a band instrument in 5th grade, and Natalie was determined to play the clarinet. I was heavily involved in band and chorus during my school days, and would love to see Natalie have the same experience.

But in fourth grade Natalie tried joining chorus, and ended up quitting before the year was over. Her deficits in working memory, an executive function deficit that’s nearly universal in kids with ADHD, made it difficult for her to memorize the words to songs. But the biggest problems she had in chorus were social problems. She perceived certain kids as being mean to her.

In the end, her dad and I decided the added pressure wasn’t worth it. This was something we could control, a stressor we could prevent. We allowed her to quit.
So when Natalie begged to play the clarinet, I wanted to support her, but was hesitant. This grand experiment came with a price tag – the cost of renting or buying an instrument, and the ultra-high risk that Natalie would damage it. And how would band practice be different from chorus practice, socially?

Hoping for the best, we purchased a clarinet — and insured it — and signed Natalie up for lessons. So far she loves it — she’s over-the-top excited. She was so worked up at school on Thursdays, band lesson and band rehearsal day, that her special ed teacher arranged for her to have her lesson first thing on Thursday mornings, so that she would have a chance of focusing on school for the rest of the day.

But, at home, even though she was so excited, she wouldn’t practice. During the first several weeks, the only time she practiced was when another girl brought her clarinet over so they could practice together. I don’t think Natalie had a picture in her head of what practicing entailed; I don’t think she knew how to organize herself to practice.

The last time Julie cut my hair we were talking about our kids and how responsible — or otherwise — they are with doing homework. “Madeline comes home after school and does her homework and practices her clarinet every day, without being reminded,” Julie said. Clarinet. Madeline. And idea formed.

I’d read about kids with ADHD benefiting from having study buddies, to help them focus on homework. Could that concept work for practicing an instrument too?

“Do you think Madeline would help Natalie practice clarinet a couple of times a week if I paid her?” I asked. Julie asked her. She called a few days later to say that Madeline would love to help out.

So Madeline comes over 2-3 times a week, and she and Natalie practice together for 30 minutes, and I pay her $5.00. Natalie loves her “Madeline time” and Madeline is an awesome mentor. We have proof that this experiment is working. Natalie’s band instructor emailed after her last lesson to say how well Natalie is progressing.

I would do anything in my power to help my daughter be successful at this new endeavor, despite her ADHD. It’s looking as if with Natalie’s innate tenacity, and help from Madeline, she just may be.

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