Supporting your child in learning Music

How much things have changed within the last thirty years! Once upon a time (in the olden days!) parents were able to ensure their children followed up the financial investment involved in private music lessons. Not so, now!

These days, children are offered a huge range of after-school activities and they frequently end up over-committed and only doing justice to those activities which don’t require extra time at home practising. It’s a headache for some mothers to juggle work and shunt their offspring about, frequently having to ask to change lessons times because of sports fixtures. Private Music lessons are often seen as the “easier-to-alter” activity.

Hence a pupil phoning me to ask “What time is my piano practice?” gets my answer, “Practice is what you do at home hopefully every day. Do you mean your LESSON?” And that word makes me think of the Gryphon in ALICE IN WONDERLAND remarking “That’s the reason they’re called lessons… because they lessen from day to day.” Indeed lessons do lessen — when the teacher finds herself re-teaching what was introduced a week or two previously! That happens when practice has first lessened or completely disappeared from the family routines.

How can parents optimise their child’s progress, making the most of the regular lessons and any extra opportunities that arise?

First, getting set up for success: Have a good quality instrument. If it’s a piano it should be in good repair and tuned annually, and sited somewhere in the house that is away from noise and activity and is readily accessed.  Find a teacher who performs in public as that’s an incentive for the learner.

Secondly, making the most of the teacher’s advice: Use a notebook at lessons — the teacher may prefer to write instructions and comments and post reward stickers, or the parent may prefer to do so.

You may wish to video lessons as this means the teacher’s demonstrations are recorded (that includes hand shape, posture and technique, not just the sound). Send the learner with an MP3 or phone or something that can be used as a recording device: I find that trouble with counting or getting up to speed can often be remedied in one week, given a model for the student to listen to.

A computer-savvy teacher can use a website or studio facebook page to advantage to encourage students. They can be invited to send a message after each practice, after which an acknowledgement will come from the teacher, and total practice time can be added up for the week and a citation (Best Practiser) made online.

Thirdly, find ways for you, or others, to affirm your child’s progress. I’ve had students who regularly play to grandmother over the telephone, and that brings a good feeling and good feedback. I NEVER go overboard with unearned praise (that doesn’t help if it required no effort on the child’s part!), but I do ask a student who’s been learning for six months if they realise they’ve been learning a new language and can now make sense of what would have been nonsense to them at the beginning of the year — and they’ve learned THIS MUCH (a whole book probably) and are getting smarter all the time because it’s growing their brains as well. Often, they don’t realise what they’ve achieved. If you the parent have never learned to read music, there’s the ideal comparison to make.

Fourthly, encourage your child to see music as a reflection of culture and history. They are going to be learning tunes written maybe 350 years ago, up to the current day. Do they know what life was like, ‘way back 350 years? — how people dressed and travelled, for example?

When a child starts learning an instrument, have in mind a few YEARS of lessons, not just a few terms. Any piano student I’ve had who has also taken up another instrument, has attested to the fact that piano lessons (preferably with written theory component) give a great kick-off into another instrument. Don’t let your child abandon lessons too soon! And if she or she is complaining it’s too hard, ask the teacher to give some lateral extension for a while, or present some solos that are learned by copying and rote repetition rather than relying on the notated music. There may be factors at play, such as a more aural or kinaesthetic Learning Style, black-white ‘blindness’, or maybe there are hormones yet to kick in and until then tasks should be in small increments of difficulty.

I have a supply of ‘audience pleaser’ pieces which are nevertheless very patterned or repetitive or based on easy hand-positions, yet are very jazzy or appealing in some way. Twelve-bar Blues are an excellent example! As a teacher I find these just the thing to assign when a student gets into a rut. So as a parent, ask for this type of thing if your child is threatening to quit, digging in his toes, or struggling to read the notation.

Parents, please don’t go to the trouble of writing letter-names into your child’s music! It wouldn’t in the long run be helpful. A lot of music-reading is done by ‘interval’ rather than name, with a beginner encouraged to think of steps/skips and direction of movement (up/down) rather than finger numbers or letter names at the beginning stage.

Expect your beginner to have at least one or two new pieces each week, since they are short and may only take a week of practice to perfect. Even a student who’s been learning a year or two should be encouraged to have something new added to their list every week, even if it’s a borrowed book at a lower level suitable for sight-reading and self-study purposes. It’s important to be getting new material frequently as this encourages the child to regard print music as LITERATURE — something to be respected and valued. This also gives the student insight into the vast array of musical material — like a library!

I now find it harder to get students participating in community performance activities, and harder still to interest them in attending a concert of any sort. Every year I had a studio recital “Which I called a ‘Piano Party’. This had some themed games, solos, duets with siblings or teacher, group items with percussion supporting a soloist, demonstrations of some ethnic instruments, a ‘guest artist’ each year (from among my students who play other instruments), and a prize for the grandmother who had been to the most Piano Parties or had travelled the furthest. Each performer was given awards for ‘Highest Theory exam mark’, or ‘Most Regular Practice’ etc. — or ‘always arriving with a smile’. We hired a theatre and each had their photo taken at the piano. An enterprising mother made cookies with musical decorations.

I found, from that event, that beginning young to perform publicly meant it never became too frightening — similarly, for those who performed in district or regional junior concerts. I’m sure that parental encouragement to take part is an important factor, and the event can be combined with a visit to Pizza Hut or something else seen as a treat.

Please parents, don’t let your child miss lessons for anything but the strongest reasons. If you must cancel a normal lesson, at least take up any alternative offered. Have a chart at home which records (and maybe also rewards) practices done. Encourage practice every day: concentrating on new or problematic content, rather going through everything once from beginning to end and thinking that is Practice. The student should drill the hard bits, then link them with the better-known bits.

It really does help if parents sometimes sit in on lessons, especially if they can witness and hear what difficulties are occurring. Use the last few minutes of lesson time to discuss what is necessary, but don’t cut into the next student’s time if there’s somebody waiting. Either then, or by telephone, share with the teacher what you know about your child — and don’t be surprised if that teacher is the first to notice something particular about your child (such as short-sightedness or learning idiosyncracy). If you fancy another approach you’ve heard of, or want your child to play what your friend’s child is playing, talk it over with the teacher. If the idea is unsuitable you should be able to expect a reason.

I’m sure that I’m going to think of other aspects, but there are some pointers to begin with! And PLEASE feel free to make comments below.

I have written a Piano Teaching manual called “ONE, TWO, THREE, GO!” in the shape of a PDF file e-book which may be purchased for NZ$20 so you may contact me if you wish a list of chapters or information re ordering.

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7 thoughts on “Supporting your child in learning Music

  1. Good to read this… My daughter loves playing the piano but at the moment has no self-discipline. She says she knows a piece when she doesn’t, which I think is because she actually finds it hard. Her school teachers have also picked up this trait in her, so I’m on a mission now to encourage her to do more and have courage.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope the situation is improving, Helen. She may be dismayed at the effort required to conquer any particularly difficult passage. I try to isolate the very bar which is a stumbling block, and together we put into words what the student must do physically in order to perform it eg. “Here’s a STRETCH followed by a SCRUNCH”. I see if those words can be fitted into the rhythm of the phrase in question, so that the word in capitals is spoken at the time that actual gesture must be made — then in fact it becomes a melodic phrase. Child/teacher/parent sing the phrase as the child drills the action, and then perhaps those words will always be associated with that passage of music, and serve to warn her what is to come each time she plays it. Get her to play & sing/say that phrase every times she passes the piano, and soon she’ll be able to toss it off.
      Reading that bit of advice, I think of something better: you’d make those words “Here’s a stretch just HERE and a scrunch right HERE” with the capital letters matching the actual notes, so that the prompt is immediately prior. And in a fast-finger passage assign words that keep track of the thumb’s notes “Thumb on G, then on E”.
      If this sort of thing is something you can’t yourself do with your daughter, perhaps show this to her teacher. I learned this trick from a ballet teacher for whose classes I played piano. I noticed how it worked with kiddies trying to conquer whole-body movements and figured it should work equally well at piano. It sure does. I can still remember a boy trying to conquer the rhythms of part of La Bamba, so I matched each note with the syllables of the names of everyone in his family. Haven’t seen that family in years but I can still remember their names and the song it makes! It sticks!

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      1. By the way, we have overcome here reluctance to practise. I think my sitting with her while she plays helps enormously. Ie it’s easier to play to an audience 😊

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  2. I have a feeling that some parents may think what that when the pay for music lessons, they are buying the ability to play an instrument for their child. As I understand it, what they are in fact buying is instruction and guidance. Being able to play properly comes with practicing what has been studied, and that’s something the kids have to do for themselves.

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    1. They’re also buying insights, hopefully — and not just on the tutor’s part. One day a boy still in the beginning stages (but cocky and intelligent) stopped during an attempt to play a piece and said “You know, I could be good at this if I practised”. I agreed wholeheartedly, but he soon quit. And then another (not so clever, so I thought) who made slow but steady progress, said “I know I’m not so good, but I know if I work at anything I’ll get there eventually”. I was so impressed I phoned his mother to let her know how sensible he was.
      It was the difference between I COULD be and I WILL be.
      The trouble is, we practise in order to make it look easy to the listener/onlooker — when in fact each piece represents minutes/hours/weeks of time and intelligent effort.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That is a good illustration of the difference. I also think it’s true that people who are good at something tend to make it look easy. In fact, it has usually involved a great deal of effort to get there. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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