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.