A young pupil of mine once came to his piano lesson in the middle of his school day and said, “I am too tired to have my lesson today.”  I was unsure whether he was

  1. short of sleep,
  2. overwhelmed with too much to do, or
  3. feeling too lazy to be bothered.

Whichever it was, I then had to decide a course of action that was going to enable us to make good use of the time alotted for his lesson. I learned a lot that day that has helped me since.

Basically, he needed to be inspired to rise above the weariness, however it had come about, to do something to not only help make progress with his piano skills, but also to help him get through the rest of the day.

It is hard to learn new material in that state, so I suggested he started by playing his favourite piece. This mean’t he didn’t have to overtax his brain and was able to slip into the familiar like into an old pair of slippers. He now felt more comfortable about being at his lesson. Playing something familiar is a good opportunity to give a perspective of how far someone has come in their learning.

Next, we took some of the aspects of that piece and played it slightly differently. Playing in different octaves is a good option because it is not mentally taxing, but still repetition and practice. If this happens at home and you have an electronic keyboard, you could have them play their piece using different sounds.

In between all this I worked out that his problem wasn’t laziness or lack of sleep. Basically, there was so much going on in his life that he was a bit overwhelmed with learning. I decided to find ways to help him simply enjoy his music without extra pressure. The next thing we did was create something new at the piano. I gave him a framework of notes to use and played along with him as a duet. Before we knew it, the time was up and he left with shoulders a little higher along with, I suspect, some renewed energy for the next task.

This is just one example of what I have done as a teacher. But how about when your own children are “too tired” to practice at home.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Have a routine time that you know works best for them when they are not too tired.
  • To get them started, ask them to play their favourite piece for you. They love it when you are taking an active interest in their practice time.
  • Give them some sort of incentive for when the practice is completed for the day.
  • Have a defined time length that doesn’t feel like “forever”. But make sure they are not just sitting at the instrument and staring at the wall to fill in time. (I speak from experience.) 😊
  • Have some music listening time specific to the instrument they are learning.
  • They may need some good old fashioned play time in fresh air before practicing. This is probably better than after any sort of screen time. I have a hunch that minds are still distracted by the last thing they were looking at and focusing on the non-passive task of playing the piano is a mental adjustment. Better to delay screen time until after practice is completed.
  • If it becomes an ongoing problem, especially when they are tired from too much to do, maybe there are too many specialist learning activities going on over and above school work for them to cope with all the extra learning.

Don’t push them to practice when they clearly are tired. (Did I really say that?!) It may build up over time to a resentment and dislike. But handling tiredness well is a crucial part of establishing practice habits with the love and enthusiasm needed to master playing a musical instrument.

 

clipart source: http://clipart-library.com/clipart/157045.htm

I am often looking for sneaky ways to help my pupils repeat difficult passages accurately. It is interesting that some think that if they have played something accurately once, then it is a done deal and “Can’t we just move on?”

Yes and no.

Yes, if I am sure they can play the section through in context, clearly understand the rhythm and can play the notes accurately with the correct fingering.

No, if they had any of the above out of place.

Anyone who has ever learned to play a piece of music to performance standard knows it is essential to reach a critical point where there is an understanding of all the elements of the piece. At this point you are not just on the edge of knowing what to play – the piece is yours. Once you have all the elements in place you need to repeat the complete piece a sufficient number of times so that it can be played at the correct speed with confidence anywhere, anytime. If you have learned it well, you would also be able to refer back to the music, starting anywhere on the page as needed. Sometimes this is necessary if a bad habit has developed and something needs reworking.

Is it my imagination that children today don’t like repeating things? Maybe this is another challenge of our modern age, born of children rapidly flitting on from one screen to another.

Accurate repetition is essential to the building process of learning a musical instrument. Through this we are training our brains to learn new patterns of doing things. Two hands doing completely different things is a complex task and initially difficult to master. If we want to keep moving on and advancing the skill, we need to have mastered particular patterns that are building blocks to other patterns. Without accurate repetition we simply can’t advance.  If something is not well learned or the repetitions are played with errors that are not corrected, frustration steps in and we see disillusionment in the learner.

I often use an abacus to help my pupils do accurate repetitions (3 in a row is best). We choose a bead colour for accurate (and another for inaccurate) and work on three accurate repetitions of a small part of the music that needs work. The smaller the chunk the better because they will master it more quickly, and then we expand this to work on the areas around it. This simple thing helps bring a focus to learning a new or difficult part of the music. It is particularly helpful for the child who doesn’t like to repeat things. In their eagerness to get the repetitions accurate they will probably discover that playing more slowly is a big help!

It is wonderful to have a pupil who comprehends the importance of repeating things correctly. And this is true not only when following instructions in a lesson, but through personal perseverance and patience in their practice at home. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, there is satisfaction in searching for and finding a solution, then working through it carefully to achieve the perfect result.

I have no doubt that this sort of focus will stand the young musician in good stead, most certainly in their ongoing musical journey, but also in all sorts of life skills, many of which require patient and accurate repetition.

 

Recently a friend of ours was doing one of New Zealand’s great walks. Afterwards he expressed his sadness that, although the walk was beautiful, there was far less birdsong than he expected. Introduced stoats and rats have diminished the native bird population over time. Conservation attempts are under way to turn around situations like this, but the predators have done considerable damage. Maybe there is a parallel here with human singing too.

Who tells a five year old child she can’t sing? Devastating! So much so that five years later that young person tells me that she hasn’t sung since then, and gives me a convincing demonstration of how she lip-syncs when ‘singing’ at school!

I often encourage my pupils to sing at their piano lessons as part of hearing the tune, feeling the music and simply enjoying a new song they are learning to play with notes on a keyboard. So you can imagine I was a bit stunned with this unusual response to my simple request to sing the lyrics.

I say unusual, but sadly it seems to me that children are far more inhibited these days to sing with their piano pieces than they were ten years ago. I suspect that children are growing up now with more pre-recorded music. There is a definite place for that, but perhaps parents sing less with their children – probably because they sing less themselves. I don’t have scientific evidence to back this up, but I do observe that more children struggle to sing in tune, or are more self-conscious and reluctant to sing when it should be a natural part of life and certainly helpful when learning a musical instrument.

We need to let our young ones find their voice early on. My 6 month old granddaughter, Naomi, has been practicing her skills lately to everyone’s delight. Her vocal range goes from an impressively low growl to notes even higher than her mother’s brilliant soprano. (I am sure she is practicing her whistle notes like Mariah Carey 😊.) Naomi’s best examples of this were recorded while she was experimenting with notes on the piano. Interesting. Watch this space!

As I thought about my young friend and the teacher who had criticised her, I considered how any of us can say hurtful things at times when we might not even know it. Being a teacher needs extra care. It is a sacred privilege and the things we say absolutely matter.  “Try a little kindness”- the old song by Glen Campbell comes to mind.

So I’m on a bit of a mission now to gently restore a nearly lost skill in a budding pianist who fortunately is clearly passionate about learning the piano and even creating her own music at it. I’m no great singer myself, but I still like to sing and write songs at the piano.  I was able to share a little of the importance of singing as part of her music learning. Along with that I pointed out that if she gives in to the comment spoken five years ago, the lie wins! I think she got that. I hope so.