“My mum is going to like this piece!” I had just given a pupil a new piece of music that I’d recently written.
“But do you like it?” I asked.
“Yes!” he answered.
Children really do care what their parents think. They may not always express it as clearly as in the above example, but they are always looking for that affirmation in what they do. So, when it comes to piano practice, you can imagine how important it is that we affirm them for their effort with encouraging responses.
I have found that at the beginning children learning an instrument do really well because there is a natural interest on the part of the parent to listen to how they are getting on. So they come to their weekly lesson with everything learned, affirmed by their parents and proud of what they can do.
But I can always tell when life is getting busy at home. And I get it. I’ve had young children too, and I know there are times when days can go from one overwhelming event to the next. One of my favourite children’s stories was Five Minutes Peace, because the author, Jill Murphy, knew how I felt as a mum, and encapsulated it into an endearing story for children. A moment’s peace when your child is doing his or her practice without you is a valuable thing.
Whether this is you or not, you have to be intentional about both a child’s practice and your affirmation of it. Your children’s progress and your investment in their lessons depends on it. To help you in the affirming process, here are some comments you could use or adapt to your situation.
“Can you play that again? I really liked that one!”
One of the difficult parts of practice is the necessary repetition. So any way you can get a child to repeat an action accurately is progress. If it can be done in a way that it is not seen as a boring task to do again, all the better.
“You played that so beautifully.”
To be honest, it may not always sound beautiful in the learning process, so use this compliment on a piece they know well and do play well.
“Can you show me how that goes?”
Nothing shows your enthusiasm more than wanting to copy what your child can do. You are getting them to repeat it again as they show you.
“Do you think you could get it good enough to play for …?” (Fill in name of another parent, grandparent or whomever.)
The anticipation of a performance is a motivation all on its own. Someone wants to give the child the opportunity to show what he or she can do.
“Shall we play that together?”
Play with them—learn how to play their piece up high on the piano and play it at the same time. Or do the duet part if you are a pianist yourself.
Here are a couple of other thoughts to go into the mix:
- Affirming works for both sides. Everybody feels good about what is happening. When you affirm your child’s learning you also feel encouraged that there was something to be encouraged about, and your child knows that they are pleasing you in some way. They are so much more likely to repeat whatever it is that gets your approval.
- Keep it honest. Kids know when you are only being encouraging because it is in your job description. Look for things you can be honestly affirming about. If you are able to sit in on your child’s lesson, you will get to know the sorts of things the teacher affirms. I know some children prefer the parent not to be present, so you would need to work around that if that is your situation—all the more reason you can find out what happened in the lesson and show excitement at finding out what they did.
- Practice initiation rewards. These are for the times when a child sits down to play without any asking (let alone nagging). It just wears you down if you have to constantly remind your child to practice. You want it to be something they always choose to do, but there can be times they need help getting to the instrument, and some sort of incentive for just getting there can help. One day they will thank you for it. Even diligent pupils can struggle with getting on with their practice, but usually once they are in the groove they are fine.
In New Zealand we have this unfortunate national trait called ‘tall poppy syndrome’. Loosely understood, it’s a subconscious attitude that we don’t want anyone to think they are better than someone else, so we cut them down to size. For many in our society, affirming, encouraging or saying something positive to someone about what they are achieving doesn’t come easily. Maybe that’s because we don’t want someone else’s achievement being a discouragement to another person who is making their own progress. I think that highlights what it should come down to, though. We don’t have to compare with the progress of siblings or friends. If they have made progress at their own level of learning, that is going to be wonderful in itself and well worth all the affirmation and encouragement we can give them to keep at it.
By the way, he was right. His mum did like the piece.