A few years ago I wanted to check out the camera on a new computer, so I snapped a shot out my office window. Just the other day I was looking out my window as I often do, and noticed just how much everything had grown, how beautiful it all was and how autumn was adding colour to the scene before me. We don’t usually notice growth because we don’t actually watch it happening, but over a period of time we can see that there has been significant change.

I see huge parallels here with what happens with our young musicians.

If we hadn’t taken the time to plant 6 years ago, we’d still be looking at bare ground.

If you want your child to learn an instrument, you need to actually start somewhere or, before you know it, they will have passed those optimum years for learning and getting skills established.

Though I didn’t see the actual growing happening, nevertheless it was.

It’s the same with learning an instrument. There are times when it seems nothing is happening. Don’t stop “watering the plant!” Keep encouraging the budding musician and be encouraged yourself – when they started they knew nothing at all!

My husband Robin is the gardener at our place and he loves to experiment with how and where he grows things in the garden. Some things work and some don’t. It’s all good though – he learns from trying things anyway, and the more he experiments, the more he learns about how the garden functions best.          

If something is not working in your children’s music practice routine, try having them do it at a different time of the day, or change the order around within the practice set. It may be they just need a fresh look at the way to do something.

Robin has put a good deal into making sure the soil is healthy. Without good soil the produce may seem okay, but not the best it could be. I get to see the lovely flowers and taste the variety of yummy fruit and vegetables, without realising all that went into development at the soil level.

A child may just want to sound amazing at the piano with a particular piece. But he or she may need help realising some of the basics that have to go into making it right. Counting aloud to get beat and rhythm sorted, knowing all the note names, practicing scales: these are all foundations in music learning. I can usually tell if a performer has had these solid foundations. A well performed piece of music doesn’t happen without them.

I love that we have a huge variety of plants in our garden. I notice that many modern landscaped gardens in new subdivisions all look very nice, but there is a sameness about them.

We can do the same with our music. At the beginning there are particular skills that need to be in place, but even there a pupil needs to be exposed to a range of different, interesting pieces. Some the pupil will like; others they will hopefully learn to like. If they are not exposed to variety, they may think there is only one style of music to learn. Having a varied repertoire gives a wonderful stimulus for creativity too.

Things look different in each season of the year. I love living in this part of NZ where we can enjoy the four seasonal changes. In the garden there are various tasks appropriate to the season in order to nurture the plants through changes. The result is the best flowers and fruit at the right times. 

I like to give my pupils the opportunities to push themselves and work towards an exam. But after the exams I like to have a complete change of focus and do some creative playing. It breaks up the year and keeps a variety of musical interest and motivation. Look for ways to keep your child’s interest in their music throughout the seasons of the year.

Robin would be the first to tell you that he is not an expert in the garden, but likes to give it a go and see what happens. He has found the internet a great source of help when he needs specifics.

Whatever your role is at your place in music, I hope you continue to give it a go. Maybe you are  learning an instrument as an adult, learning with your child, putting stars on star charts for your child’s practice, chauffeuring them to music lessons – whatever it is, I hope you feel free to get in touch if there are things happening in your “garden” that you might need help with. It might mean you are interested in knowing more about my online course coming soon for parents who want to teach their own children the piano. Email me at accentmusicschool@gmail.com if that’s you and I can let you know more.

 

Be encouraged, there is probably more going on in your child’s music than you realise. One day you will look up (literally) and realise those little children you were nurturing have come a long way, because you will remember what it was like when they first began.

First and foremost, I want to say that the best option for your child learning the piano is with a tutor who is both experienced and qualified to teach it. An experienced teacher is well set up to know where to start, what material to use, how best to adapt it, and also provides weekly accountability to promote steady progress in a way not possible through random lessons at home.

However, you may be among those who are forced to look for other options, such as teaching their own child.

  • Maybe you live in a place where there is no tutor nearby.
  • Maybe the cost of professional lessons is prohibitive.
  • Maybe you would like to teach your own child as part of a home schooling routine.
  • Maybe you have looked at a few YouTube videos, picked up some ideas and begun to teach your child something from there.
  • Maybe you learned many years ago and would like to teach your grandchildren.

What I do know from many conversations I have had with folks near and far, is that there are some parents who would like to be able to teach their own children the piano, but are afraid of nearly killing them in the process because of the likelihood of butting heads! Some professional music teachers I know have said words to this affect when I’ve asked them about efforts to teach their own! 

My parents were qualified, experienced music teachers and our family grew up around music.  Most people used a caravan for family holidays, but ours was also used during the school term as a mobile teaching studio containing an acoustic piano. The down side of all that was that we didn’t get out of doing our piano practice when we went on holiday! I know, I should say it was the up side, but I didn’t quite see it that way when I was an eight year old and the caravan was parked at the beach.

All this to say, I learned from my mother who was a piano teacher. We got there and I’m hugely grateful for the skills I learned that have enabled me to become a music teacher too. In turn, I taught my children when we lived overseas and I didn’t have the option of sending them to someone else for lessons. I can’t say it was always easy and there were some challenges along the way. I didn’t always get it right either, but I certainly learned some useful things in the process.

In response to many conversations over the years with parents on the subject of piano lessons, I have come to realise that I have indeed learned some valuable things about teaching one’s own children that I would like to pass on to those who feel they have no option but to teach their own.

This has become more possible than ever with the advent of the internet. So over the last year I have been putting together a premium on-line course with the aim of helping such parents through all the positives and negatives that come up when you teach your own children. I’ve included in this a basic course on piano skills for folks who need to know the basic skill area that is essential to even begin. It aims to also be helpful to musicians who know their music but may not know the best way to go about teaching the first piano skills. Also included are things like essentials for success when teaching your own, how to deal with potential personality clashes, practice plans, a review of various piano courses and how to use them, just to name a few of the areas I cover.

The reason I haven’t said much about it until now is that I originally thought I’d be writing an on-line course based on my piano course – Headstart Piano, a curriculum which all my beginners are using now. But I felt I couldn’t do that until I’d given parents the skills needed on which I base my teaching.  I look forward to putting Headstart Piano out as an on line course too, now that I am happy with the first two tutor books that I am using with private pupils. It has been a delight to be able to use something that is a combination of all the things I have wanted to see in a piano tutor book.

We have just had school holidays here in NZ (for those reading this in the northern hemisphere) so I have been able to make some progress on the on-line course for parents and I’m getting excited that it really isn’t too far away now.

What I would really like to know from you, as a faithful subscriber to my blog, if you are interested in such a course or know someone who is. I know that parents of my current pupils are among those receiving this and so it is probably not so relevant for you, but maybe it is for someone you know.

For the first 20 folks who get back to me about this from today’s date I would like to include you in a special first offer as I put this out there for the first time. I’d love to be able to get feedback about what is helpful, what isn’t and if in fact there are things that are needed that I haven’t thought of. I will be interacting personally with those using the course in these early days because I want to make sure it meets a felt need, is value for money and really does serve the way I’m intending. I have no interest in doing anything less.

Just drop me a quick email to accentmusicschool@gmail.com and let me know what you think. I really look forward to hearing from you. 

“My lyre is tuned to mourning and my pipe to the sound of wailing.” Job 30:31, NIV

Some time ago a regular reader of my blog asked me if I would write something about music used for mourning. I wasn’t ready to do it at that time. Now, I think, would be a good time. 

 When I read the verse quoted above a few weeks back, it seemed obscure and irrelevant. Now, in light of the horrendous attack on innocents in my city of Christchurch, it seems so poignant and real.

Though speaking metaphorically, the ‘musician’ in this verse has not put down his instruments in a time of grief, but has actively used them to express his pain. There is a sense that music helps the grieving process.

 A few days after the attack I was asked to accompany at the piano a mixed religious group to sing all five verses of our national anthem. How appropriate it was that we could sing “God Defend New Zealand” at such a time! It is not just our national song, but also a beautiful prayer for the nation’s peace and righteousness.* Afterwards, when alone, I felt that the bold, anthem-like way it is normally sung seemed too strong somehow and I wanted to play it in a softer, more thoughtful way because of how I ached at the terrible loss of life. New Zealanders were killed while they were praying and I pray it never happens again.

 After playing the cello on some occasion, a friend came up to me and said, “The sound of the cello goes to a place in your heart that nothing else can.” I think I know what she meant. And it holds true for other instruments as well. I do feel there are times that I can express my heart better without words, but through the way I play my instrument. Sometimes the best music comes this way because as the musician embraces strong emotions, they are transferred through the instrument to the listener’s ear. No wonder there has been so much beautiful music written at times of grief and sadness. Famous composers, such as Mozart, Fauré, Berlioz, Dvorák and Verdi, wrote requiems based on the Mass for the dead; and other sorts of requiem have been written after various wars to remember the fallen. These beautiful pieces have been played again through the years at special memorial times. Often they are passages from the Psalms or other Scriptures set to music, because a faith in Someone greater beyond our situation gives us a point of reference when the life we are living is rocked by things that don’t make sense. So many funerals include the singing of Psalm 23, which includes the line, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me…” Even if the bereaved find it hard to sing, they can draw comfort from the song sung by the congregation and expressed in the music.

 If sad music makes you cry, that is a good thing in a time of grief. I have found it to be true that my tears of grief were healing tears. There is no need to wipe them bravely away when they come at all sorts of odd and inconvenient times. It just shows we are human. Humans are emotional beings. And I’m okay with that.

 For those of us in NZ, we are facing a sort of grief unheard of before. May we express our sadness in ways that will help us move through this time and build for a positive future. At the right time we will laugh again, but only if we have processed our time of grief well. And songs of lament are a rich source of healing through that process.

 Though I shared this once before in an earlier blog, it seems appropriate now to again attach a piano improvisation of a piece of music I wrote for a musical called Father’s Heart, based on the story of ‘The Prodigal Son.’  In the song the Father’s longing is for his lost child. If you are a New Zealander, maybe you can use the time of listening to it to remember those who lost their lives and perhaps pray for their families. 

*Here is a link to a piano version of God Defend New Zealand with lyrics and a few photos: https://youtu.be/3NxPhHyDSd4

 

Last week I took my little granddaughter, Naomi, along to ‘Music and Movement’. We’ve been a few times now. I get to push her in the buggy a few blocks to the local church where it is held and we discuss cats, dogs and flowers along the way. She’s only 16 months so we are keeping to easy conversation topics.

The first time we went to ‘M & M’, Naomi mostly just watched what was going on. Good skills! I could learn something from that. I usually blunder enthusiastically into new situations and neglect the careful observation part. The second time, she enjoyed the tambourine—having seen one of those at our place, she connected with the familiar and liked the sound. She thought the ribbons were pretty fun too.  Last week she was right at home and knew how to go and get an instrument and put it back with the others at the end. And when we got home she was rowing her boat and shushing the bear right on cue when we sang the songs we’d heard again.

The next day I was leading a similar session with a group of grandparents, mothers and children in our smaller community outside the city. I’ve been a part of the team which run it for a few years now. When I was first asked to prepare and lead a session I wasn’t too keen. (My only association in the past with preschool music had been to play the piano for ‘M & M’ many years ago. I thought that I would prefer that more demure position to that of leaping around to songs about floppy clowns.) But I took the advice of the leader, who encouraged me to leave my dignity at the door and said I’d be fine. It was good advice and I was. It has been wonderful being a participant in this more active role, as it helps me fully appreciate the value of a well prepared music session.

When you participate with a little person you know and love, you want them to have the full experience and you can reinforce it when you get home too. The framework given is so helpful to the activities you can choose to do. But I’m also seeing a fresh angle on how quickly these little ones absorb new skills through music. And I have found that getting involved with the session with Naomi adds to the experience for both of us and draws us closer to each other too.

As a music teacher I am often asked when is a good time to start a child at the piano. It really is different for every individual and it depends on a number of factors, but mostly how committed the family is to support the child’s learning. The teacher’s role is important, but won’t come to much if not continued at home, especially for younger learners.

In the years before a child might be ready to begin instrument lessons, I would advocate preschool ‘music and movement’ opportunities as a starting point to more formal learning. Children who have participated in these already have a head start with music skills. I’m also a huge fan of having your baby/preschooler listen to a wide range of music. Sing along with them as much as you can. Aside from the fact they are more likely to grow up singing in tune, home is a happier place when people sing!

And I highly recommend the experience of preschool music sessions for budding grandparents.

“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.