For a number of years while living overseas we were often found hiking in and out of remote villages. These trips were never easy. For us as parents concerned about our children’s wellbeing, they were often traumatic. For our children, they were long, tedious and challenging. When they were too young to walk, we carried them. Once they  were able, they walked as far as possible. We found that they made better progress with words of encouragement, with distracting stories and occasional rewards. But they still had to put one foot in front of the other for hours on end. There was no other way of reaching the goal. We challenged them to keep going till the next remembered landmark, or till the next specified time when we might take a break.

As they became older and more able they had responsibilities to carry water bottles, umbrellas or small backpacks on behalf of the whole family.

By the time we walked out we were usually quite a bit fitter than on the inward journey, through many shorter walks within the area.

For the children the journeys were a blend of tedium and adventure. (There were “Yeehah!” moments when crossing swollen rivers on adult shoulders). But for Delwyn there was a visceral apprehension before a journey, particularly when the preceding night poured with rain. Pushing on took courage.

For each trip there were project goals. Seeing them completed one by one was an encouragement for the next challenge.

Whilst the children did not have the range of amazing opportunities they might have had in our home country, they were able to give more time to developing the skills they were picking up. In fact we all learned new skills – especially language – with instruction from the villagers (our tutors) and encouragement from each other.

 

The reason for the preceding ramble (by my husband) is that we learned resilience through these village trips. With no vehicular road – just a narrow trail, with numerous river crossings and the odd bridge – we had no choice but to make the journey that way. Perhaps the children wished it was shorter.  But they survived and they learned that sometimes things are tough, but the way through is to keep going. As young adults now, each one of them is grateful for those difficult times when we learned resilience as a family.

Now, a world away in New Zealand and in the context of learning piano, I wonder how we can toughen up our young musicians to just get on with it – to learn without wanting it all to be easy and almost done for them. Here are some tips I’ve come up with, each of which is illustrated by something in the opening paragraphs:

  • Give plenty of positive reinforcement from the sidelines. Getting new skills right requires patience and persistence. Learning to put the time in to do so brings its own rewards. But for our children to make solid progress they need parents to cheer them along the journey with positive reinforcement when they do put the time in.
  • Don’t shy away from various sorts of repetition. Repetition may seem as tedious to a child as a long walk, but it builds up muscle strength and muscle memory.
  • There needs to be accountability. A weekly lesson with a tutor helps to show what a pupil has worked on regularly. It gives the learning a structure, like landmarks on a journey, and helps to carry through on projects when the going gets tough.
  • Develop practice fitness. Make practice a regular routine, not just an option. This means it is based on what is needed to be done and not just when the child feels like it. Short and regular makes for better practice fitness than long and infrequent.
  • Increase individual responsibility through family tasks. This may seem a strange point but it is really helpful for children to realise that not every activity is about them. Having simple responsibilities that benefit the family leads to self discipline in other areas, including music practice as part of their own responsibility to the opportunity given them to learn.
  • Push through the fears associated with performances. There is often an apprehension leading up to a performance. This could even include a natural nervousness at the lesson – a sort of performance in itself. Sometimes it just takes time for children to grow through the nervousness of playing for others. Don’t give up on it.
  • Complete projects. Have a plan and complete each task towards the project’s fulfillment. Push through the difficult and enjoy the successes. Simple plans are usually given each week at the lesson. The tutor assigns what he or she assesses as being a manageable plan of what to accomplish that week.
  • Put time into managing new techniques. The job of the tutor is to give the pupil ways to learn new techniques. The parent is to encourage the reinforcement of the skill through practice (and therefore actually has the harder job! But then the parent learns resilience too.)
  • Have fewer projects or activities, but do them well. I remember feeling as a mum in that other world away that my children were missing out on the amazing range of activities available back in NZ. But they have assured me as young adults that they never felt they missed out. Quite the contrary.

Learning an instrument provides a wonderful opportunity to learn resilience if done well. But if you need more help, may I suggest a few family hikes!

Since my last blog some of my pupils sat piano exams. I was delighted with how well everyone did. The day before the results came out I read a proverb which I’ve been thinking about ever since.

 The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty.” Prov 21:5

I’ve been thinking how

  1. we put a plan in place in order to learn what was needed for the exam;
  2. we got busy, diligently working on new pieces and other challenges such as ear tests, sight reading and scales;
  3. we saw how all that hard work led to profit gained in areas of confidence and going up a new skill level.

The plan involved a commitment from 3 parties:

  1. the pupil,
  2. the parents,
  3. the tutor.

There were times when pupils felt they were not going to get it all learned in time. That’s where they had to work to a timetable of preparation I gave them each week so that they peaked at the right time. The parents had to support that practice and make sure it happened – especially for those who were new to the idea of exams.

The second part of the proverb addresses haste. There were also times when we had to work slowly through difficult passages so they were learned well. Without working on this attention to detail, the results would have been much poorer.

All of this raises the question: What are your practice plans? Maybe you have a project you are working towards, or a piece you really want to learn to play. Or maybe you want your child to just learn the piano. The latter needs a bit more direction. If you want to talk to me about aiming for something in particular (it doesn’t need to be an exam, but I do work hard to make sure that is not the scary thing some folks think of), please get in touch. Also, keep asking those post-lesson questions that we talked about in the last blog.

http://accentmusicschool.com/7-questions-to-ask-after-the-music-lesson/

I  am finding in my personal life and business that  a 90 day plan works well. I can break it down into days, weeks, months and 90 days, and see measurable things to aim for in a range of areas.

Recently, using this method, I was really pleased to finalise my second book for Headstart Piano and get a first print done. Before this my current pupils had been learning their music from copies of its pages off my printer. I’m convinced I’d not be at this point without a clear plan in place.

 

So, as you think about your situation, here are just a few possibilities you could plan to aim for:

  • Have a particular piece in a tutor book to get to by the end of a term.
  • Plan a date for a mini recital to play for.
  • Decide with your tutor (so that the level of ability is right) a particular piece to learn.
  • Work towards a music exam.
  • Scales help with so much. Why not aim to learn a particular number by a certain time?
  • Get quicker at various stages of note recognition with timed exercises.

There was something else I noticed with the outcome of my pupils’ exam results.  For those new to exams there was a special gratitude to those around them who had helped them achieve a fairly challenging goal. For those pupils familiar with the exam process, they took better charge of their own learning from previous experiences and were able, to a larger extent, to put their own practice plan in place.

If you have invested in music lessons for your child, the best way to maximise that investment is to follow up on how the lesson went each week. I love it when parents come to the lesson, or at least send a family member. For parents of very young children I make it a requirement, so that the follow up is done through the week.  But for busy parents (perhaps of older pupils) who can’t attend, the next best thing is to equip them with some useful questions to draw out from their child what was both taught and learned at the lesson.

Did you have some new music today?

Asking about a new piece can tell you several things. If the child didn’t get something new to learn, it may be that they hadn’t established last week’s material and needed more time on it.  If they did get something new, it means they are building on what they have learned and moving forward.  It is always nice to share a new piece with someone and it gives the learner more incentive to press on and learn it well when a family member takes an interest.

Can you play it for me after dinner? (or whatever time is a good time for you both)

If your child is bursting to show you their new piece, it is going to be really helpful to find a time when you can give them your full attention.  Full attention at an arranged time is going to be more meaningful than a quick, “show me now” sort of hearing.

Is there anything you are finding difficult?

Ask if they know what they should do if it is difficult. Suggestions if they don’t know:

  1. Find the hard bit – maybe over 1 or 2 bars.
  2. Play RH slowly, counting aloud one hand at a time – until 3x perfect in a row.
  3. Play LH slowly, counting aloud one hand at a time – until 3x perfect in a row.
  4. Play it again hands together – until 3x perfect in a row.
  5. Now see if you can play the whole line of music it is in.

If there was a trouble spot that seemed too hard, let your tutor know at least in an email so they can be aware of it in the next lesson.

Could you play one of your old pieces now?

Playing through older pieces often, in some sort of routine, is going to help the young musician become more confident and fluent. If they only ever play through the latest piece, they are always in learning mode. They need times to simply play music they know, happily and easily. This is the reason I usually like to keep the last 3 to 4 pieces ‘on the boil’ so to speak.

You played that beautifully! Would you like to play it for ‘X and Y’ next time they come? They would love to hear it.

It is so valuable for children to perform for friendly audiences such as friends or grandparents, especially something they like playing. This is why it is good to keep those older pieces that have become favourites up to a good performance standard. If they have a positive experience with a sympathetic audience, switching to another setting later is easier.

 Shall we play together? (if you are a musician)

If there are duet parts that someone can play with the learner, it is best to do those with the pieces they know confidently. Some books have CD tracks to go with them. If so, listen to them with your child and see if there are any older pieces they know that they can play along with.

Could you show me how to play that? (If you are a non-musician)

Children do so well when a parent is keen to learn from them what they learned.  You get double the value from the lesson too! And the child will learn it better as they teach it. Depending on the age of the child, choose something manageable for them to ‘teach’ you.  Make sure you practice!

 

I hope you can find something to draw from to ask your child after their lessons each week. But it’s best that you don’t do them all in one hit! Whichever way you do it, the interest you take will have a direct effect on the enthusiasm of your child to keep at their learning when the initial novelty becomes routine.

In all of this, if you discover something your child particularly liked in their lesson, let the tutor know. Teachers are also investing in your child’s learning and are interested to know what is working well.

I heard it again this week. I know I’m far more likely to hear this in the course of my week than you might, but there is a regret there that I want to unpack a bit today.

 Why do children quit the piano, and what can we do to help them stick at it?

As part of setting up my music school I have worked towards each pupil having such a positive experience that they will not give up easily. It means I’ve needed to watch for signs that indicate someone might stop lessons and address them.

 

Here are the main reasons I have heard from people who gave up learning piano:

  1. They didn’t get on with the teacher in some way.
  2. The material they were learning was boring.
  3. They preferred playing by ear over reading music and focused on that, never really learning to read. Once the music got beyond a certain level it all got too hard.

There are other reasons too:

  1. Not able to keep up the practice needed because of too many after school activities.
  2. A sibling or a friend, also learning, is doing much better, so discouragement sets in.
  3. Parents are too busy to give support and encouragement in practice at home.
  4. Cost of lessons, books, etc. becomes prohibitive.
  5. Wanting to switch to another instrument.
  6. The family situation changes and maintaining lessons and practice no longer works.
  7. A bad performance experience discourages them and they are unwilling to give it another go.
  8. Practicing on a poor/inadequate instrument…or even trying out lessons to see if they like it without any instrument to practice on (true story)!

Many of these issues come about due to unfulfilled expectations from the outset. I like to set my pupils up well so they are off to a good start, making sure the parents have an appropriate instrument and that they have a realistic understanding of what needs to be in place as their child starts piano lessons. It’s a given that if one is paying for lessons, the investment should involve careful follow up from what their child learns at lessons each week.

If your child is learning an instrument, here are some practical suggestions based on the above.

  1. Keep the lines of communication open between you and your child’s teacher. If there is something you don’t understand in their learning, or there is a struggle in a particular area, email or phone the tutor. I often find that the children who do the best are those whose parents actually attend the lesson, even if infrequently, and depending on the age of the child. That way, I connect with them about how to follow up on what is being learned.
  2. If the music they are learning is boring, again, talk to the tutor. In developing my own piano course, Headstart Piano, I sought to create a range of music to be engaging and nice to play, even at a simple level. Also I want to know if there is music that they particularly want to learn to play too. Where possible and practical for their level I will arrange this music for them.
  3. Sometimes children express an interest in learning to play the piano through an ability to pick things up by ear. So if they are presented with only learning written music they can find that quite a challenge. I use special pieces to help pupils learn to play by ear, as well as other pieces for reading music. Sometimes the music they specifically want to play can be learned by ear too.

These are the main areas to address for now. There are ways to work through the other 8 reasons, which I’ll maybe get to another time. I’d also like to look at how to help the many adults I chat with who’d love to pick up again on the lost opportunities from poor childhood musical experiences.

I try to keep two things in balance as part of my mission statement to awaken my pupils’ musical awareness: I want to be sure the pupils I tutor are learning what they need to learn (a skill set that needs practice and attention) in the process of becoming a musician. But along with this I work alongside them to inspire them to keep at that learning process by helping them play what they want to play too.

This tightrope balance is all in the hope that I can keep anyone on my watch from saying in 20 year’s time that they wished they had never given up the piano; that, on the contrary, they still play and it is one of the most wonderful things they ever put their hands to. 


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With the whole world we watched and waited, many of us praying for the Wild Boar football team and the coordinated rescue effort in Thailand.

It is so good to see them reunited with their families this week. The young boy who  translated for the group with the divers who found them, 14 year old Myanmar-born Adun Sam-On, was overjoyed to be reunited with a church community that has become his family in Thailand.  I understand he plays piano and violin as well as guitar, and I was just delighted to see him playing his guitar with his music group. During his incredible ordeal waiting deep in the Tham Luang cave, I could well imagine there were times, along with thinking about food, that he dreamed of the day he could pick up a guitar again to play with friends. *

This event that captured the world’s attention showed how important team work and group solidarity are. Even before following the dramatic rescue I had been thinking about how important it is that our budding musicians find some sort of group to play music with.

 

Solo ‘group’ playing

I enjoy playing double bass in a community orchestra, but there are ways to simulate the experience, even when not at rehearsals or in performance. Recently I was playing along with a You Tube recording of a piece of music our orchestra was preparing to perform.  Obviously this lacks the social aspects of group playing, but it gave me the opportunity to hear how my double bass part fitted in with a complete orchestra. I just turned the speakers up loud and played along, stopping to practice areas where I couldn’t keep up! Then I was much better informed to know what to expect in real rehearsals.

Duets – a minimal group

Another kind of group playing is when your tutor plays a duet part with the music you are learning. I do this often with my beginners, once they are confident with the pieces they are learning. It is often their first ‘group’ experience and it shows up the importance of knowing where they are up to in the music, and holding longer notes for the full count while the other part plays.

Full group opportunities

It is a good idea to investigate what music groups there may be on offer at schools. Often there can be groups at different levels and ranging from an orchestra type group to a rock band. I teach an orchestra group for a primary school where for many of the players it is their first group experience. I do my best to make sure the music they are learning is a little below the level they can play well on their own, so that they can focus on learning how to play as a group. In addition to strings, woodwind and brass, I have a number of young pianists playing glockenspiels and other percussion instruments.

Other group ideas 

How about musical theatre? Whatever the role, this is a great way to meet folks from all walks of life. I remember getting stretched by being involved in various shows and watching from the orchestra pit. I can still remember some great lines from  “Fiddler on the Roof” after a month of performances many years ago, and still love the music.

In most urban areas there are a variety of community music groups. These include brass bands, hand bell ensembles, choirs and ukulele orchestras. We have some interesting percussion groups in our city, including African drumming and Marimba groups. I found out this week that there is a group especially for those who have started learning a stringed instrument as an adult.

At the very least, a child learning a musical instrument should sing in any kind of choir. Choirs are a great group for any age and there are all sorts out there. There are those with instrumental accompaniment and also unaccompanied ones, such and barbershop or other acapella styles.  There is much you can learn in a choir about making music together. I notice that when I accompany school choirs at the piano there are often children who take an active interest in seeing and hearing what the piano part does.

I have seen young people like Adun really benefit from playing in their church groups. Wanting to play in a youth band is a great motivator. I developed most of my earlier confidence at the piano through playing for Sunday school music as a teenager.  Since then I can honestly say that the range of musical groups I have been involved in over many years has enriched my life. And all because someone encouraged me to get involved as a young person.

 

If you or your child are learning in isolation, without even the anticipation of planning to join a music group of some sort, you may find it hard to keep motivated to stick at it through the needed practice times. But aside from that, playing with others is what often brings your music playing to a new level of enjoyment.  I hope you will take the plunge and  find a music group that will help you get there.

If you can’t find the right group to suit you – maybe this is the time to start your own!  You never know what may come of it, where it might lead and who might be grateful out there that you did.


*Adun’s story is 2 minutes into the report:  https://www.cbsnews.com/news/uncertainty-remains-for-the-stateless-as-boys-rescued-from-thai-cave-return-home-2018-07-19/?ftag=CNM-00-10aab8d&linkId=54486213