I meet a whole range of musical and non-musical parents in the process of teaching music to their children. In this blog I want to share some insights in support of this spectrum of people who supervise piano practice at home. Whether you are busy or not, musical or not, my hope is that you will be able find some takeaways relevant to you that will help you be a great encourager as your child learns music this year.
The first thing is to avoid extremes of involvement. Are you a helicopter parent? You know, hovering over every note they play? That’s one extreme. Or are you the other? You have no idea what your child does at the piano, you just pay the bill and drop them off for their lesson. Most will fall somewhere in the middle. And somewhere in between these two extremes there is a sweet spot.
There were times I was sorry my mother was so busy teaching other people’s children that my own lesson times were limited to when she could fit me in. Sometimes she would call “F sharp!” from the kitchen, reminding me that she was listening to my practice. But, I was also grateful that I was left to my own fiddling around at the piano for some of the time. Those were the times I got to expand from what I’d learned “officially” to the stage of quite enjoying something I made up at the piano. That free-time mucking around at the piano is how I became a songwriter/composer of music, creating musicals for the schools my children attended, composing arrangements for junior orchestras and a creator of my own piano course.
Parents with their own musical background generally really care that their children learn well. They can be a great asset of course, helping out when the child is working through their practice and gets stuck on something.
But one of the difficulties I have come across is where a musical parent takes over when the child first starts learning. Such a parent plays the child’s pieces for them in a bid to ease them over the hurdle of reading difficulties. This can have the unintended consequence of affecting the child’s music reading process. The child instead starts expecting the music to be played for them first. They may learn to play very well by ear, but struggle with reading skills. A more helpful thing for that parent to do is to simply play their own music and do their own practice. Let the child’s new pieces be theirs to share and then play the duets with them if there are any.
My own children were jump-started in their learning this way as I taught them all the Suzuki method to begin with. The Suzuki music is taught by ear at first and children can advance quite quickly. The music is great and I still use it today, but I was sorry that I didn’t pay enough attention to my children’s reading skills. These were more difficult to establish later because they felt like it was a backward step, going back to an earlier level in order to learn the process of reading and playing at the same time.
So I created Headstart Piano in order to specifically give some pieces to learn to play by ear, alongside other pieces that train the pupil to read music with appropriate decoding skills. Playing by ear and reading music are taught separately in the early stage, but come together through the two books and most children are then ready to read and play at a grade 1 level.
If you are one of those parents who feel badly that you don’t know a thing about music, so you think you are not much help to your child’s learning, don’t panic! Hear me on this one… Some of the most supportive parents I have met are people like you. When you don’t know whether it is right and wrong, you ask the child to tell you, to show you. Then, when you smile with honest admiration at their music, they beam back as they look forward to the next piece they will learn to show you. This gives your child a sense of pride in what they are discovering and it’s a way they see you delight in them.
Keep the enjoyment of music a focus. Sure, we need the routine of practice, but keep it just under your child’s tolerance level so that they leave it when they are not tired or grumpy. If they are too tired to practice, at the very least encourage them to play their favourite piece as much as they like.
I have often seen pupils start to develop seriously good fluent playing style when they played ‘Waves’, ‘Bingo’ or ‘Bagpipes’ (3 favourites from Headstart Piano Book 1) to the extent that the speed was a little out of hand!
Reward appropriately. It is good to remind ourselves as adults that we like a pay packet for work done. What is the appropriate equivalent for a child learning a task they have to apply a bit of time and practice to? Figure out what is best for your child and stick to it. And if you plan it ahead of time as the year gets underway, it really won’t be a burden to you later when you are busy.
Ask how the lesson went. Sometimes that is all you need to link the lesson to the week’s practice. Your child may want to show you, and you need to be prepared to give a bit of your precious time in that moment. It will establish in their brains what they just did and will do a whole heap to validate what they just learned.
Some time ago I did what turned out to be a really useful blog on questions to ask after the lessons. If you haven’t seen it, click here for a moment and get the main points.
A “little and often” practice plan.
To start with this is essential. The time length can alter as the child gets older. I can straight away spot when there was one big practice time the day before the lesson, because we end up going over things they had forgotten about from the previous week. As a busy parent, have a chat with our pupil and work out between you what is manageable and they agree to. You could even both sign a “Terms of Practice!” Then you have the right to encourage them to do that each day. Find a time they are likely to be less tired.
One of the unwritten conditions I got used to (because there was no budging my mother on it) was that I was not allowed to have after school play time with friends if I hadn’t done my piano practice. That meant I got good at planning to get it done before school, because my mother was usually teaching someone on our family piano after school. I look back on that as a life skill learned.
Change the music if the enthusiasm wanes.
Get in touch with me if this happens, so I can find something that will get them back on track. It may be a piece they have heard someone else play, or maybe a particular style suits them. When I was writing and compiling pieces for Headstart Piano, my elder son asked if I had any pieces that have a banging left hand—”the sort that boys love”. I knew what he meant. One of the favourite pieces back in my childhood was ‘From a Wigwam’, out of Teaching Little Fingers to Play by John Thompson. It was a great suggestion from my son. I created ‘Distant Drums’ in that style and it has definitely become a favourite for many pupils.
As the school year gets underway, I hope there is something in there to inspire you as an encourager in 2022. Our kids today need us to cheer them on, and just showing your interest in simple ways is all it takes, whether you have a musical background or not.