Surviving Piano Lessons (for parents)
· What’s the secret to longevity in piano? If students have the ability to play the songs they like by the time they reach middle school, they usually stay in piano lessons. Elementary school-aged students, who practice consistently each day after school, without negotiating piano practice, are able to retain the information learned from lesson to lesson. The easier and faster they can read notation and translate it to a piano keyboard the faster they will progress to the type of music that facilitates the desire to play more, which makes them better at reading, which makes them play more.......ok, you get the drill.
· Rah, rah, sis boom ba! Nothing deflates a student faster than a disinterested home-audience (of course you’ve heard the piece at home a million times, but seeing them in action during a performance is NOT the same thing). Students get their enthusiasm from me in the lesson for only 45 minutes a week, and from you at home the rest of the week. Many students take piano at the request of their parents, so get out your pom-poms and become the “cheering squad” as often as you can. Piano is a “performance art” and as pianists, we are always looking for someone to play for and sadly, if there is no one listening, it quickly becomes a very isolating and lonely sport.
· What’s new and exciting? You’ll usually hear me ask this as soon as your child walks through my door. Spending a few minutes talking about what’s new helps us develop a good rapport for our future relationship and helps us to get to know each other more comfortably. Remember, I’m not just their teacher in 2nd grade; I’m their teacher in 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th, grade and beyond. Each week I’ll spend 45 to 60 minutes working one-on-one with your child. Developing a relationship with each other is crucial for longevity in piano lessons. Students are expected to treat me with respect, as they would their teacher at school, but they are also encouraged to speak with me openly. I want them to feel free to talk to me. Otherwise it would be an awfully long and lonely 44 minutes!
· Everybody loves a party! Recitals and parties are a fun addition to piano lessons. Students are excited to see each other and play their pieces at studio parties. Sharing their music with an audience is a high point of recitals and they can’t wait for “everybody’s favorite punch” after the recitals. Show your support by putting studio recital dates on the family calendar. Invite everyone in the family. Call your friends. Tweet it, text it, and post it on Facebook. Let them be the star in the family that day. Let your child stay after recitals as well to give them a chance to make “piano” friends with the others. Suggest a play date or sleep over- have them make a recital of their own at home by making some programs and popcorn!
· By the way, what other languages do you speak? If you are bi-lingual, you can think of learning to play the piano the same way you would learn a foreign language. If you don’t speak it everyday, you’ll never become fluent. It’s not enough to just speak individual words either, you have to be conversational, learn to read the language, write in that language, and use it in context. You should speak it well, understanding sentence construction and prose. And don’t forget to use proper grammar! Eventually, you’ll master the language just as the poet or novelist does. But as you know, this will take daily long-term practice.
· Summers off? Nope. You wouldn’t take 2 months off from speaking a second language- can you imagine how much ground you’d loose? Musicians don’t take 2 months off every year from practicing their instruments, so we don’t either. Students need to take as many summer lessons as they can to keep accountability and facilitate progress. School review in September that lasts only around 2 weeks can take almost 6 MONTHS of weekly piano lessons. Taking two summers of bare minimum lessons can cause a student to fall so far behind their peers they never fully catch up. But here’s the good news--lessons are flexible in the summer. You can easily plan the summer lessons around camps and vacations.
· Don’t forget to pay the teacher. As a piano teacher, I am a professionally trained musician and educator. The piano studio is my business and your tuition is my paycheck. Can you imagine what its like to have your boss forget his checkbook and ask, “You don’t mind if I pay you next week instead, do you?” Ouch.
Before the Lesson-
· It’s piano day! Regular attendance to a weekly lesson is crucial for a pianist’s accountability and continual progress. Don’t forget to put your reserved lesson slot on the family calendar and give it priority status. Reduce your stress by giving your child a few minutes before lessons to hang their coat, wash their hands in the powder room, and check their fingernails. Leave your work at home and bring a great book or magazine to read, take a nap, or just sit and enjoy 45 minutes of weekly uninterrupted relaxing “me-time” in the waiting room. Pretty soon you’ll be more excited about piano day than your kids are!
· Keep a bag devoted only to piano lesson materials. Even if an assignment was not given in a particular book last week, I may assign pieces in various books on various weeks depending on the student’s progress. Having a tote bag or backpack dedicated to piano materials cuts back to lost or forgotten materials. Teach your child to be responsible for his/her own piano materials and you won’t have to worry about frantically looking for their books just before lessons. Remind them that if they forget their books, they’ll lose a bead from their practice chain- its usually enough to get them motivated to remember the materials. This year a new piano tote bag will be provided to your child at the back-to school party! Hurray, that’s one less thing to put on your to-do list.
· Checking fingernails frequently. Train your child to check their fingernails each time they practice. Teach them to clip their own nails, but remember, clipping nails just before a lesson to only satisfy me won’t help to establish the proper hand positioning on the keyboard. The upside is that nail polish and nail stickers are ok, the downside is that improper nail length can negatively affect the pianist’s ability to gain speed and accuracy when learning more advanced literature. Don’t let your child miss this crucial first step in their piano career.
After the Lesson-
· Talk about piano on the way home. Ask your child about their lesson in the car- this sparks wonderful conversation and reminds them that you are interested in what they are learning. If they had a hard time, remind them how proud you are of all the great work and effort they are putting into piano and how you have really noticed their progress and how you can’t wait to hear their next recital piece. If they borrowed a CD, pop it in the CD player for some great tunes on the way home! Remark on your favorites.
· Don’t put your feet up yet... Written work is usually best completed in the FIRST practice session following a lesson as the instructions will still be fresh in your child’s mind. Students generally remember 90% of what they were taught the next day, but only 70% the day after that. As each day goes by, more and more information is forgotten. Ask your child to play what they learned in piano when you get home- the encouragement feels wonderful and they will better retain what was just learned.
· Here’s where you come in. Supervise a daily practice regime at home early on so they can eventually practice on their own. Don’t offer negotiating rights or bribes, because soon they won’t practice without them, and then you’re cooked. Learning the piano takes effective daily practice and anyone who says differently is doing you a disservice. All beginning pianists (no matter how old) need help when setting up a good daily regime that will result in practice that is effective and produces progress. Your encouragement and attention to their piano practice will really lift their spirits and this can be wonderful opportunity to spend a few minutes of quality time together each day. Let them know about all the practice beads they’ll get at the end of their next lesson- these can really help to keep them accountable for their practice habits at home. Remain strong and firm and eventually, your child will be able to practice on his/her own and you can sit back and enjoy the wonderful music they bring to your life.
· Can’t read music? That’s ok- you have the best teacher in the world sitting right at your piano at home! And anyway, you don’t need to know how to play, just how to read the instructions on the assignment page to your child. They know how to do each task, but will need daily guidance by you. Wanting to quit piano within 4-8 weeks of starting is often due to frustration and confusion during home practice. Unlike sports, karate, or dance, piano students spend time everyday practicing at home for their next lesson. First year-students will require lots of help from you to complete their assignments effectively.
· Did you REALLY practice last week? When students practice on their own they may need reminders to follow the written instructions in their notebook. Now and then you may hear me asking them lots of questions about their practice habits that week and you are wondering how I could even ask this because you heard them playing every day. This is certainly not an accusation. I need to determine what they were playing in order to facilitate a more effective practice regime. Perhaps they were not following the directions or mastering what they were assigned. It can be tempting when they are not being watched or corrected to just “go through the motions” at home without focus, full comprehension, or mastery of the assignment.
· You can’t fool the piano teacher! Sometimes what students don’t realize is that I’ve been doing this for so long, I can tell almost exactly how many days they practiced and how long they practiced the second their hands hit the keys. I can recognize “going through the motions” immediately when they attempt to demonstrate what I assigned. Direct parental supervision while practicing or auditioning a few days before the next lesson will usually resolve this type of situation right away. If they refuse your “help”, don’t worry; I’ll assign it next week!
· Audition?? Yes, audition your teen or pre-teen a day or so before his/her lesson. Take the assignment binder, (which the older student may or may not have even looked at; they often need reminders) and run down the list of assigned pieces. Have them play each one for you. You may well discover that there are portions of the assignment they have overlooked. Some students “cherry-pick” assignments by avoiding more difficult material. Doing this a day or so before the lesson can eliminate a lot of stress on your child. If they’ve practiced effectively, they are usually excited to show me, rather than stressing over the lesson.
· Call or email me right away if your child is confused with an assignment. I may have written something that just doesn’t make sense...I’ve been known to do that... just ask your child! If you are encountering tears of frustration, encourage them to put away the assignment and pull out a fun book that they don’t have to bring to lessons. They can try the assignment again tomorrow. Maybe they just need your encouragement to get through a rough spot in their piece.
· I hate piano. “I took piano lessons when I was a kid, but my parents let me quit and I’m so sorry they did.” I think every single adult student I’ve had has said this. Don’t let your child be one of my adult students who says this in 20 years.
Once students reach middle school, if their desire to play the songs they like, doesn’t match their ability to play those songs, they will likely want to quit. My job is to deliver that ability BEFORE they reach 6th grade. This is what you pay me to do and this is why I push my students so hard in the elementary school years. Your constant encouragement and support may provide their desire to continue. Children learn to take their piano lessons and their talent only as seriously as their parents do. Allowing your child to quit every time something isn’t easy may lead to big problems later on.
· Sometimes it’s not warm and fuzzy. Mastering anything in life isn’t always warm and fuzzy. I want my students to operate at their full potential and sometimes I push them to achieve this. I know their musical strengths and weaknesses after spending 45-60 minutes of one-on-one instruction with them each week. Some students are capable of more than they are giving and I know how proud they will feel once they are “over the hump”, so I work them just a bit harder to get there. You may hear them say that piano isn’t as much fun as it used to be or practice may be taking longer and the songs are not as easy to master. They may have been assigned the same songs for 3 weeks and wonder why I just won’t allow them to move on. You can assure them that I am seeing really fantastic progress and I can see them advancing as a pianist. But I will expect a little more at that level.
· Come and see where they are on the tree. This is what the “tree” represents on the studio wall. The “road” is bumpy- with times that are easy; smooth and gliding downhill. Other times are hard; trudging up to the next level. It is almost always the uphill moments when students want to quit. Sometimes, the closer they are to the top, they stronger the desire to quit can become. Even teachers and professionals experience this and feel discouraged sometimes. This feels hard to them but it’s a pivotal moment in their skill level. What a wonderful opportunity to let them know they are on the brink of something wonderful! Re-read The Little Engine That Could that night and remind them of how proud you are of their efforts.
· Parent/Teacher conference time. A good place to start is by asking yourself what action you would be willing to take if your child’s school teacher called you in for a conference because they were falling behind, not doing their homework, or because they didn’t “like” math. I’m sure we’ve all wanted to quit math a million times...But quitting math or quitting school entirely sure wouldn’t be your first plan of action, so don’t let quitting piano become your first suggestion either.
Well, we gave it our best-
· Maybe piano just isn’t for everyone. Some students genuinely loose interest, despite good practice and progress. Some don’t connect or feel inspired by their piano music no matter what they play, how many awards they’ve earned, or how many performance opportunities they have been given. Some don’t feel supported or like anyone is listening. Others just don’t want to practice anymore. This is a great opportunity to teach your child a life lesson and good character qualities; honoring commitments (trustworthiness), striving for a good work ethic, and determination. On the other hand, unfortunately, it may just be time to move on.
· Sure, you can quit if it’s too hard. Suggesting quitting as a solution to mastering something difficult is just a bad idea. And even though students won’t always talk to me about wanting to quit, once you’ve planted the seed at home that quitting piano will be entertained later, I can usually see the change in their attitude and the “writing on the wall” immediately in their next lesson and it tends to goes downhill from there. Speak with me about what’s going on at home and let’s find a good solution together. Teaching them to finish their goals and honor their commitments is the best lesson my students can receive!