Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Responsibilities of a Piano Parent

This is the handout that we distributed at our Piano Parent workshop, with comments from my part of the presentation included. I hope you find this to be helpful!

We have made mistakes along the way - we had a terrible instrument at first, and it showed in her playing. We, at one point, moved her instrument into her room, thinking that it would encourage her to practice more, and I think she might have actually practiced less. I tried making practice her responsibility, and of course she opted to not practice. We have had highs and lows and ups and downs, and a few tears have been shed (because “it’s hard!”), but we have stuck with it and we are all the better for it. So I have learned a few things, some from experience, and some from talking to teachers and other parents, and I would like to briefly share those with you today, in the hopes that you might benefit from my experience.

Responsibilities of a Piano Parent

1.) Have your child make a commitment to lessons and regular practice, and you make one, as well. Your child will commit to piano at the same proportionate level you do. Let your child know that they should uphold their end of the bargain by putting in quality, regular practice, since their commitment involves not only themselves but also you AND the teacher. Make it clear to your child that the piano teacher's time (and your time and money!) are valuable and should not be wasted on poorly prepared lessons or improper behavior. 

When my daughter decided she wanted to take piano lessons, we made it clear to her that she would be making a commitment for 2 years (2 years because that would hopefully give her time to experience a few highs & lows and be able start playing music that she wants to play). We made her aware that her commitment involved the rest of the family - we, as her parents, were paying for her lessons, and transporting her there, and her younger brother often had to come along, and as such we expected her to take it seriously and work hard at it.

We decided, with her, that piano would be her priority activity. She could do other things (and she has opted to do so, during her time in lessons she has been a girl scout, and played basketball and run track and even taken taekwondo), but that those things could not infringe upon the time she put into piano. Her homework was her first priority, and piano practice was second. Just like not doing homework is not an option, not practicing piano is not an option, either.

Our approach might seem a bit strict to some, but she is learning so many lessons as she progresses, and they aren’t all musical. She is learning about the value of work and effort, and about reaping their rewards - when she finally manages to play a particularly difficult passage or a song that, at first glance, seemed impossible, she knows that SHE accomplished that. She gets to know the feeling of excelling at something. She has experienced success, earning awards and medals, but - almost as importantly -  she has also experienced disappointment, and she is the better for it. She knows that when you make a mistake, you have to brush yourself off and get back up and keep going. Both her successes and her failures have helped her to become stronger, more confident and capable.

2.) Provide the highest quality instrument possible. Provide your child with a nice piano, and they willl be proud of it and want to play on it. A quality instrument will allow a child to progress at their own speed, instead of potentially being held back by a non-responsive instrument. Have that instrument in a place in the home where the student will be around people but away from distractions. If the piano is in the same room as a television, try to place the piano where the player cannot see the TV. 

First, have a quality instrument - the best that you can afford. The better the instrument, the better the student’s experience will be. A poor quality instrument can leave a child frustrated and hold them back from progressing, no matter how often they might practice. We can’t all afford grand pianos, but we should provide the child with the best we CAN afford.

Instrument placement is important - putting a digital piano in a child’s room does NOT necessarily mean that they will practice more (in my case it turned into a Barbie condo). It might, for some children, but most times it does not. If you have a keyboard or digital piano, having it on a stand with an appropriate bench is also important. A keyboard sitting on a box on their floor in no way simulates a lesson setting and will not help matters at all. Having the instrument in a central room in the home - one where you can at least be near your child while they’re practicing - is a much better. Having the piano away from the television is a good idea, although if they have to be in the same room, situating the piano where the player can’t see the television helps.

3.) Respect your piano teacher. Treat them like the professional they are. Be respectful of their time and schedule. Maintain open and honest communication with them, especially if you have questions or issues. Be cautious as to how you talk about the teacher or the teacher’s lessons in front of your child. Keep in mind that pedagogy has changed since you were a piano student, and if your child is learning something differently from the way you were taught, that does not mean it is wrong. If you disagree with the way your child is learning, speak with the teacher about it before correcting your child. 

Your teacher has been playing piano for years, has most likely been through at least 4 years of college, if not more, then also spends time continuing their education through workshops, conferences and other methods. They have designed a curriculum unique to your child, and they have done so for every student in their studio. They have taken the time to seek out and obtain materials for lessons. There is a lot more time invested in your child’s 30 minute lesson than you think!

Almost every issue you can imagine can be solved by maintaining open and honest communication with your child’s teacher. Also, if you are a pianist yourself, it’s important to understand that pedagogy - how piano is taught - has changed over the years, and we all know that today’s children learn differently. So if your child is learning something that is different from what you learned, there could be a valid reason for it. If the teacher instructs your child to do something that is different from the way you learned as a child, speak with the teacher before correcting your child.

I thought that, as a trumpet player, being able to help my daughter would be easy. I was astonished to learn that pianists don’t always learn their staff note names using an acronym (every good boy does fine). Luckily I learned that my daughter’s teacher doesn’t use that BEFORE trying to use it to “help” my daughter. I also learned that, I knew how to practice successfully on the trumpet, but had very little idea how to practice successfully on the piano. But I’ll speak more on successful practice later.  

Respect your teacher’s time. If your child is playing a sport, try and anticipate that when scheduling your lessons in the fall. If you schedule a lesson time, then ask to be re-scheduled, chances are your piano teacher has at least 4 or 5 other people (in some cases, 8 or 9) other families that have to be shuffled around to make room for your scheduling conflict, if it’s even possible to shuffle those families around. You can always check with coaches - many will accomodate piano lessons.

4.)  Be a polite piano parent. *Be on time for lessons, and be on time with payment for lessons. *Notify the teacher of absences as early as possible. *Don’t expect a make-up lesson or a refund for missed lessons - be prepared to abide by studio policy. *If you sit in on lessons, don’t interrupt without being invited to do so by the teacher. *If you are waiting in the studio for your children's lessons to be completed, remain quiet and do not interrupt. *Pick up your children punctually at the end of the lesson time. This will assure that your child gets the maximum benefit from the allotted time with the teacher. Be a positive example! If you blow off or forget piano lessons regularly, it sends a strong message to your child that piano isn’t important.

  • be on time - and if you’re not on time, don’t expect the teacher to run your lesson past its’ scheduled ending time, thus throwing off their schedule for the rest of the day - and in the same vein, if you’re 10 minutes early, don’t expect the teacher to start the lesson then. If they do, don’t expect them to give you an extra 10 minutes in your lesson. They might do so anyway, but they might not, and that is at their discretion.
  • Don’t expect your teacher to be able to have a conversation after the child’s lesson - they have another lesson afterwards, most likely. If you want to communicate with the teacher, call them that evening or the next day, or email and set up a time to talk
  • If you can’t make your lesson, it’s polite to try and let your teacher know. The policy for missed lessons will vary from teacher to teacher, but don’t expect a make-up lesson or a refund. To learn more about why, when you have time, take a look at this article titled ‘Make-up Lessons From An Economist’s Point of View’.  
I’ll offer an example from my own life - I scheduled my daughter for lessons over the summer. Then suddenly, at the end of June, my daughter was invited to spend a couple of weeks in July with her Aunt out of town, which would cause her to miss three out of four lessons in July. My daughter decided to go, and I let her teacher know as soon as possible, but I did not expect a lower tuition rate for July or a refund for the missed lessons. There was no way her teacher would be able to fill an hour long lesson slot on Thursday afternoons at 1PM for 3 weeks only, so there would be no way for her to make up that missed income.

The same goes for scheduled trips - I let our teacher know when we’ll be out of town, but even with advance notice I don’t expect a discount or a refund, because again, how is she going to sell a 45-minute time slot on a Thursday afternoon for just one week? She can’t. And while she might be nice enough to OFFER me a make-up lesson, I don’t expect it. Our piano teacher loves teaching, but she also has to eat and pay her mortgage. Like the handout says, “not many employees would be thrilled if their boss announced that they couldn’t work from 3:30 to 4:40 this afternoon, but they could stay until 6:30 on Thursday because there will be work for them then”.

It’s important to respect your teacher’s policy about parents in the studio. If you are sitting in on the lesson, don’t get involved without the teacher’s invitation. It is fine to observe, listen and take notes, but don’t speak to or for your child without the teacher’s direction - -your best intentions could be disruptive or distracting. Also, if you are in the studio during the lesson, keep distractions to a minimum. If you’re going to use your cell phone, leave the room. If your child has siblings that are with you, encourage them to be respectful. If that means being quiet while in the studio while the lesson is going on, or being respectful of the lesson taking place nearby, or not barging in on the lesson while they are taking place, the cooperation of brothers and sisters ensure the most of your child’s lesson time.

Be a positive example. If you blow off or forget piano lessons regularly, it sends  a strong message to your child that piano isn’t important.

5.) Most importantly: PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE! We all want our children to have fun learning piano, but piano lessons only happen once a week - progress at the piano really happens at home, as the child learns and progresses through regular practice. The real fun to be had is when the child is able to the play the music they want to play, a point reached by - you guessed it - regular practice. With some ingenuity and enthusiasm, routine practicing cannot only become fun but rewarding for a child. There does come a time when the child is able to play well enough, that they will play, (and practice) for their own enjoyment.  Until that day, there are steps you can take to help your child enjoy practicing.

Practice might seem boring and contrary to the notion of having fun at the piano, which is what so many parents want for their children. However, students cannot succeed and progress without practicing, and if you aren’t progressing, odds are you aren’t having much fun.

Some practice hints:

  • Not every student understands what good practice is. If your child doesn’t understand HOW to practice, speak with the teacher and come up with a plan. Put the plan in writing, or type it up and print it out, and post it at the piano or in the student’s lesson assignment book.
  • Schedule practice into their daily activities.
  • Sit and listen to them play. Don’t just assume because you hear the piano being played that the student is practicing well and what they’re supposed to be practicing. A student can sit at the piano for 15 minutes playing and not have a productive practice session. The quality of practice is just as important as the quantity. If their assigned amount of practice time seems insurmountable, break it up into smaller segments. Instead of 30 minutes straight, for example, try two 15-minute sessions, or three 10-minute sessions.
  • Praise, praise, praise! Look for some reason to compliment your child, if nothing else it may be praise for simply sitting up tall at the piano. Give them the message that you are glad that they are trying. Give them the message that they are doing a good job.
  • Create incentives. Make a sticker incentive chart, or fill a treasure chest with inexpensive Dollar store toys and let your child select an item from there once they’ve achieved a goal (you should work with your teacher to come up with goals).
  • Create incentives even for activities you would let your child do anyway. For instance, “practice your piano first, then you can go ride your bike.” If allowed in your household, allow your child to earn time on the computer, TV or game system for practicing.
  • Don’t practice mistakes. Mistakes are allowed and even expected, the trick is simply not to practice them. When the same mistake is played two, then three, then four times in a row, the student is well on their way to becoming an EXPERT at the mistake. Students will practice a line of music over and over again, and when they finally play it correctly they think, "Phew! I got it right!" and then immediately move on to the next line. The problem with this is that they played it incorrectly perhaps 5 times, and correctly only once. So, the next time you get to that line, which way are the fingers more likely to remember, the incorrect way or the correct way? The incorrect way. As parents, we need to help our children recognize that practice does not end when you play it correctly--that's when practice begins.
  • Play games and make it fun! Use flash cards to drill and play matching games. Find fun things to do at the piano, like the game Left to Right: Have the student select items to use as a visual - army men, mini teacups, small balls, any small item that you have in multiple quantities will do. Place all those items on the piano on the left side of they keyboard. Every time the student successfully completes a small goal - say, playing a tough passage correctly, 3 times in a row - they move one item to the right side of the keyboard. Practice ends when they have moved all items from one side of the keyboard to another, or they receive a prize for moving all the items. Items like this can also be used to have the student find notes on the keyboard (“Put an army man on an ‘F’ key”), or build scales (‘Put a bouncy ball on every note in the C Major scale”) or chords.
  • Puzzling Practice: You can purchase small blank cardboard puzzles containing 5-6 pieces (arts and crafts stores carry them). On each puzzle, write a specific prize: breakfast in bed, trip to the bookstore, choice of movie for movie night, choice of menu for Sunday dinner etc. You award one puzzle piece for each good practice session. By the end of the week, it is possible to complete the puzzle, and when the puzzle is completed the student receives the prize listed on the puzzle. 
  • Visual Aids: Pick out beads - or let the student pick out beads, or marbles, or neat rocks, or whatever appeals to the student. Two jars are kept beside the piano and for every 10 minutes of practice the child transfers one bead from one jar to the next. If you set a weekly practice goal of 3 hours, moving beads this way the child can visually keep track of their practicing in a way that is satisfying.
  • Take advantage of summer lessons, when/if possible: take summer lessons, if your teacher offers them. Summer is such a great time to learn and progress, without the distractions of school and homework. We’ve taken summer lessons every summer since starting piano, and they are a wonderful opportunity for growth. This past summer we decided to increase my daughter’s lesson time to an hour, and then decided that she would practice an hour each day, split up into 20 minute sessions, since she had more time. The progress she made over the summer - even taking half of it off to go out of town - was INCREDIBLE.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. Your site is quite interesting and very well written. I am waiting for your next post

    Vancouver Piano Movers