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First Tip to Parents: Stop Asking your Child to Practice, Plus Four More Tips (by David J. Pacific)

Summary: No one wants to practice an instrument, but everyone wants to play. Parents are the key to succeeding during the six days between lessons.

About six years ago, I changed a core expectation as part of my teaching to beginning through early-intermediate students: I no longer asked them to practice. I completely eradicated the word ‘practice’ from every aspect of my teaching to students on this level. Of course, this required a monumental overhaul of how I taught, but in the most basic sense, I viewed the six days between lessons as an opportunity for each student to play the piano, not practice it. I only assigned music that was learned successfully in the lesson, could already be performed well, and used each piece to teach how a student would eventually come to practice so when the time came, the fundamentals were all in place. The success of this, however, is in the third party involved in the lessons: the parents.

There are really only two kinds of children who begin lessons: the first is the student who wants to play an instrument and the second is the student whose parents want him or her to play an instrument. Regardless, my job is to teach them how to do it and have it be a rewarding and positive experience along the way. The idea of practicing a sport and practicing an instrument are often compared, but I’ve never really believed these analogies hold up. Really, a better argument might be drawn that these analogies were created because many people quit music to play sports. Why? Practicing a sport is social while practicing an instrument is isolated. Playing a sport can result in a quantitative gain – a winning score, a total number of wins – where playing music has no measurement beyond personal growth. Private music teachers are left trying to find a way to tangibly or numerically show progress. We invent practice charts where minutes are recorded, wall charts where stickers are earned, or the antiquated check-mark that lets a student know they ‘passed’ a piece. A better comparison might be between practicing medicine and practicing music. Do you really want a doctor to ‘practice’ their craft on you? No! You want them to know what they’re doing just as I want my students walking out of the lesson knowing what they are doing. So, I beg all of the parents out there to no longer ask their child, “did you practice,” and, instead, I want to give you easy ways to get your child playing. This should be the first tip to parents.

Change the Question

Instead of asking, “did you practice,” ask a telling sentence. Try, “how was playing piano today” and listen to the response. The likely response will be, “I didn’t play piano.” We want to eventually transform that response into, “I didn’t play yet,” and finally to where they answer the initial question. How? A follow-up question: “why don’t you go play for a little bit and then tell me about it,” or, “we’ll talk about it at dinner.” The number of minutes played don’t matter since they can already play the piece successfully. This is just about building a positive relationship with time at the instrument. As they talk about playing they will develop ways to talk about music even if it sounds like nonsense. This connection matters. Over time, the language will smooth out into correct terms and there will no longer be the response, “I didn’t play yet.”

Stop Designating a Practice Time ALL the Time

Yes, kids need structure, but this doesn’t always build a good relationship with playing. I had a friend in middle school who came home from school and had to practice piano for a half-hour every day from 3:30-4:00pm. I remember thinking, “gosh, that’s awful,” and I even liked the piano. Kids are busy and busy minded, so remind them when they haven’t played, but don’t force time at the instrument. The point of playing is to engage the busy mind, but designating a set number of minutes can be torturous when they already know how to play their music.

Ask for a Private Concert

A private performance is a special time with Mom or Dad. Alone time with kids and one parent is sometimes more meaningful than any activity. This special time where a student gets to perform for a parent is their own private showcase where they are the star. Does it need to happen every week? No, but sometimes this can be the greatest motivator on the weeks when a student just doesn’t want to play.

Generating Positive Responses from other People

When I was a kid, the most technology we had was the GIANT Macintosh computer with the floppy disks that were the size of an average face. That has changed and technology is everywhere, including in my teaching. When playing at home, why not record a performance and send it to Grandma or Grandpa or even the teacher? Yes, I know this isn’t ground breaking, but most people miss the point of the recording. It’s not so the child can be recorded and shared; it’s that they get a positive response back from whomever you send it to. This feedback can be critical for students who don’t like to perform and can build a positive relationship with the process. Furthermore, they can record their own teaching video showing you or a family member how to do something musical. A seven second “Vine” video and positive feedback from Grandma can be all the motivation in the world.

Integrate Playing into Daily Life

This idea comes from another teacher friend who gave me this advice. Sometimes spontaneous activities with a quick goal can be all it takes. Imagine it’s just before dinner and your child is walking past you. All you have to do is say, “I totally forgot! I was thinking about your song you played the other day. How super-fast do you think you can play that? Can you do it before dinner?” Yes, it’s going to sound terrible fast, but it doesn’t matter. They’re engaged at the instrument again and Mom or Dad has shown that they remember a musical performance from before and not just making them do a task. Does this playing use good technique? No, but that’s not the goal here. The goal is a positive feeling associated with playing. Let me fix technique and I’ll let you know when issues arise.

Talk to the Teacher After Music Lessons

One of the biggest things that makes me feel defeated in my teaching is when I haven’t inspired a parent enough to be outside the door asking how a lesson went and the child is instead walking out to a parking spot. I have one of the few professions where I am able to give you a weekly progress report on how your child is doing and the more I can involve you, the better the experience for all of us. Plus, this isn’t a classroom; this is one of the few things in a child’s life that is literally one-on-one and I am giving you 100% undivided feedback. Take the time after the lesson to hear about how we made music this week. Even more importantly, take five minutes in the car to ask the child what they learned with details and not just “how was the lesson?”

Whenever I hear a parent wanting to withdraw an early student for lack of practicing, I ask them, “what have you done to make it a positive experience?” I usually hear, “well, I ask him/her to practice and he/she just doesn’t want to,” and I have to continue to emphasize how my expectation is that a student plays piano, but doesn’t practice. I’m hoping that these few ideas might help parents see that the goal isn’t to practice early on, but to play and to play enjoying what they do. Remember, when someone signs up for lessons, they want to play the piano, not practice it. In time, and by teaching skills that aren’t even obvious to the student or the parent, it’s my job to create the path to practicing. In the meantime, it’s the parent’s job to help them love to play.

Other Articles by David Pacific:

“Completing the Circuit”

“Beware of the Bark Side!” or Digital Pianos

“This One Looks Nice” Setting the Stage for Piano Purchasing Prowess

David Pacific is the Assistant Director of The Southeastern Piano Festival. Make sure to check out the SEPF!

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