Music as a Focusing Tool

We live in a distracted age, where focus can be as fleeting as the obedient dog who loses it when he sees a squirrel in his peripheral vision. Music is a place where multitasking just doesn’t work, so it makes sense that it might be a good focusing tool for children. Music activates brain cells on both sides of the brain. Parents have to love that fact, but the child just wants to have fun. Is it possible to have fun while giving the brain a healthy workout? In my experience, the answer is a resound yes!

Let’s face it: Kids don’t always like doing structured activities, even if they are (hopefully) fun like the piano. Establishing good practice habits takes time, and parental involvement is going to be key especially for younger students. However, practice becomes self-sustaining for kids who really enjoy playing the piano. If you’re looking for some inspiration for getting your kids to practice, please visit the monthly practice corner posts I write each month for my Piano Parents.

This post was inspired by two online articles I came across in my reading. The article about practice from UC Berkeley is not specifically about music, although it applies well to it. I was most encouraged by the experiment that showed how kids as young as six and seven are able to grasp the concept of deliberate practice! The NY Times piece is a guide to parents to limiting their kids’ tech, by age. Limiting tech time is a good opportunity to insert the great focusing tool of music!

How to Motivate Kids to Practice Hard Things (UC Berkeley)
How and When to Limit Kids’ Tech Use (NY Times)

Distracted Boy Cartoon
Distracted Boy Cartoon by www.amenclinics.com. Courtesy Flickr.
Posted 2020-02-19

Guide Your Child to Independent Practice

Background

Let’s face it: Kids don’t always like doing assigned tasks, even if they are related to a (hopefully) fun activity, like the piano. Parents don’t always remember to check that their child is doing the work that is assigned. The result? Progress sometimes comes to a grinding halt. That is where you have the opportunity to guide your child to independent practice.

True independent practice does not emerge in most students until close to the late pre-teen years. When it comes earlier, it’s a real blessing, but you can help guide that process! For a very young beginner, you might have to sit with the child during some or all of her practice. When the student can practice on her own, make regular check-ins.

For those who are making progress but have not yet reached independence, spot checks are good. You know best how your child functions, and how often you need to follow up. After all, you’re probably already harassing them to get their homework done for school, right?

Structuring the Practice Session

If you have a younger child, consider helping to structure your child’s practice time. For a 5- or 6-year-old, this might be just 10 or 15 minutes per day. An 8-year-old can probably do 20 minutes per day, and a 10-year-old and above can handle a half-hour of practice, especially as she approaches intermediate repertoire. You can set a timer at first. Eventually, the child is going to get a good sense of how long practice should be.

Once this routine is established, see if your child can take it over himself. One thing you can do during your check-in is to make sure the entire assignment is covered. This typically includes some aspect of technique, like a 5-finger pattern or scale, in addition to pieces from a method book and a supplemental repertoire book. If you don’t understand the assignment, ask your child or your child’s instructor to describe it to you.

Make Sure They’re Covering Everything

As I hinted at above, kids like to practice, but they sometimes willfully neglect part of the assignment. In particular, they might avoid the technique and theory work. When I was a graduate student at Juilliard, I didn’t spend as much time on keyboard harmony as I should have. I wasn’t alone in my class; we wanted to spend our time practicing repertoire!

Stay Interested Beyond Independence

Even when your child has reached independence, stay interested in what she is doing. It can be as simple as asking to hear a piece she is playing. Be sure to ask once in a while if she still finds the piano fun and meaningful. Sometimes a child might want to explore different repertoire or a certain popular piece. I try to make sure that my older students have a bigger say in what they do in lessons, but it’s also up to the student to speak up.

Awards Versus Rewards

This is a big area of contention in parenting as well as among music teachers. Younger children should get frequent and lavish weekly praise, which I award through stars that I place on pieces that are accomplished. As a child gets older, I try to inform the child’s own intrinsic motivation, since that is what is going to keep the child involved in music for the long haul.

Intrinsic motivation leads to the student playing a piece successfully at a recital, achieving a commendation at a music festival, or achieving a long-term goal. Awards take the place of rewards. An award can be given for achieving 50 days of practice, learning all of the major five-finger patterns, or all of the two-octave scales in minor keys.

In Conclusion

Independent practice isn’t something that just happens. Every successful piano student has a piano parent who takes the time to be involved in practice, to some degree and in the appropriate amount. I’m not downplaying the role of a good teacher, but that’s just part of the equation. Most of the work has to be done by the student at home, in practice.

It won’t always be smooth sailing, but when student, teacher, and parent are working together, great things can happen! At the very least, we have a lot of fun along the way.

Last Updated 2021-09-18 | Originally Posted 2018-10-24