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!
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 in lessons sometimes comes to a grinding halt. The good news is that a little bit of time spent checking assignments and practice, in the right way, can be extremely helpful!
In my experience, true independent practice does not emerge until the teenage years. When it comes earlier, it’s a real blessing, but it’s not typical! For a young student, check-ins should be regular. For pre-teens who have not yet reached independence, spot checks are good once in a while. 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?
What you can do
If you have a younger child, please consider helping to structure your child’s practice time. This can be as simple as setting a timer and letting your child know when to begin and to end. I suggest 20 or 30 minutes, which varies by age and level. Once this routine is established, see if your child can take it over himself, or whether he needs some help from time to time. Also, check in once in a while to see that time is spent on the entire assignment, which typically includes some aspect of technique (5-finger pattern or scale), activities, and learning pieces. If you don’t understand the assignment itself, ask your child to describe it to you.
Of the three parts of the assignment, activities are most often avoided. Activities comprise several activities: written theory, keyboard harmony, sight-reading, rhythmic drills, and ear training. Even as a graduate student at Juilliard, I was in the majority of pianists and organists who didn’t spend as much time on keyboard harmony as I should have. Our amazing instructor warned us that we would be sorry later on for not taking it more seriously, and he was right! For the most part, kids avoid doing this work because they don’t like it; I can relate to that. However, occasionally it’s because they don’t understand it. In that case, I am more than happy to help a child work through a new or confusing concept.
For your pre-teen, give her some independence in her practice sessions, to the extent that she has earned it. Check-ins can be different than those for younger children. It can be as simple as asking to hear a piece she is playing, or discussing what goes on in a lesson. Be sure to ask once in a while if she still finds the piano fun and meaningful.
What I can do
There’s a lot more I can do with pre-teens and teens once they’ve achieved some fluency on the piano. I make a special effort to check in often with pre-teens and teens about what they want to do, whether that’s incorporating playing by ear, playing from lead sheets, and to offer different styles of pieces in addition to their normal classical repertoire.
I can only help my students progress to the extent that they put in the work at home. Raw talent only gets you so far, and every student faces roadblocks that only time and practice can break through. When the student, teacher, and parent are working together, great things happen! And, we have a lot of fun along the way.