Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Dreaded P Word Revisited

With the beginning of a new school year, many of us will be delving back in to the universal parent-child struggle commonly known as daily instrumental practice. Of course, some days our kids behave like little Mozarts who can't wait to play their pieces and fill the house with cherubic harmonies. Other days, not so much. There can be resistance, frustration, and even tears at practice time, even for students who are dedicated to their instruments.

I am often asked for ideas about how to empower kids to practice effectively at home, so what follows are some ideas I've gleaned over the years, including tips from my own years as a pianist.

1) Don't get discouraged. I once ripped a page out of my music book, wadded it up, and threw it in the trash out of sheer frustration. (A story I've shared with lots of kids over the years, including the aftermath. Ouch.) I hated practicing quite a number of times over the years and continue to make and enjoy music, and so will a lot of kids. Don't take the resistance personally, and don't put too much importance on one really bad practice day.

2) Communicate with your teacher. I can guarantee that all teachers want to know if your child is consistently not interested in or not enjoying making music at home. Frustration can be an indicator that some important element was not clearly communicated during the lesson. Lack of motivation can be related to dislike for the literature being studied. Sometimes students don't have a clear idea what to do at home, which is something teachers always want to address in lessons. Teachers are asked to find music that motivates dozens of individual students, so guidance and honest feedback are always appreciated.

3) Don't make music making feel like doing penance. How would you feel if you were sequestered in the living room by yourself (or insert other solitary place here) while your brothers were outside tossing the football around or your sisters were giggling in the next room? Practice works best when all members of the family are engaged in similarly intellectual activities. Family members should be present and interested but not distracting, and noticing progress is always motivating to students.

4) Make great music and great performers part of your daily vocabulary. I grew up in a family that made music every day. We sang together, we listened to great performances, we played instruments, and we had access to recordings of renowned performers. I learned to appreciate how music made me feel, its larger cultural value, and the skill of really accomplished performers. I wanted to be one of them, and I wanted to make music as well as they did. In short, I knew what I was working toward. Your child's goals and musical tastes may not be the same as mine, but having a present standard of greatness in any musical genre makes all the difference.

5) Schedule the beginner, but eventually let inspiration take over. Most young or beginning students will need to schedule practice daily to really grasp basic concepts, build coordination, and acquire basic skill at the instrument. Find a time when the child is in a good mood, alert, and ready for intense concentration and then put music making on par with school work. I assure you, it is equally important to every child's healthy development!

Children younger than nine almost always need some kind of adult supervision. BUT, once a child really gets the "bug," really begins to feel and enjoy music, let them! I have to admit that from about middle school onward, my music making became much more fluid. I didn't necessarily practice daily; I practiced in intense bursts. Sometimes I spent 10 minutes at the piano 4 or 5 separate times, sometimes I didn't play for days and then made music for two or three hours on Saturday afternoon.

6) Don't call it practice. What is practice anyway? It's music making, so why can't we just call it that? Music making time sounds much more interesting and full of possibilities than "practicing." Of course, this music making must be somewhat structured in order to develop good habits, build fluency, and prevent injury, but playing should always be musical ... every single time. Follow the book most days, but set aside a day to do something unorthodox. Let your child teach you a song. Play tricky rhythms on pots and pans. Set aside a day for getting motivated with great performance on YouTube. Introduce your kids to your favorite artists. Help them find theirs.

I hope these few, scattered ideas are helpful as you navigate the tricky world of daily music making with children. Learning the piano is complicated ... much more difficult than almost everything students are asked to do in their daily lives. However, I assure you that there is nothing more spiritual, more culturally informative, and more life-changing than great music. These seeds of musicianship take years to grow, but the end result is an astonishing thing of real value.

Thank you for continuing this journey with me. I am humbled and honored by the opportunity.

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