A Parents’ Guide to:
Helping your child practice music.
As a modern parent, making time is the greatest challenge. Beyond this, finding the energy to positively invest in your child during a practice session can be tough. Remember that concepts, physical coordination, and muscular strength development take time: Enjoy their mistakes and laugh them off together! Let them know that making mistakes is the best way to learn how to be better, and that musically it shows them where to practice.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help yourself! If you don’t understand, have your student or their teacher explain it to you. This keeps you in the loop, but also shows your child that it is OK to ask questions, a very important part of learning anything. Asking your child for help is a good platform for bonding, but it also helps to empower them as people. Sooner or later they’ll realize you don’t know everything, and it is better to get to it before they’re teens and difficult!
One of the great miracles of music is that it can bring people together for a deeper understanding and relationship between people and art. Capitalize on your musical time with your child to open these doors together.
Parents’ Guide to Piano Practicing
Parents ask me all the time: How much should my child practice? How do I know if they are practicing what they are supposed to? How do I get them to practice? And so on…
As most of us have figured out by now, our job is to tell our children to practice. Their job is to do whatever they can to either get out of practicing, or get through it with as little effort as possible. But as parents you might not be able to tell if your child is practicing well or not. Here I will give you some guidelines and suggestions to help you make sure your child is getting the most out of piano lessons.
How do I get my child to practice?
This is the age-old question which has frustrated teachers and parents alike – probably since the first humans figured out how to whittle a bone into a flute. Believe me, if I had the answer I’d already be retired!
There are many different approaches to getting your child to practice, from incentives and rewards, to plain old coercion. What approach you take depends largely on how you approach parenting as there is no single correct way. And it’s certainly not my place to tell anyone how to raise their child.
However, having taught hundreds of children – and worked with hundreds of parents – I can share some of my observations and opinions.
Playing piano is like anything else, the better you get the more fun it is! Piano playing is difficult. Like anything difficult it starts out slow and frustrating. The first few months are spent learning the basics, note reading, rhythm, finger numbers, and so on. It’s very hard to make that stuff fun. But when they hear great piano playing, even the most bitter piano students agree that it sounds like a lot of fun to be able to play like that!
When it comes to learning piano it’s essential to take a long view. Remind your child that if they persevere, they will eventually be able to play anything they wish. That’s when it gets fun!
If you’re going to do something, why not do it well? Everyone wants to be good at the things they do. If you’re investing this much time and money in providing piano lessons for your child, why do it half-heartedly? I believe it’s much more rewarding to do one thing very well, than to be mediocre at five different things.
Children whose parents make them practice eventually stop resisting. In my experience, when parents insist that their child practices, and refuse to compromise, that child eventually stops complaining and just does it. Frequently, children like that turn out to be excellent students.
Try to establish a routine. The more an activity becomes part of a child’s routine, the less it seems like work. It may even become mildly addictive! Try to designate a certain time of day, i.e. before dinner, as “piano practice time.” It may be rough for a few weeks but eventually the resistance will subside.
How much should my child practice?
This depends on how much emphasis you place on the piano in your child’s education. Obviously, the more they practice the faster they will progress. If you have a five year-old you want to get to Carnegie Hall someday, then they should be practicing several hours a day!
However, depending on the age and skill level of the student, there is a minimum amount of practice that is necessary in order to make any progress. Here are some basic guidelines:
Ages 5-7 at least 10 minutes a day.
Ages 8-10 at least 15 minutes a day.
Ages 10-12 at least 20 minutes a day.
Ages 13+ at least 30 minutes a day.
Try to practice at least 4-5 days a week. It is very important to practice regularly, in order to retain what you accomplished in the previous practice session. Learning piano involves training both the mind and the muscles, and if we don’t do it often enough, we’ll spend all our time re-learning what we did last time. Practicing 15 minutes, six days a week is always more productive than practicing an hour and a half once a week.
Use a timer. I use a timer for certain things in my lessons, but I also use it for my own practicing. It’s useful not so much to set an overall length of practice time, but for setting smaller goals. Here’s an example of how a timer should be used in a 30 minute practice session:
Scales/warm up: 5 min.
Song A, first half: 5 min.
Song A, second half: 5 min.
That really hard part in Song B: 5 min.
All of Song B: 10 min.
What should my child practice?
The answer is pretty simple. They should practice what they are assigned!
Actually, it’s not quite that simple. Time is actually the least important factor in piano practice. Piano should be treated exactly the same way as maths, science, or any class at school. A student is finished with the assignment when it’s done, not when they have spent 15 minutes, or whatever, practicing it. As you all know, that’s how the world works! It is much better for them to get in that mindset now rather than later.
Obviously, with piano lessons only once a week, this makes it more important for the student to manage their time. Sometimes they can finish learning their assignment in one day, and then they can spend the rest of the week improving and polishing it. Other times, they might focus on one thing at a time. One great thing about learning piano is that it helps develop each person’s unique approach to learning.
I usually assign more than just songs though. On the assignment sheets I use in each student’s binder, I have the following categories:
- Repertoire. These are the songs;
- Technique. This includes warm-up exercises, scales and anything designed to improve finger strength or coordination;
- Theory. This is the written work. For children theory is usually the most hated part of their assignment. But I do not usually assign much of it, and it is important. With theory, children learn the concepts behind the music they’re playing – concepts they can apply to any other music;
- Other. This could refer to a musical composition, a reading or listening assignment, or any other project that does not fall into the categories above. So, if a student is only practicing his songs, they are probably not doing their whole assignment. If you only hear them playing songs, ask them if they had any scales, theory, or finger exercises. If they say yes, make sure they do it!
How should my child practice?
The “how” is the most important part of practicing. It’s possible to practice ten hours and make no progress, and it’s also possible to practice 15 minutes and make enormous progress. Most of that depends on how we practice. In other words, making the most efficient use of our time.
There are many different “ways” of practicing, far too many to include here. Here are some basic guidelines:
- Practicing is problem-solving! Sitting at the piano and playing through your songs once is not practicing. Real practicing means identifying what needs work and fixing it;
- Practice what you’re bad at! Like anything else you will only improve at piano if you practice the things that need work. It’s very tempting to only practice what we’re already good at, but if we do that we’ll never get better.
For example, I often hear my students say they only practiced the right-hand part of a song because their left hand is weaker. But that’s precisely why they should be practicing the left-hand part!
Never practice mistakes! Just as we should always practice to solve problems and improve, we should never practice something incorrectly. If a student practices something incorrectly they should fix it right away. The more they practice it the wrong way the more it will become ingrained and the harder it will be, if not impossible, to fix later.
Good piano playing is more than just playing the right notes. There is always a lot more to a song than just the notes. There’s rhythm, dynamics (loud and soft), articulation (whether the notes are played smoothly and connected or short and detached), and fingering, to name a few.
If your child says they have finished a song, ask them if they are doing everything correctly, not just the notes. Usually they know. If there’s something missing they should continue practicing until it’s fixed.
Correct fingering is essential to good piano playing. I can’t emphasize this enough. If a student learns to play a song using only one finger, he might be able to do it – but it’s probably wrong! It also develops bad habits that can not only impede his progress, they can actually be harmful. And they can be very difficult and time-consuming to correct later on.
There is usually only one correct way of playing something. Ask your child if they are using the correct fingering. If they say no, make them fix it!
If it hurts, stop! Piano playing should never hurt! A good, long practice session will leave our fingers feeling fatigued, but there should never be any pain or tension. Pain and tension result from playing incorrectly, or from trying to play something the student isn’t ready for.
I know this from experience. The summer after I graduated from high school I was practicing feverishly to prepare for college. Since I was playing incorrectly my arms were becoming tense and they hurt a great deal after practicing. But I ignored it, and eventually developed tendinitis in my right arm, which meant I couldn’t touch a piano for several months. In college I had several friends who completely ruined their arms from playing incorrectly, and as a result they will never play again.
Of course no decent teacher would have let them get to that point.
If your child complains that their arm hurts after finishing practice, tell them not to practice for the rest of the week, and to tell me about it in our next lesson.
The practice should fit the music. There are many different ways or methods of practicing and they should be tailored to fit the music, or musical passage the student is learning. I try to discuss these methods in our lessons, and to suggest the appropriate methods for mastering certain passages. Ask your child if they are practicing the song the way I asked them to.
Write! Good practicing requires a pencil! Many students will be inclined to think that any practice time that doesn’t involve playing through the song is a waste of time. On the contrary, writing notes in your music can prevent wasting time the next time you sit down to practice. Writing in fingering is especially important. If you spend a lot of time working out the fingering in a particular song, write it down! That way, if you forget it, it’s right there on the page and you won’t have to do the same work twice.
Things to watch for.
As I said at the beginning, our job is to tell children to practice, and their job is to try to get out of practicing, or to get through it as quickly as possible. Here are some common excuses and copouts to watch for:
Playing old songs. It’s always great to keep old songs in your fingers, and playing for fun is certainly allowed – ultimately, that’s why we’re doing this! But going over old songs does not count as practicing. If you tell your child to go practice, and they begin playing a song they learned two months ago, tell them they can play that song to their heart’s content; but only after they have practiced their assignment.
Playing through their songs once, and then saying they’re done. Real practicing means improving at something. Playing through the whole song is certainly part of the process, but only a small part. If your child plays through their songs once and says they are done, tell them, “No, they are not done!”
If there are passages they are having trouble with they should isolate them and practice them individually. If they already know the song fairly well, they could try to memorize it. There’s always something that can be improved!
Making the same mistakes over and over again. Trust your ears. If something your child is playing doesn’t sound right, it probably isn’t. Ask them – they’ll usually know if it’s right or wrong. If it’s wrong, they should not walk away from the piano until it’s fixed.
Practicing with only one hand. This is probably the most common copout. I rarely assign a student to learn a song hands-separately. It can be a good way to start learning a song, but it’s usually not a good idea to continue practicing it that way for long. That’s not what piano playing is about – piano uses both hands! You could practice something hands-separately for a year and still not be able to play it with hands together.
If your child is practicing hands-separately the whole week, ask them if that’s what I assigned him. Four out of five times it isn’t.
“My teacher didn’t write anything down, so I don’t have anything to practice.” Baloney! I try religiously to write down everyone’s assignment for that week – but occasionally I forget. Still, I always tell them what they are supposed to work on, and usually we will have spent some time on it in the last lesson. So even if I forget to write down their assignment, chances are they know exactly what they’re supposed to work on. If they honestly don’t know, then be creative! Tell them to pick a new song from the book and learn it.
“I don’t know what that means, so I can’t play it.” Not understanding one detail in a song doesn’t mean the song is too hard for them, or that they can’t practice it. If they say this, just tell them to ignore it, or look it up and continue practicing!
Music nourishes the soul and gives untold joy and fulfillment. It is also the ultimate learning experience, involving tremendous mental, physical and emotional coordination. For the active participant it is a creative outlet without equal.