Here’s a question that came in as a comment: How do you deal with piano practice? I find that if I let my children (8, 5) practise themselves, they’ll skip some scales and end up doing really shoddy work on their pieces. I find myself having to sit down with them every time in order to get good progress, and it’s really frustrating because I can’t do chores or help/play with/read to the younger ones. I’d really appreciate your advice, thanks.
Oh, the piano practice!
You’re right. If you want your children to make good progress, you need to practice with them. Realistically, we cannot expect most children under the age of nine or ten to practice effectively on their own. They simply lack the discipline and know-how.
I completely commiserate with how frustrating it can be when your kids don’t practice well. I used to be a piano teacher, so sloppy practice makes me cringe. But we really can’t blame our kids for it when they’re so young. Instead, we need to be realistic about their abilities and our own time constraints. Can you afford the time it takes to practice with your kids daily? If so, fantastic! If not, you need to lower your standards and accept shoddy practice and slow progress for the time being. Or, find a happy medium in-between. What you choose to do really depends on your goals. And your goals will probably change as your state in life evolves.
Ask yourself: What are my goals for my children? What is it I want them to achieve or gain by learning to play the piano? When I only had three children, my goals for my kids in learning to play piano were to develop a disciplined work ethic, to learn to pay attention to details, to perform music by memory, to grow in artistry and expressiveness, and to develop a love and appreciation for classical music. Since then, my lofty musical goals for my kids have come down a fair bit. If they can play reasonably well, if they find joy in the beauty of music, then that’s good enough for now.
When you’re homeschooling and juggling multiple children and their sports and activities, you just can’t do it all. Some of your goals can be met in other ways; others can wait. Sometimes you have to settle for less, which is better than nothing at all.
But if my kids are practicing in a sloppy way and making poor progress, aren’t piano lessons just a waste of time and money? The frugal mom in me says, “Yes! It is a waste of money.” The tiger mom in me says, “Persevere! You can’t practice with them every day, but you can at least practice with them once a week and check on them throughout the week.”
Here’s how to help your children practice effectively:
- Make your kids aware of the the difference between playing and practicing. Playing is playing through the whole piece without stopping to fix mistakes. Practicing is drilling small sections with a specific intent, ie. I am going to get the all notes right in this passage or I am going to get all the dynamic markings.
- There are four basic ways to practice: sectional practice, slow practice, spot practice, and backwards practice. Teach your children to do all four.
- Sectional Practice: Every time you child begins a new piece, break it up into small sections. A section can be 2-8 measures. The student should practice each section several times and get it perfect several times before moving on to the next section. This is slow, tedious work, but it should produce notable progress from one day to the next.
- You have probably noticed that kids tend to rush through their pieces mindlessly. Slow practice is very careful, deliberate practice, at a tempo way below performance tempo. It’s like playing in slow motion. With younger children, this should include some form of verbalization, whether it’s singing the notes, singing the words, or counting out loud while playing. This is difficult, but it is also very effective. Slow practice is important for accuracy and will help reduce sloppiness.
- Spot practice: I used to tell my students: If you have a clean shirt with one spot of ketchup on it, would you scrub the whole shirt or just the stain? Of course, just the stain. The same is true for practicing a piece that’s nearly polished. Once a student becomes adept at playing a piece, there are often one or two spots (usually transitional areas) that need extra practice. Students should drill just that spot several times before playing the entire piece. When they do play the whole piece, they should slow down as they approach that tricky spot and play through it carefully, slowly, accurately. It’s sort of like driving through a road in the mountains. When you’re driving near a cliff, you slow down and drive more carefully.
- Backwards practice: Have you ever been to a recital and heard children play their pieces really well at the beginning but not so well towards the end? These kids could benefit from backwards practice. Some days, start practicing the piece with the last section, then the second last section, and so on. This helps to ensure that the end of the piece is as well-studied as the beginning of the piece.
- Ask the teacher to write very clear instructions on how to practice the piece. For each section, he/she should write step by step instructions on a sticky note and place it on the page or sheet of music. (Students are less likely to ignore instructions on a bright yellow sticky than notes in a separate notebook) The instructions should include how many times a passage should be practiced and for what intent. For example: practice Section B five times, getting all the staccatos.
- Having difficulty finding the time to practice with your kids? I’m not a fan of multi-tasking. But doing a mindless chore such as folding laundry or dusting can be done while practicing with your child, as long as you’re in the same room. First, show your child exactly how he should practice a passage. Make sure he can do it right on his own. Then say, “Now practice that section 5 times. I’ll listen while you do it.” (Then do your chore while he practices the section.) Once your child has practiced that section five times, teach him exactly how he should practice the next passage, and so on.
- Finally, make use of Passive Practice. That is, have the kids listen to the pieces they are learning while they are playing games, getting ready for bed, or falling asleep. Shinichi Suzuki was a strong advocate of this, and it really does make a big difference. Students who are very familiar with their pieces even before they start learning them learn much more quickly. (I must confess, however, I don’t do this. After having to listen to five children practice piano each day, plus one son playing guitar and another banging on his drum set, I crave silence.) Once your children are out of the method books, Masterwork Classics is an excellent series of children’s classical music for piano that comes with CDs.
Essentially, teach your children to practice carefully and diligently until it becomes a habit. As the legendary baseball player, Cal Ripken said, Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.
At the same time, sometimes we need to let go of perfectionism. If you are really struggling to find the time to help your kids practice well, don’t let it be a source of angst or frustration. Chesterton once wrote: if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly. Learning to play the piano, even if progress is slow, is a thing worth doing. Being able to make music is a marvelous gift of beauty and expressiveness.
Finally, unless you want your child to be a world-class concert pianist, it’s never too late to start taking lessons. My college roommate is one of the most brilliant, virtuosic pianists I know, and she did not start lessons until she was nine. (She could have become a concert pianist, but she became a nun instead!) If your children’s sloppy practice is driving you crazy, if you don’t have the time to help them practice effectively even once a week, if you’re really worried that you’re just wasting money, hold off piano lessons until your children are more mature. You’re not quitting; you’re waiting. When the time comes, you will still need to help your kids practice well, but you won’t need to sit with them nearly as much. In the meanwhile, play lots of classical music, take them to the symphony once or twice a year, and fill their lives with beautiful music.
Hope this helps!