Updated: Aug 11, 2018
Believe it or not, piano lessons are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to learning the piano. Progress is mostly made in between lessons during the pupil's own practice time. It is here that the role of a parent is essential if the child is to:
A) Benefit from their lessons...
B) Continue to progress at a rate that keeps them interested,.. and
C) Most importantly, enjoy all the benefits that come with playing the piano.
To understand why the parent has an important role here, we must firstly talk about the role of the teacher versus the role of the parent.
WHAT IS THE PIANO LESSON FOR?
In a nutshell, the actual piano lesson should be viewed as a point of focus for the pupil. It is something that is fixed in the diary to work towards with a view of presenting their achievements since the last lesson. The teacher has several roles here which can involve answering questions, working through challenging areas in the music, critiquing the pupil's playing, demonstrating practice methods, deepening / reinforcing understanding, setting targets, and finally, providing inspiration and encouragement.
This, overall, is keeping the pupil on-track and moving forwards in their development as a piano player.
WHAT IS PRACTISING FOR?
The aim of practising is to reinforce the content provided in the lesson, making pieces of music more understandable, more familiar, and ultimately more enjoyable to play. These things however can only happen if practising is done regularly, as the brain needs to lay down new pathways and secure them through careful repetition over time.
If these brain pathways aren't built up and reinforced, the pupil will most likely forget the majority of last lesson, and return next time having retained very little. In effect, most of last lesson needs to be covered again... or practised with the pupil in the lesson itself. If this is happening on a regular basis, the child will very quickly become bored and frustrated. They won't see any progression, and will want to abandon their lessons for the next activity on the list. What a shame that would be!
Here's a great video on 'How to practice effectively... for just about anything'.
It's worth reminding ourselves why we (or our children) are playing the piano at all. Practising, if approached in the right way, can be a very rewarding and engaging activity, and is in fact a fundamental part of 'playing' the piano. I personally enjoy practising as much as the 'playing' that results from it. There is a great sense of achievement after a week when you look back and discover that you've moved forward. This is incredibly motivating! It also slows our thinking down to a slower pace after a busy day. Viewing it as kicking your shoes off and relaxing after work (or school in the case of kids) is a far more positive way to think about practicing, rather than it being just another task to complete.
HOW CAN THE PARENT HELP?
If a child is to gradually move forwards with each lesson, and keep enjoying it, the parent has an important part to play. This is especially true for younger learners. But don’t panic! I’m not in any way suggesting that a parent should sit with their child and act as another teacher, or, understand the material their child is covering. This can actually be quite damaging if a well meaning parent takes on the role of a second teacher, perhaps having had piano lessons themselves. They might inadvertently introduce an approach that is contrary to what the piano teacher is trying to achieve, which will clearly cause confusion in the child.
What I am suggesting is that by encouraging a child to practise (preferably at the same time each day so they develop a sense of routine), you will be helping them progress much more than they would without your encouragement. You will begin to see a return on your investment both in your child's abilities, and in their enjoyment of playing.
There are so many other things around these days to distract a child from ‘remembering’ to practise, even if they love it! In general, if a child left to their own devices to choose between practising their piano or spending time on a games console (or other tempting device, hobby or diversion), most of them will choose the latter. All a parent needs to do is decide on an appropriate time every day for their child to practise the piano (such as just before they eat a meal in the evening), gently prompt them that it's practice time when it arrives, and I guarantee that their progress will be boosted!
Progress can be achieved in as little as 10 focused minutes a day for a beginner. More advanced players will obviously need longer. I personally teach techniques during my lessons to maximise productivity in short amounts of practice time. These techniques work wonderfully as long as the pupil is practising on a regular basis. 10 minutes of course is just the minimum requirement for a focused practice session, and if they choose to spend longer at the piano, all the better!
Even older children still need that bit of encouragement to organise their time efficiently, and a gentle prompt from a parent every day at the agreed time, will be incredibly beneficial and supportive. If this routine is set in place from the very first lesson, while the enthusiasm to learn is fresh and new, it will likely become the norm to practice throughout the week as the habit sets in.
HOW THIS HELPS THE PIANO LESSON
It's always a good sign when a pupil arrives at their piano lesson, sits down, and instantly turns to a page they’ve been practising. Clearly, they’ve looked at the music in between lessons, rather than asking “which page were we doing”.
Another encouraging sign is hearing an improvement on last lesson, accompanied by questions about tricky places etc. This is lovely for a piano teacher to hear, as it means they can help the pupil move forward in all the areas mentioned above, rather than going over much of what was covered last time. The piano lesson then becomes far more interesting, engaging, and interactive. Psychologically, it's also very rewarding for a child who proudly wants to present what they have been preparing since last time. It's also very satisfying for them to move onto a new section of the music, or turn the page to see fresh material rather than being stuck on last week's material.
OTHER WAYS A PARENT CAN HELP
PRACTICE MATERIAL - Make sure the material your child is learning from is not left in the car for a week. I know this may seem obvious but you'd be surprised how often it happens. Check that it is taken into the house and placed on the piano.
IS THE INSTRUMENT VISIBLE? - If they are learning on a keyboard that can be picked up and moved about (rather than an acoustic or digital piano), make sure it is always set up in a permanent, accessible place. A keyboard packed away in the cupboard or hidden out of sight means that it is out of mind, both for the parent, and more importantly for the pupil. An instrument that you walk past several times a day is much more likely to be used.
WHAT ARE THEY SITTING ON? - Having an appropriate chair or piano bench at the right height and distance from the piano is almost as important as the instrument itself. Occasionally checking their posture, and gently reminding them of how they have been taught to sit and place their hands on the keys is very useful.
WHAT'S THE CONDITION OF THE INSTRUMENT? - Playing and practising on a poorly maintained instrument is like taking driving lessons in an old rust-bucket of a car that keeps breaking down. FRUSTRATING! If you have an acoustic piano, have it tuned and serviced regularly. If it's a keyboard or digital piano, is it in good working order? Expecting you child to learn on an instrument that gives them a bad playing experience is removing all the joy from doing so.
TAKE AN INTEREST IN WHAT THEY ARE DOING - Actively listening to what they are playing (even from another room) is a big help. If it sounds good to you, tell them it did. If it just sounds like random notes, it is a sign that they are struggling. Being aware of their weekly goals and asking them how they are doing is great encouragement. If they can describe what they are doing, and tell you what is going well, or even not so well, it will help them process where they are with things, and give them confidence to ask for help in the piano lesson. If they are too shy to say that they struggle at home, tell the teacher yourself.
WHAT NOT TO DO
Please be aware that what I'm about to say is in no way suggesting that you don't know how to handle your child's education. It is simply a suggestion based on previous experience. Here goes...
Avoid being pushy or naggy about piano practice. Many parents of course don't intend to be either of these, and naturally, have the child's best interests of at heart. However, showing frustration is a sure way to frame piano playing as a monotonous homework style task. It turns it into a negative experience, rather than the stimulating, creative and enjoyable daily activity that it can be.
Instead, let's look for more positive ways to encourage the benefits of practicing. For example, if your child is into sport, piano practice could be likened to brain training, or gradually building their muscle memory towards achieving this week's goal. Perhaps compare piano practice with that of a top athlete or sports personality who trains every day to become world-class. Demonstrating to them that being really good at something (just like is in sport) is a gradual process of small steps that all add up will encourage their view of practising in the same way.
The sport comparison is just one of many analogies that you could use. It all depends on what your child is interested in. Follow the teacher's lead in how they encourage the child to think of practising.
As frequently happens to children, they will almost definitely go through bad patches where they appear to have lost interest, and really don't want to practise. This is completely normal for most kids. If this happens, however tempting it may be, threatening to stop the piano lessons and telling them that it has being a waste of money is probably not a good way of encouraging more interest. I've experienced this approach a number of times, and it has never once rejuvenate any enthusiasm. Although I understand the parents frustration, it's better to just back off for a little while and let the lessons continue... even if they don't practise.
Let their teacher know, and discuss it with them in private. Ending the lessons abruptly without even having a conversation with the teacher would be a little extreme, and you could be robbing the child of an activity that they will thank you for persevering with when they are older. The child may simply need a different style of music to learn, or a change of activities during the lesson to rekindle the enthusiasm they had when they first started. If the teacher is unaware of this, they can't do anything to help.
Also,perhaps avoid comparing them too much with the progress of their friends who may also be learning. Although having a competitive attitude is sometimes a great motivator, it can also have the opposite effect if they are struggling a bit. Allow them to find their own pace, and support it either way.
WHAT TO TAKE AWAY FROM THIS POST
Learning an instrument to a good standard is a long-term pursuit, and it's important that both pupil and parent are up for playing a long game. In today's world of instant gratification, fast access to almost any type of information, and the busy non-stop manner in which we conduct our lives, children can quickly become uninterested in something if things aren't happening as quickly as they expect. It is up to the teacher and the parent to work together in supporting the child, and managing their expectations within a positive, long-term framework.
The parent, in return for a small amount of encouragement and gentle prompting at the same time every day, will hugely contribute towards:
Maximising their child’s piano progress while they are at home.
Supporting the long-term aspect of learning an instrument.
A higher productivity and effectiveness of the piano lesson itself.
The child's enjoyment and overall musical experience at the piano.
A minimum of 10 minutes daily piano practice is manageable for any child, and if it’s being encouraged in a positive, non-pushy way, the piano lesson can be the motivational, forward moving exploration of playing that it is intended to be. This will then inspire them to go home and enjoy the practising or playing that follows.