I have planned to write this blog post for such a very long time. Right now it is a Sunday, I am sat cross-legged on the sofa, cat curled up next to me, cup of tea in hand, laptop full of battery, and distractions minimal. Yes, I think the time has come! As I am often heard saying, as a piano teacher, I'm an enabler, a helper, and I create an environment where kids want to learn. Then I say things and hope that they will listen. I can't teach a child anything if they don't want to listen - the following advice is along these same lines.
A typical piano lesson starts like this. If I am teaching at a pupil's home, I will knock on the door, and a smily, welcoming face will greet me. We will say excited hellos to each other and then as we walk into the room with the piano, there might be some utterances about practice. 'I'm afraid I just couldn't get Sarah in the mood this week'. 'It's been very hard to fit any practice into our routine since we got back to school, you know how it is...'. Or on the flip side, 'Max did SO much practice this week, I don't know what came over him!'. Maybe it's a British thing, but there always seems to be an undertone of anxiety - either because 'not enough' was done and the parent is worried I will unleash my terrifying wrath on their home (something that has never happened, I'm not sure I have anything resembling a terrifying wrath in me), or so much was done that the parent is thinks that if they seem too positive about it, it will slip away faster than they can say 'play me a C major scale with your right hand, please!'
It is very rare that a child will practice every day for 5-20 minutes (depending on age) routinely, week in, week out. Such a scenario makes me uneasy, actually - it's almost a bit too robotic for the wildly creative beings that we know children are, if we give them half a chance.
Saying that, practice is no bad thing. But I know, that when it is done without any impetus from the child, only sad memories of Oh, I learned piano once but hated practicing and gave up can follow.
1. Create an environment around the piano that your child will enjoy
Practising an instrument is a lonely activity, so having some of your child's favourite things dotted around your piano is a lovely way to make the area more inviting. My childhood piano had a beautiful cushion on its seat, made especially for me by one of my godparents from sheet music fabric, and it had a big beautiful mother of pearl button on the back. I called it my lucky piano cushion, and I loved to sit on it when I played. I even took it to all my exams!
I think it is really important that children are allowed to own the space on top of and around their piano. Pianos are massive and scary and often handed down to them from other family members. If children are given even a sliver of autonomy over the decoration of the surrounding area (oh what a difference a £5 string of battery powered fairy lights can do) then they may just like to sit and play for a bit longer.
2. Listen to lots of music in your home
This is so, so important, and includes all kinds of music, not just piano music! An easy way to do this is to stick the radio on when you're at home, and switch the station from your usual channel to the classical, jazz, rock and pop channels - see which ones make your child sit up and listen. If you have a favourite piece of piano music, play it lots - your child will love to know that the instrument they are learning actually means something to you, and might begin to look forward to the day when they can play your favourites. Once a child starts to visualise piano in their future, you know that the seeds of passion have been planted, and they will naturally want to practice more. This is almost an easier (cheatier) way of 'sitting with' your child when they practice. It does the same job of showing that you value and are invested in the work they're doing, but without ending up with both of you staring angrily at each other while you try to help them practice. Result!
3. Tell your child's piano teacher what music makes your child sit up and listen
If your child is crazy about Christmas carols, mad for musicals, barmy about the Beatles or fanatical about football chants, their teacher should know. Any teacher worth their fee will be positively thrilled to hear that there is a particular kind of music that your child loves and will start to work on level-appropriate pieces with them straight away. When Frozen arrived in cinemas in 2013, almost all of my 5-9 year old students wanted to listen to Let it Go every lesson. I would play it for them, and some of them started to pick up the chords or the tune. A 7 year old playing the chords of Frozen is such a gleeful sight - and almost a guarantee that the piano will be played without any coercion as long as the obsession lasts.
4. Take your child to a sheet music shop and let them choose a book to take home
Sheet music shops: a world of music at your fingertips, and a genuinely exciting trip for any budding musician to take. If you are in Brighton, UK, I can highly recommend Ackerman Music for their helpful and approachable staff, and extensive collection of piano music. A book that your child has carefully chosen out of hundreds, particularly if they are usually given sheet music by only their teacher, is bound to be special to them. My first 'own choice' piano book contained the first movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata - something that was considerably too difficult for me to learn (I couldn't yet stretch an octave!) - but I worked through it, simplifying it and scribbling on it (in pen, no less) where I needed to, and at the end I could play a higgledy-piggledy piece of music that was not Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, but it was mine. I also went on to play every other piece of music in that book over the next few years - what a huge value for only a few pounds!
Letting your child choose a book from a music shop gives them a little more ownership over their learning, and it is sure to help with their excitement around practicing.
5. If possible, sit nearby when your child has their piano lesson
Sitting in on your child's piano lessons will do two things. Firstly, it will help your understanding of what your child is learning, where they are at, and the kind of energy they are responding to in their lessons, so that you can better help them if they are stuck during the week (which will lead to more practicing! Hooray!). Secondly, it will reinforce point 2: your child will begin to understand that you really do care about all this work they do, and it will help them to value it more, too.