Piano practice. It’s doing my head in. Yes, I know at some level it’s self-inflicted pain. I do turn a blind eye all too often. But unless I transform myself into Scary Mommy…it just doesn’t happen. It’s not that the piano doesn’t get played…it’s just that the stuff that needs work doesn’t get practiced without a significant amount of cajoling screeching on my part. Honestly, prior to motherhood, I never screeched.
It is a well-known stereotype that many Chinese parents force encourage their offspring to learn a musical instrument, preferably classical, and in most cases, the piano or violin. I wasn’t one of those kids. My parents never pushed me to pick up an instrument; they somehow managed to rely on reverse psychology to get me to plead for violin lessons when I was 9.
And yet…as Miss Chu approached her 6th birthday, that previously-dormant “make-your-kid-learn-an-instrument” gene in me was awakened, and, true to my Chinese-parenting stereotype, I started looking out for music classes. And so began our love-hate relationship with piano practice.
I thought I was being pretty laid back. We enrolled in a Yamaha group keyboard class across the road from our home in Edinburgh. The teacher was sparky, the classes were fun. But somehow, practice at home was never fun.
“But you love playing in class!” I’d protest.
“C’mon, just do a quick twenty minute practice.”
“Ok – fifteen.”
“Play for ten minutes and I’ll give you some Hello Panda chocolate!”
“Ok… but sweetie you have to practice the new songs – not just the ones you already know.”
And so on.
Cue sighing, groaning, slumping over the keyboard, sudden severe stomachache…yep. Surely someone else out there knows what I’m talking about?!
We can’t be the only household where the discipline of daily practice is generally driven by a reluctantly-Tiger-ish Mum, and it is no easy task. So – if a child doesn’t want to do it, and parents are resorting to the usual repertoire of threats and bribery, are there other ways forward or is it time to throw in the towel?
I truly believe that learning a musical instrument is a great gift; the process of learning has immeasurable benefits (just google it!); some of which may not be immediately apparent in the short term, but which are far reaching over a lifetime. The ability to play can also be very rewarding at every stage of life. So, it is something I am willing to invest in, and I would love for the girls to persevere in learning an instrument to a proficient level. (Yes, I do wonder whether I’m just selfishly imposing my own personal aspirations on to my kids…but anyone who knows them, knows they enjoy making music. Loudly.)
But – I’m just not convinced that I have the willpower to drive my kids down the well-worn route of ABRSM exams and the like which I recall from my own childhood. Miss Chu enjoys playing, but the practice is hard going. Like most of us, she doesn’t like being told what to play, when to play, or how to play it. If we’re primarily aiming for musicality, proficiency and enjoyment, can we ditch established curriculum and just progress through music she chooses herself? I don’t know. Does technical ability require a level of hard graft that can’t be achieved by just playing for fun? And should she aim to grab a few certificates along the way because well…she’s learning anyway? I’m really not into paper-chasing, but I’ve been told I’m too naive about “the way the world works.”
On one hand, there are plenty of friends who were pushed through to Grade 8 but have barely played since. Then there are those who wished their parents hadn’t let them give up so quickly when they were young. Some are great musicians who have had hardly any formal training.
At the moment, we are trying out a few different books, considering whether to pursue a predominantly classical or pop route, and feeling our way forward to make progress. Thankfully, we found a super nice teacher in Singapore that Miss Chu has really clicked with, and who seems happy to go at whatever pace and direction suits us.
So these days Miss Chu is more likely to be hammering out Babs Seed from the My Little Pony TV series than Beethoven’s Fifth, but I say – let’s go with whatever works.
She might not like practicing but she sure likes performing at home! Especially with silly glasses on. Her teacher transcribed this simpler arrangement of Babs Seed for her after they watched the YouTube video together.
And for anyone else helping their kids learn an instrument, these five tips are working for us:
Video or record them practicing a piece over the course of a week or more. Progress can be almost imperceptible to a frustrated child during a practice session, but seeing themselves play before/after several practices really demonstrates to them that they have improved!
Let them practice in the main living area. Particularly for a non-portable instrument like the piano, it really helps if it is located near to where the family tends to hang out, rather than in a separate room. It also makes it easier for other family members to get involved.
Take a keen interest. I try to make time to sit alongside Miss Chu during practice a few times a week. (Admittedly, I often don’t manage this, but when it do, it really pays off.) Actually, I didn’t realise the importance of this for quite a while. I used to just wave Miss Chu towards the keyboard and ask her to sit and practice on her own for the allotted time. But after reading a few piano teacher blogs I noted that parental involvement was more than just supervising practice by barking instructions from the kitchen. It can be hard to make the time for it, but there are real benefits to demonstrating active interest and support for your child’s practice, even if you don’t play the instrument yourself.
Find music your kids enjoy. No musician wants to play stuff they don’t like. I’m not a fan of ticking off every song in a book one by one before starting the next. Having a range of music (at the appropriate level) that they can pick and choose from gives them a little control over their learning repertoire. We recently went to see the musical Annie, which the girls really loved. I quickly downloaded some of the sheet music for her favourite songs to build on her interest. Also, when Miss Chu first started out, she loved the fact that the Yamaha pieces had backing tracks to play along with, as it made the relatively simple pieces sound much more impressive! So I also try and look out for sheet music that comes with CDs and the like. Scribd seems to be a particularly good resource for sheet music.
Hook up the iPad. Whoever decided it was a good idea to “gamify” piano practice is definitely on to something. Miss Chu seems to have enjoyed playing the trial version of Piano Maestro so far. She can plug the iPad into the keyboard and play along to a wide range of pieces as well as technical exercises, and the app scores her on accuracy. Sometimes she uses Noteworks for note-reading practice. I’m sure there are hundreds of great digital resources I haven’t had time to find out about – would appreciate any recommendations in the comments though! We’ve also had the Toc and Roll app for a few years, which is a like kiddy version of Garageband. It’s one of the girls’ favourites and they can very easily “compose” their own music on it. Garageband is great, but the interface isn’t as appealing for little ones! Hoping to learn a bit more about using technology in music education as we go along…there seems to be a lot of interesting stuff out there!
Nevertheless, despite all attempts to make practice fun, there are plenty of days it doesn’t happen. Partly because sometimes there is so much other school work to manage, I feel bad asking her to practice piano on top of everything else. It’s getting towards the end-of-year and Miss Chu has six tests this month, not counting the weekly English/Chinese spellings!
Against my better judgement, at times of total resignation, I’ve offered Miss Chu the option of giving up. But each time she has decided to stick with it. She does enjoy playing. She will voluntarily go and play for fun, figuring out melodies by ear, experimenting with chords, adding in a beat. So if I need to close half an eye (or ear!) to prevent killing the interest, so be it. I do not make her perfect her scales, play everyday or practice a piece until its 100% there. Progress might be slower, but I’m hoping patience, perseverance and fun will get her there in the end.