We as teachers sometimes get the comment “I told him to practice, but he just didn’t want to!” Or maybe “She’d rather play outside so she puts practice off until it is too late and then she doesn’t have time before bedtime.”
It is important to understand that most people are not born with the desire to do something over and over again until you get it right. We all want to play a song that we like because there is a special satisfaction in hearing it and being able to play it. It’s fun! As long as that desire is alive within us to play our favorite songs, then we have a reason to keep learning songs! The desire, the satisfaction is the key. Drop the expectation that a child is born with the desire or innate ability to practice! At least that applies to most people. But if your student is able to learn how to apply himself or herself, it will be a life skill that will endure and enable him or her to be successful in whatever passion that student chooses to pursue.
Merlin Thompson, in an article in American Music Teacher February/March 2016, Understanding and Nurturing Parents, offers important insights: “Parental support is consistently recognized as providing an effective influence on children’s motivation, involvement, persistence and ongoing musical commitment. ….. Challenges facing parental involvement often emerge because parents regard music study as an activity children ideally pursue in response to the child’s intrinsically grounded desire. Given the intimate nature of parent-child relationships, it is not surprising that conflicts arise as a result of discrepancies between parental expectations and children’s musical preferences or commitments to practice.” Even when disagreements ensue, he urges that parental support is crucial and that tension is not always negative. Thompson continues, “Conflict is interpreted as an obstacle to successful student achievement; it’s a problematic aspect of learning to play a musical instrument that under ideal circumstances should be minimized or avoided, if not completely eliminated. Yet in my own teaching, rather than categorically avoiding conflict, I carefully consider this instructional characteristic as a matter of acceptable tension. I draw on the value of conflict for its potential to contribute positively to successful student achievement.” After all, we are taking students beyond their comfort zone, and we all express our anxiety in different ways until we learn that we can overcome seemingly impossible tasks! Thompson does mention that another resource for parents is to get to know other parents who have experienced the trials and tribulations of music study. Getting acquainted at recitals and before and after lessons is recommended, and you can even ask the teacher to enable the exchange of phone numbers or email to open that line of communication.
So, yes, the struggle is definitely worth it. Now let’s talk about how to manage the friction at home. There are so many ways to work around – every teacher can share his/her own experience with overcoming difficulties and time management. Bribery has always worked for me – I self-bribe so if I practice I get to eat a cookie or watch my favorite TV or play my favorite video game. I’ve heard of parents who create a chart, and when the weekly chart is filled up with 5 days of successful practice, an agreed-upon reward is given! Going to a movie, eating out at a favorite restaurant, a special treat or sleepover with a friend – the options are as varied as your students’ favorite things!
For my students, I take the responsibility between myself as teacher and the student. The parent is there to remind and support but is not responsible for whether the student practices or not. Now I will preface this with the fact that several of my youngest students are extraordinarily successful at practice because Mom or Dad sit with them through their entire practice session every day. Certainly a parent commenting that she really likes this piece, or thought that playing of the song was the very best she’s ever heard! Small, every day encouragement is a major motivator! Also, let me take a moment to discuss another important factor: the placement of the piano in the home! If the student does not want to be alone, I would not place the piano down in the basement where there is no one around. Piano practice is solitary enough without making it feel like jailtime. Likewise, if your student is distracted by the placement of the piano in a hallway or a high-traffic area, consider moving it away from the sounds and distraction of other household members. Support in practice however your student wants it (from the other room, or even a parent being in the room doing something else so the student is not alone) takes patience, sometimes silence, an understanding of what the teacher’s goal is (how many times do we play the song every day?), acceptance that the student is trying his or her best, and an ability to tell your student that even if you cannot do it today after 10 tries, we will try again tomorrow and I bet we get it then. Determined. Persistent. Never-give-up attitude. And, when the student is able to practice on his or her own, it is a source of great pride and accomplishment.
Final and most important point: music is fun! As teachers we do our best to create an atmosphere at the lesson that is satisfying, challenging, and fits the student on the bench. In an Alfred.com blog, Heidi Smith on March 23, 2017 wrote in an article entitled Qualities of an Outstanding Piano Teacher that “However fun music may be (and it is!), there are times when you have to just buckle down and focus. Great teachers also provide a serious element to the music lesson. Music is a language and learning any new language is plain hard work.” This is the understanding that helps us most as we try to motivate and stimulate our students to practice.
Once we view practicing as a life skill (and a difficult one at that), then the effort is worth it. To teach our student this important skill that will affect everything they study is a valuable daily effort to make! And we honor all parents who dedicate themselves to the cause! And we all celebrate the beautiful music along the way!
Dee’s Music Room
Member of MTNA, Certified Teacher of Royal Conservatory of Music