Helping Kids Practice

Note: I am going to use practice here because it’s a more efficient way to write, but at home you’ll be very well served if you call it play piano. Practice has such an onerous sound!

What Practice Is

Knowing what practice is and why it’s valuable will assist you in helping your child make the most of his time at the instrument. It also will guide you in dealing with the resistance that will happen on occasion, even with the most dedicated child.

Research shows that maximum retention occurs if repetition–that is, practice–takes place within 24 hours or less. Retention is approximately 90%. If repetition does not occur until 48 hours later (skip a day of practice), retention drops off drastically, as the graph of time vs. retention is a curve rather than a straight line. By 72 hours (skip two days), retention is virtually zero. (Material that is already learned is retained longer, of course. I speak here of new material, such as a new piece or a new section of piece begun very recently.)

The longer he waits between practice sessions, the more frustrated your child will be with his inability to carry out the lesson assignment at home. This is because he has forgotten what to do, or, in the worse case, has forgotten how to do it, altogether. Therefore, daily practice will net your child the most progress for his effort and will keep disappointment to a minimum.

Let’s face it: practicing seven days a week is not realistic for every student or every family, however. The student might like “a day off.” If he practices six days a week, his tasks will be well-reinforced and one 48-hour gap will not affect his overall retention significantly. (The day after or before the lesson is never a good choice for the vacation day.)

Home practice is also a time to experiment. After he completes his assignment, encourage your child to explore. Perhaps he can pick out a tune by ear, play a song he already knows but in a different way, or make up his own song. Playing an old song or two is fun; this is also a good way to reinforce your child’s progress and point out that his efforts are bearing fruit: “Do you remember back at Christmas when this song was so hard for you?” Looking ahead in his materials is another productive activity: your child might see how much of the upcoming material he already knows and can challenge himself to figure out some of the rest.

Finally, home practice is a time for the family to participate in the child’s music study. This can take the form of “family concerts” after dinner, playing duets with another family member, or participating in the games the teacher assigns (to drill on note-reading or counting, for example).

Your child’s teacher will have recommendations to make home practice successful, so be sure to follow them. Here are some other ideas you might want to try.

The Secret Weapon

Important: The main reason children want to quit piano study is that the parent assumes the child can carry out the assignment by herself. She can’t.

Parents’ thinking the child can practice alone is the main reason children stop piano study.

Frustration, confusion, and despair set in when the child can’t carry out the task by herself. Who’d want to prolong a situation like this? Certainly not a child! A child has virtually no inkling of what will happen a short time from now, much less what deferred gratification is! All he knows is that right this moment he’s unhappy!

And then the parent is upset (“Is my child unable to play the piano? Is he unmusical?”) and wonders whether the money and effort being expended are worth it.

Don’t expect the child to practice her own!

Of course, parents don’t deliberately leave the child alone at the piano. It’s just something they’ve never thought to avoid! Now you know the secret!

So, be directly involved. On the bench if the child is young. In the room when the child is older. (More below.)

You will never regret this investment of time you make. No parent ever sent his child off to college thinking, “I wish I had spent less time with my daughter.”

The secret weapon to success in piano study is you and your direct involvement in your child’s home practice!

Note: Learning how to practice is a different skill altogether from actually playing the instrument. Your teacher will help your child learn these techniques. Check with the child’s teacher for help in this area.

Help with the Lesson Assignment

Your child’s teacher will let you know exactly what you need to do to assist actively in home practice. The teacher may ask you to watch the student’s hand position as he plays to make sure he maintains the correct one, or he may ask you to count out loud for your child. A youngster may have card games or board games or other fun activities to carry out at home with a partner (parent).

Children respond best to a lesson assignment that is very specific (“play lines 3 and 4, hands together, 4 times”) rather than general (“work on this”). If your child’s teacher does not write the assignment out in this way, ask him to do so. Your child will then pay attention to carrying out the assignment rather than focusing on a specified number of minutes spent at the piano (“clock-watching”). This kind of practice plan allows you to divide home practice into several segments, if necessary. The child also sees precisely what he still has to accomplish and will know when he is finished.

With a young child, you doubtless will need have to be involved directly for the entire practice session at first. Even after some months of study, your help may be needed for most of the practice time. Do not expect your child to carry out his practice entirely by himself until he is about 10 years old. (Yes, piano study is a significant commitment for the family!) With children under that age, plan to sit in the room with the child, even if you are not on the bench with him.

Many children (up through approximately 6th grade) like to have a parent keep them company while they practice. Even if the child doesn’t need your sustained participation, he may crave your presence because he’s lonely in the piano room all by himself. Don’t imply by words or body language that you’d rather be (“should be”) somewhere else. That attitude is an eloquent negative. Use your “keeping company time” for children this age to read for pleasure, catch up on professional reading, balance the checkbook, or simply relax and enjoy your child’s accomplishments.

Important: Keep suggestions or criticism to yourself, however, unless the child asks for your help. The teacher will work with your child to correct errors. This is very difficult for parents, especially for parents who play an instrument. Say nothing! You are paying the teacher to solve these problems!

After your child has left home, I promise you will look back on any time you invest in this way and feel that it was more than amply rewarded. Your child will have fond memories, too.

Remember that parental involvement and commitment are vital to the child’s continued interest.

Note: At some point, your child will inform you that you are no longer needed. Usually this is about 7th grade. Ask if your daughter would like you to sit in the room while she practices. Even if she answers yes initially, soon she will inform you that she’d rather be by herself. This change is almost instantaneous when the child enters junior high and compares herself with other 7th-graders (and 8th- and 9th-graders) and finds that her “childish” ways are not cool – – peers are great agents of change – – and, as you know, sometimes not for the better – – but that’s another topic!

At any rate, the child will let you when you should scale back the amount of direct involvement in home study.

Divide Practice Time

With today’s busy families, it often works well to divide practice session into two or more segments, particularly with a young child who is still developing his attention span. Two 15-minute practices – – or even three 10-minute sessions – – can be more productive than one 30-minute sitting. Divide the material for variety, too. For example, if there are two songs, two games, and a technique exercise, work at one song the first time and the other song at the second practice time, playing a game each session and working on half the technical material (or all of it at the first session).

At Home Immediately After the Lessons

If students (adults, as well as children!) did the following after each lesson, they would find their progress really accelerating.

After you return home, sit down with your child and play through his lesson assignment one time. This should consume 10 minutes at most (5 minutes is more likely; perhaps even less!). For each part of the assignment, ask your child to describe what he is supposed to do and why and then have him play it for you. This will acquaint you with what you should be hearing and how you should be hearing it, and your child will know that you are aware of precisely what the teacher has requested. Look at the assignment pad at this time, too. Should there be questions, call the teacher right away for clarification. Don’t let the child ignore an element of his assignment all week (or worse: do it incorrectly and later have to un-learn!).

Your child reaps several benefits from this post-lesson review. It is a tangible reminder that you support his efforts and are vitally interested in the content of what he is doing. Another, and the most important, benefit is that the immediate repetition of the assigned material ensures almost 100% retention of what the teacher said at the lesson and what the child played.

If you like, count this session as a day’s practice, so your child may have “a day off” another time later in the week.

Ideally, both mother and father sit down with the child to preview the upcoming week’s activities, but in the real world a consistent commitment from one parent is sufficient. It doesn’t have to be the same parent each time, either.

But remember: you need to be directly involved on the bench with your child. (Until the child tells you with no prompting that he prefers to do it himself.)

A Consistent Practice Time

Most students benefit from a consistent piano practice time. Adults find a routine helps them shoehorn in all they must do; children draw security from routine.

I tell all my students that schoolwork is first priority (“your job”). If there is a large assignment that evening, there may be no time for practice because schoolwork is most important. After schoolwork comes piano playing, however. When that is complete, then there’s time to play outside, talk on the telephone, watch TV, or whatever else they’d like to do. It’s important that children know that piano study falls right under schoolwork in the day’s hierarchy. If there are daily household chores the child is expected to take care of, these come third, right after piano. They should understand that some days their homework load and their piano time may preclude most or all of their playtime. Not every day, surely, but sometimes. They should understand and accept this before study begins so they can’t plead ignorance when faced with a situation like this.

Of course, children may “unwind” by having a snack or changing clothes, but right after that, it’s time to hit the books. No getting sidetracked with a magazine or playing with a friend or watching TV.

Discuss with your child’s teacher whether this might be a useful philosophy for your family.

At-Home Quiet Zone

It goes without saying that other family members should not be in the piano room during practice time, nor should they be causing a racket elsewhere in the house. Not only is the noise itself distracting, but your child’s curiosity will be piqued by the possibility that something interesting is going on elsewhere and he will be inattentive and restless. Most families find that practice time for one child is a perfect homework time (or story time) for another. Note: If one parent must be with the practicing child plus one or more others doing homework, do not neglect the piano player. Rather, listen for a while, decide what the child will work on “while I check on your sister” and then come back in no more than five minutes later, to listen again and choose another practice task. Remember that your young child cannot practice alone.

Reminders

Sometimes, you may have to remind your child to practice. Occasionally, you’ll have to remind more firmly! This is the unpleasant aspect of piano study. Some days you’ll think, I just can’t ramrod another thing today. I’m exhausted! I’ve had hassles all day long! Stay the course, Dad! You’re doing the right thing. Your child’s tastes and skills and sense of responsibility are being formed. You have to step in and keep order when things go off the tracks.

No matter his level of interest in music study, your child is only human and some days he will want to do something else before piano. Or, skip practice altogether. Remember you’re human. Take a deep breath! Ask the child to play an old song. Applaud his effort! Take another deep breath, hug your child, and say how proud you are! If things go completely downhill, ask your child just to play some favorite songs for you. Don’t worry about his assignment. This keeps him at the piano (for enjoyment!) and gives you relaxation and rejuvenation!

A regular practice time and at-home quiet zone helps, as does an obvious interest and commitment from the parent(s), as noted. Remember that young children can’t be expected to practice on their own. Or, remember it’s time to do their piano-playing. Some even forget whether they’ve done it or not!

If you constantly experience trouble inducing your child to practice (tantrums, tears, shouting, door-slamming), something is wrong. Your child may not have thought out the time and effort necessary for learning to play a musical instrument. Or, he may have changed his mind when he discovered it’s not like TV: with piano study he is a participant; with TV he is only a spectator. Another possibility is that he has some other problem that is preventing him from feeling his effort is producing a worthwhile result (a sibling is being a pest during practice time, the other parent or a relative is making disparaging remarks about piano study, etc.). Consult the teacher for advice.

Dealing with Recalcitrance about Piano Playing Time

Short answer: Stay the course!

Sometimes it will be difficult, and you’ll feel like throwing in the towel. (Enough! The hassle isn’t worth it! Go ahead and quit!!) Don’t let this happen. You’re doing the right thing, and your child will thank you forever for providing the instrument, the opportunity to study, and your resolve in teaching them responsibility when they want to quit something that isn’t easy.

Playing the piano is fun, and everyone would love to be able to play. Learning how to play the piano isn’t easy. If it were, everyone would be doing it. But it is so satisfying!

I have never heard an adult say his mom let him quit piano and was glad she did! Every one of them says he is sorry she did and wished he could play now that he’s an adult. And sorry that he was so obnoxious that his mom finally gave in and let him quit because she was tired of the hassle!

Your children will thank you, so stay the course when things get rocky. And they will! Remember you’re giving your child a gift that will can’t be taken away and one that will bring a lifetime of joy – – even when it seems the direct opposite is true while you’re in the process!

copyright 1996, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me for reprint permission.