Parents & Practicing

Few parents of my students play the piano themselves. They can still make a huge contribution to their child’s musical development if they understand what happens at the lesson and then keep the lesson alive throughout the week by guiding the practice sessions.

Should parents attend the lesson? For at least the first several years of lessons, I ask parents to sit in on lessons and supervise practice sessions. I recently asked some parents and children how they felt about this.

A 9-year-old said, “It’s comforting to know my Mom is there. At home she can explain things to me if I forget or didn’t completely understand.” Another student had good advice for parents: “My Mom used to sit in my lessons so that, in case I forgot something, she could remind me. I would get nervous with her there, because she always had such a serious face on, and I never knew what she was thinking. So I talked to my Mom about it, and after that whenever I’d look over at her during a lesson, she’d go like this: [thumbs up, with a smile] And that made me feel so much better.”

To help parents help their children, we use several tools: a recording of the lesson, an assignment sheet, the Practice Guide and the student’s weekly practice schedule.

The lesson recording: All the parents considered the recording important. One mother said, “The recording gives us complete and accurate information from the lesson. I refer to it so that I can remind my son what to work on. I also show him how he can listen to some parts on his own. Once when he forgot to record I noticed that his practicing was much less efficient. So I make sure every lesson is recorded.”

The assignment sheet: I made my own assignment sheet so that it showed the categories I wanted covered. I used to fill it out in duplicate—one for the student, one for me—and ask parents to use it to make sure all tasks are covered each day. Now I do it on the computer, and send out the notes by email.

At home, students look to their parents for praise, help in acquiring discipline, and feedback.

Praise is a powerful tonic. A 13-year-old explained, “Sometimes kids might avoid practicing when parents are not supportive. But if parents say, ‘Wow, I really enjoy your playing, you’re making so much improvement,’ that makes kids want to do more.”

Parents are sometimes ambivalent about this. “It is very difficult for me to give praise because I feel that my child does not have enough discipline. I want him to pay more attention to fine details, to understand that the fine details are what make a piece beautiful.” Yet this same parent noticed that “when I tell him I see improvement in his playing, he practices more happily and is more willing to work repeatedly on problematic sections.”

Discipline: Students frequently mentioned the word “discipline.” I was surprised that they seemed so appreciative when saying things like, “Parents make us practice.” But then I realized that children don’t want full responsibility yet. In effect, they want their parents to do the hard work of making sure the practicing gets done.

Parents also keep away distractions and help children set specific practice goals. One parent commented, “I make her practice more before a performance. This makes her more comfortable with the pieces and reduces her anxiety.”

Feedback: My students also count on their parents to tell them how their practicing sounds. They know this makes their practicing more effective; at the same time they enjoy their parents’ attention. A parent said, “I try to say positive things although I often ask her to review the piece a little more and work on trouble spots. Or I’ll say, ‘Try those scales at a slower tempo so they sound better.’”

“When I first started,” a 13-year-old observed, “my Mom sat with me when I practiced, and we worked out problems together. She helped me to recognize mistakes and find solutions. She doesn’t sit with me anymore, but I still ask her questions, and it’s very helpful to know what she thinks. I would tell parents, though, ‘Don’t hover over your child, because when we’re practicing we want to focus, we don’t want to be worried about a hovering parent.’”

Somewhere along the line, often when students reach middle school age, parents stop attending the lessons. It may also happen that a child as young as 9 or 10 functions poorly in the parent’s presence. In such a case we experiment with parent-less lessons, an arrangement that usually becomes permanent. By the time students are in high school, I tell any parents who are still sitting in on lessons, “From now on, you are welcome to attend an occasional lesson, but should no longer come on a regular basis.” By this time I expect students to be working more or less independently at home; I also believe that being alone with me in the lesson allows them a kind of freedom that is crucial to their musical development.

Overall, the parents in my studio felt that without their help, piano practice would suffer, and their children agreed. But one father took it a step further when he said, “Keep up with your child’s music world. It is part of your life (hopefully it is the good part). If you stop, you may lose an important connection between you and your child.”

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