Taking responsibility for quality piano practise

Some of my most supportive piano parents initially went through phases when they got upset with feedback. Until they understood that the kind of goals both they and their child were aiming at needed a different kind of effort to what they had in mind.

Sometimes right sometimes wrong

‘It just happens sometimes’ That’s what many piano students say, when they get something right and I ask them how it happened. So is it just luck then? And if it is, how does a student replicate correct playing?

When working on a piece that’s still a work-in-process during class, I sometimes record the first playing. Then practise it with my student, and ask them to play it again at the end. And there’s a vast difference in the quality of the first and last playing. And that’s how quality practise works – there’s is a clear difference what’s been practised, no matter how small the difference is.

Just playing, just being a good student who tries, is not enough for progress. It’s definitely not enough, for the students who strive to improve and are clearly fixed on the goal of playing better.

 

Practise lessons from the diary of a housekeeper

My maid is on leave this month. She does a few small chores for me once a week, that make my life easier and give me some free time. I wasn’t successful at getting a replacement. I could say that I’ve had bad luck. But that’s not the case. Many of the other families she works for have got substitutes.

I haven’t. Because there’s payback to getting a substitute, that is not acceptable to me right now. I will need to be flexible with work time slots and adjust if the maid is late. I know from past experience, that anything from 30 minutes, to a couple of hours late, to not arriving at work at all, is the norm here.  While I might be lucky and get a maid who arrives on time, I’m not willing to take a chance on my daily routine disrupted.

So there’s something I’ve done, to be in the situation I’m in. It’s not luck. It didn’t just happen.

And because it’s my responsibility, I have the power to change the situation if I want. And that’s exactly what quality piano practise is about. Taking responsibility for results.

There’s payback either way, because right now, I have my daily work flow running smoothly, but I’m having to do a lot of extra chores that I would rather not do. And that’s another lesson – that there are no free rides. Not in life, nor in piano piano practise.

 

Work hard or work smart? A cause of parent teacher discord.

Piano students don’t know what they did that made their piece better, as at first, they play without conscious thought to how they practise. When a teacher works differently, using some practise technique, the student often forgets to use this technique at home, thinking it’s done and no longer needs attention. These students spend more time getting things done than necessary, getting some progress, but often not reaching standards of playing that they are capable of, because their practise just takes too long to fit it all in.

Young  students who are approaching intermediate level should be learning how to practise. They need it for progress, because their school and coaching class schedule simply does not support long hours of practise. And students who can’t fit practise into the time they have available often give up learning the piano.

Parents need to understand this, because we live in a culture that rewards hard work and there are parents who expect excellent feedback for long practise hours and get upset when it does not happen. Even when it’s contrary to what the student is being taught.

Not every parent understands the value of practise techniques until their child has tried it out and they can see the results. A piece that sounds wonderful and ready to most of my piano parents is often far from ready for performing. It takes year of listening for them to be able to accurately assess piano playing.

Breaking it down

The piano teacher can help the student see what made that good playing ‘happen’ by breaking it down in piano class, writing it out in the homework book and taking class videos for the student where needed.

Young children often need parent support, to get them to read the homework book, and look at videos, because children take time to understand the relevance of a practise technique. And mostly, because young piano students just want to play. Reading homework assignments is often quite unimportant to them.

Getting parent support for this kind of practise for my students usually starts with getting parents to understand and to be willing to try. And then, finding a way that helps busy parents who want to be involved,  work this in with their schedule.

It’s quite a thrill to see results. Shorter practise hours and more effective practise. Students taking responsibility for their piano practise, and having that attitude overflow into other areas of their lives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Parent support in piano class

The need for parent support

Parent support for piano practise with young piano students is a huge issue. With teachers, because they know the likelihood of any student actually progressing beyond the beginner level depends on this. Even the musically talented student.

For piano parents it’s time and commitment and something more for them to add to their already busy schedules.

As I write this post, I’ve been teaching the piano for roughly 15 years. During all of these years, I’ve had less than a handful of students who practised without parent support. Learning the piano is very challenging for children of any age and my experience has been that the child who sticks almost always is the child who has parent support.

Taking the ‘lonely’ out of piano practise

For most children the biggest issue during the first couple of years is getting into a routine and making practise a part of their daily lives. The piano can be a lonely instrument and children who don’t have company often don’t practise. Children need a parent around – initially to remind them to read the homework book and practise accordingly, to listen and  mostly so they have company. 

Children who have opportunities to perform and belong to schools or communities where music is encouraged tend to be more motivated. As are children who have friends who play an instrument. Participation in group classes or concerts arranged by the piano teacher is important as this provides performance opportunities and helps students make ‘piano friends.’

That hardworking child who practises WRONG

If you’re a parent with a child who loves practising the piano, who practises daily and keeps getting poor feedback, then this paragraph is for you. It’s quite possible, that you can’t understand why – because you hear playing that sounds good to you, you can see how sincere your child is and how much effort your child puts in.

Taking a look at the homework book weekly, will tell you a lot, because you will find :

  1. Homework assignments not done
  2. Section practise requested by the teacher is not done
  3. Your child ‘plays’ taking very long to work on something, when all was needed is to use the practise techniques outlined by the teacher and spend less effort achieving the same result.

Children who enjoy practise often get so lost doing practise homework they enjoy, they forget to read the homework book. They practise what they like and what they remember and simply forget the rest.

Learning 'how to practise' is important for progress, and this is the area which beginner piano students of any age pay poor attention to. 
This is why even intermediate piano students often need parent support.

For parents who need a class where children work without support..

If you are a piano parent  with a student who does not practise regularly (and by practise, I mean doing the homework that the piano teacher has assigned) and this goes on for sometime, it’s worth looking at the kind of class you’ve enrolled your child in.

Piano teachers generally ask these students to stop class and enrol again when they’re ready to practise, because a regular piano class  simply does not work with erratic practise.

What your child needs is a different kind of class, with more frequency – maybe 2 classes a week, out of which one is a group class – a class which is mostly a  ‘practise’ class, where there’s a lot of repetition. New topics need to be introduced very slowly, so that erratic practise works. This does not lead to much progress, but it will keep your child playing the piano. There’s a very high possibility that your child will find some music that appeals and will keep playing.

 

Parent support for ‘regular piano class’

When I talk about regular piano class I refer to a class that teaches piano playing techniques, reading written music, how music theory goes into playing, the chord approach to piano playing & how to practise.

This is a lot to do in a 1 or 1&1/2 hour weekly class, and daily practise and completing homework assignments is essential. This almost always needs some level of parent support and involvement.

It’s not forever, as children grow up habituated to regular practise – with the resources to organise their practise, and use practise techniques to make their practise more effective. This usually happens between the ages of 14 to 16, depending on the personality of the student and the kind of goals the student has chosen to work towards.

To all you piano parents who are making the time to support your child, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Children gradually learn independence until they finally take responsibility for their own goals.

How to assess your own piano playing

A guide for intermediate to advanced piano students who have learned their piece and want to be able to assess the quality of their playing on their own, with guidance from their teacher.

  • Getting rid of mistakes

    You should have learned your piece correct from the very first. However, it is likely that you still have some weak spots where you falter, when under pressure.

Listen to a recording of your performance and then listen to recordings by different pianists until your ear can hear any differences in time, pitch and the harmony. This will help you hear and correct any errors in your playing such as wrong pitch and note values.

Also, listen to variations in articulation and tone production and figure out what suits your piece.

  • Use the metronome to listen

Students can make the mistake of playing erratic rhythms, and think this is interpretation. They need to understand how pianists interpret a piece while keeping the sense of style, tempo and mood that is required of the piece and the period it comes from. A metronome can be a help when listening to variations in tempo.

  • Listen to hear different parts

Listen to reputed pianists play. Listen to small sections, listen separately to individual parts in a section, until your ear can hear them.

Isolate a part or a layer of the music that you wish to work on, and listen to hear that layer well.

  • Listen for the rests

Rests, pauses and spaces in the music are a very important part of it, and one many students ignore. Listen for silences and feel the mood that they generate.  They need to become important to you.

  • Mark weak areas on the score

It might be a good idea to make small notes on the score, or mark areas where you need to check your playing, so that you don’t forget them during practise time.

  • Practise

Practise is different from playing. Yes, you need to play your piece and you also need to play it often enough. The mistake many students make however, is playing the piece through again and again, thinking it will improve their weak areas, and it doesn’t. That’s what practise is for.

  • Work with small sections

If you are ‘practising’ and still not getting results, you may need a smaller section. Working small will help you listen better. It helps to focus on one single weak area at a time.

  • Make notes

Write down the questions you have about any aspect of playing and performing your piece so that you remember them. Talk to your teacher about your ideas when you go to piano class.

Listen Listen and LISTEN.  That’s the key to being able to teach yourself to play better.

What practising scales is good for..

7 reasons why scales are an essential part of learning to play the piano….

  1. Understanding the ‘key’ of a piece of music
  2. Exercising each and every finger
  3. Developing strength and agility of the fingers
  4. Hand coordination
  5. Playing scales in different ways can be used to improve rhythmic ability
  6. Developing a good tone
  7. Developing focus – since students need to concentrate when they play scales

Young students usually love scales, as they’ve heard them sung in the musical “The Sound of Music” and are therefore keen on learning to play them. Older students often find them challenging, therefore enjoy practising them.

Playing scales daily require a lot of discipline and committment – something most young children don’t have, and parents, who see the value of scale playing, usually step in and see that it’s done. When children see that they’re playing their scales well, and that they’re easy (because of daily practise) they start enjoying them.

Getting your child to the piano at practise time

Young piano students generally don’t practise unless there’s supervision. They need help with scheduling practise and they also need daily reminders to practise. Here are a few effective and not so effective ways that parents handle the daily reminders.

  • Tell my children to practise and they will do it on their own

Most parents who do this and expect instant obedience will fail. Some of them might also make the mistake of thinking that their child is not interested in piano playing, because they don’t obey.

What many parents don’t realise, is that piano playing is a very solitary hobby for the young piano student and what they most want, in order to practise, is company. Just someone to be around, listen and enjoy their playing.

This method often degenerates into the next method.

  • Shout and lecture on a daily basis

This is the most ineffective way of getting practise done and the cause of a large number of children losing interest in piano playing. Some children who are still very very keen on learning despite this, get very defensive and their minds just shut down, so at piano class, convincing them to learn something new becomes a very difficult task for the teacher.

  • Set a practise time, and see that the child is free at that time, remind your child twice

This is the most effective, and a large number of musical children who do well, have parents who do this. Children usually respond to the second reminder and parents who are prepared to remind their child twice do not get irritated when their child doesn’t go to the piano at first reminder.

  • Listen to your child either during practise or at the end of the day, 3 times a week – preferably on alternate days

This works very well for parents who are both working and come home too late to be there at practise time. For most children, just a reminder that they have to play for their parents is enough to motivate them to practise.

 

  • Convince your child that you need them to play the piano, so that you can relax after a busy day

One parent came out with this really creative solution. Her child would often tell me that she had to practise every day, because that was the only time her parents could relax and unwind. The parent would lie down on a yoga mat and use practise time to do some relaxation techniques!

Young children who get the support they need in the early years, will grow into teens who want to practise daily. The role of the parent will change, from scheduling practise and daily supervision, to helping their child to this on their own.

Recording your performance

Recording performances once or twice a week, is an excellent method of “Performance practise” – for students who have very few opportunites to perform.

Dealing with pre-performance nerves is something every young piano student needs to learn to do and this gets easier with practise.

“Performance practise” needs to be a part of the students practise schedule – maybe once or twice a week, in the weeks leading to a performance.

Playing for family or friends helps students get used to performing. An excellent way to practise performing, is to record your performance – just one run-through of a piece or a section of a piece even, the way you would play if you were performing…no trials or repeats.

Then, listen to your recording – where you did good and where you faltered. Practise to improve the weak spots, and do another recording after a week.

Setting up a private youtube channel is an excellent idea and kids often work, because they want recordings to be put up there regularly, for family and friends to watch.

Here’s an interesting article, which has a section on performance practise : The three stages of motor learning by Dr Noa Kageyama