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How to Encourage Your Child to ‘Visit’ the Piano

A music teacher offers some expert, goal-oriented advice that might sound “offbeat” at first.

On Tuesday, an Eagle Rock mother posed a question to Patch readers that was addressed in an article titled, “How Can I Make my Child Love Music?” Readers offered passionate and insightful answers—after all, you would expect no less from parents who hail from the home of a premier Southern California music festival.

One reader, Laura Porter, cofounder of the Bloom School of Music, answered at length. Here is her expert advice:

Hello Eagle Rock Mom,

First of all, good for you for sending your son to music lessons! Your concern is a popular one and a question we get a lot. I’m going to make my answer not only age-specific but also instrument-specific.

There are so many strategies to get music students to practice. Ages nine and 10 are usually the first major hurdles for parents to get their kids to practice.  The next big hurdle probably won’t come till around 13 or 14 years of age. Usually if you can keep a child interested in music making through age 16, they will continue to play in adulthood. And this is everyone’s goal, yes? To enjoy and make music for a lifetime! 

So the first and most important thing to address is that somehow your son has lost his connection to the music. Even though a love of music is cultivated in your household, he isn’t responding by sitting down at the piano on his own to practice.

Why? He’s nine years old. Kids at the age of nine are starting to experience music more socially. They are sharing music with friends, talking about their favorite bands or singers and forming opinions of their own about the music they hear around them. So this is a good thing!

But when he gets to his piano lesson, he isn't playing (I’m assuming) any of the music he talks about with friends. Some might say, "But he should learn the classics, Beethoven, Mozart etc." But if he has made a decision in his own head that Beethoven doesn’t move him or inspire him to play, then he isn't getting anything out of his lessons and you are wasting breath and money.  

What? Did I just say waste? Yes, I did. But I have a strategy: Know what your goal is. Do you want him to play lovely classical piano, whether he likes it or not, because “it’s good for him,” or do you want him to have a personal connection to music so that he will continue to play and enjoy music for the rest of his life?

Here are some tips:

Change teachers: That would be the first thing I’d try. Sounds harsh but it really isn’t. It’s really great to shake things up a little and try someone new. It can be at the same school—just try a different approach. You want a school that hires different teachers that appeal to different styles of learners. If your son has a serious teacher, try one who’s friendly and outgoing. Both teachers are teaching the same techniques and repertoire but they just have a different way of delivering the information.

Songwriting: Some of the most profound lyrics I’ve ever heard came from a nine-year-old in a similar situation. He changed his teacher to one who could help with songwriting, and he blossomed into such a musician. He now plays guitar and drums and is singing as well. This isn’t typical, but you just never know how powerful self expression can be.

Learn songs off of YouTube or the personal iPod: If and when you change teachers, make sure this teacher can hear a song on YouTube and teach it immediately to your son in his lesson. It might be from a band, a video game, a television theme etc. Being able to play something familiar that you can share with others is very exciting.

Don’t practice—visit: “Practice” can become an ugly word and can invoke negative feelings that have nothing to do with music. I always tell kids to visit their instrument. I joke, telling them the instrument sits all day just waiting for them to visit and play a little. Instead of saying, “Did you practice your piano?” try “Why don't you give the piano a visit?”

Pick the same time everyday to visit: Before dinner or before school are good times.

Schedule a performance in the living room: Pick a day each week during which your son gets to play anything he wants for you in a living room concert. Some kids will even make programs to pass out and insist on treats afterwards. Let him know you love hearing his creations.

Change instruments: A lot of nine-year-olds and 10-year-olds taking classical piano end up begging to play guitar. If your son is doing the same, pick a time period that you are comfortable with and tell him: “Okay, if you can visit your instrument five times a week for the next x number of months, then you can take guitar lessons.” Many parents hate such a plan. They think that playing piano is somehow better for their child. Just remember what your goal is. If that goal means you have to fight and force your child to practice, it may not be a goal that is working for you. If the goal is for your child to continue enjoying and making music, then there you have it! Guitar is very social, and at this age kids want to communicate their music to each other.

Have your child play in an ensemble or join a band: Playing with others makes learning more fun and provides short-term goals. It also gives budding musicians inspiration to improve on their instrument. Playing an instrument is a combination of cognitive thought and physical execution. We need to understand how music works, and physically be able to apply this understanding to our instrument. This takes repetition and time. Practicing is all about this process and is absolutely essential for progress. But because it is essential, it must be presented in a way that is free from judgment and control.  

The responsibility of educators and parents is to help students find the joy in the process. It is this joy—and only this joy—that will allow them a lifetime of love and connection with music.

What a gift!

Peter Gee October 25, 2012 at 06:16 PM
Great advice! I'll try doing some of these things with my (inner) child. He' s always wanting to do so many things. Piano, guitar, ukelele, ceramics, painting, vegan cooking, vegetable gardening, vipasana meditation, and now writing. He also participates in a number of social groups, has opened a community art gallery, and works out at the gym 6 days a week. It helps that he doesn't watch TV.
Allison October 25, 2012 at 06:44 PM
Peter, I think your inner child and my inner child might well be related. I have a new (crazy) goal of learning to play the lute! I will also try some of Laura's excellent tips, too. P.S. Your niece is doing a flute solo at her Christmas show.
Allison October 25, 2012 at 06:47 PM
Terry, Very clever. That's the old huckleberry finn method of getting your kid to practice. Do you recall in the book that when his parents demanded he whitewash the fence, he decided to make the chore into a game. He pretended to enjoy his outdoor painting so much that neighborhood kids begged him for a chance to whitewash. Soon, he was charging each a penny for the privilege of doing his chore.
carol van beek October 26, 2012 at 01:11 AM
Many good tips. The key to getting kids to practice regularly and not let it become a battle, is to have a set time for practice. Just like going to school and doing homework, practice needs to be part of their routine. I started piano when I was 5 and flute when I was 10. Neither were options. If they were, I would not today be a third generation piano teacher and church organist. Be persistent and make it fun!
Allison October 26, 2012 at 05:38 PM
Tom Sawyer and the whitewash -- of course! Huck didn't really have parents around. I stand corrected! I would love a copy of Amelie.

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