P is… for Piano Parents & Practising!

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Guest post by Natalie Tsaldarakis

Practising is the hardest aspect of the piano learning process to come to terms with. Not least because it is prescriptive, when really not one size fits all, and is done in the absence of the teacher who does the prescribing in the first place. With the parent left to deal with the details of organising suitable practice, it is no wonder it always raises questions. In fact, the most surprising is the two extreme categories of attitudes I have come across: the parent who thinks that it is the child’s sole responsibility to practise without any further supervision regardless of age; and the parent who eagerly tries to absorb the teacher’s comments and then attempts to teach the child himself/herself at home despite not having any further qualification other than simply paying for and attending the lessons. In the hope some of this will be useful to prevent disappointment or misunderstandings I sent out the following to the parents of my piano studio:

Golden rules of practice to live by

  1. Practice should reflect age and level. Five to ten minutes of practice at a time for a very young beginner is usually good. For those starting out regardless of age, five to ten minutes per day, moving to two sessions per day of that duration, is recommended to gradually build both concentration and engagement. As an indication forty minutes daily up to Grade 4 level, and fifty to seventy minutes thereafter would be very good in order to achieve higher passes (merit, distinction). These are at best estimates and take into account neither the challenges presented by specific repertoire choices (‘Black Eye’s from the Grade 4 ABRSM 2017-2018 syllabus comes to mind) nor the different strengths and weaknesses in the learning ability and rate of individual students.
  2. Practice should be a daily habit.
  3. Learning to play the piano is not exclusively about passing grades: it is the journey which matters more (the most!).
  4. Make sure there is easy access to a good enough instrument: poor instruments can actually destroy motivation (no-one wants to play an awful- sounding instrument).
  5. Don’t place the piano next to a TV if the family plans to watch while the student is supposed to try concentrate on practising. Certainly avoid placing the piano in noisy areas of the house.
  6. You can’t learn to play the piano if you have no idea what piano concerts sound and feel like. Attending pupils’ concerts and local competitive festival classes is a start, provided that the students listen carefully to each other, but there is no substitute for a live (professional) recital or concerto. Free concerts especially at lunchtimes will allow you to leave during intermission if children become restless. Try Charlton House on Fridays, St Alfege’s in Greenwich, St-Martin-in-the-Fields, St James Piccadilly, and Hugh Mather’s Concerts at St Mary’s Perivale in West London. Southbank does a lot of family concerts, some of which are free. Another suggestion is Bach to Baby concerts for young families. For secondary school age children we also recommend Wigmore Hall, St John’s Smith Square, Kings Place, Barbican, Royal Albert Hall (for example the upcoming BBC Proms), as well as the conservatoires: RAM, RCM, Guildhall/ Milton Court.
  7. At young ages (4-9 years) parental involvement is directly related to success in the lessons and by extension in exams, performances/auditions/competitions. Rest assured that parents are not expected to be musically literate.
  8. Lessons need to be regular for progress to be steady.
  9. Lessons should be used for acquiring new skills, getting feedback, trying new things, asking questions. Turning up regularly with no consistent practice done in the week prior to the lesson is a rather poor way to use your time with the teacher. Supervised practice should be at home with the help of a parent or willing member of the family.
  10. Nannies are the wonderful human beings who carry the children safely and on time to and from lessons. Very rarely have we seen a nanny also being able to implement a practice regime like a parent does: ultimate authority (and source of validation) can only be a parent/guardian.
  11. Children below the age of 12-13 are mostly motivated by the love of parents: if parents take active interest in their piano playing, children will continue to thrive. Make sure that even if your work doesn’t allow much family time, you still remember to ask how practice went and what pieces they are playing, etc. Also, you can ask for a short performance once in a while when you get home if it’s not too late.
  12. If a piece sounds messy try to compliment the effort not the result. A balanced reaction, which avoids both empty praise and too much criticism, is perhaps difficult to achieve but necessary.
  13. Some children are harder to work with than others. They may be less motivated if they can’t concentrate well, if they are perfectionists, easily disappointed, not confident enough, or have a rather fixed mindset. Piano lessons address all these issues and can give them the necessary skills to succeed not only in music but as learners in general. As long as you facilitate a regular practice regime and you show your support/enthusiasm for the young pianist’s progress, we are confident the rest will fall into place.
  14. Finally: do not stress a young pianist of promise with comments about future plans of a career. It might just backfire and cause all motivation to disappear. Managing stress is itself a skill, but when it appears in the form of parents’ inordinate expectations, a child may just feel it has no control any more, yet parental love might appear to be at stake. A career and musical talent (even proven through competitions) are not the same. A career should only be (carefully) discussed with pupils who are self-motivated, usually have several wins at festivals/competitions, a grade 8 distinction (preferably a diploma), are at least 15-16 years of age and have themselves expressed eagerness to become musicians. It should never be directed at being famous and getting rich! Careers are very much dependent first and foremost on parental support, right type of exposure (performances/masterclasses/ competitions), careful planning of several aspects, as well as on personality and artistic aims (for which keeping up with repertoire, current performers, and a working knowledge of the various fields are necessary).

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In the end it’s about making music and enjoying sharing it with others. With funding cuts affecting the provision of state education, at least parents are doing their best to offer their children invaluable experiences, skills, and memories. And that makes it all worthwhile.

Links:

Wigmore Hall

St John’s Smith Square
Southbank

St Martin in the Fields

Bach to Baby
Concerts at St Mary’s Perivale
Barbican

Guildhall School of Music: Milton Court

Royal Albert Hall

Kings Place

St Alfege’s

Royal Academy of Music

Royal College of Music

Trinity Laban


Portraits of The Ivory Duo piano ensemble.Natalie Tsaldarakis is a pianist, and one half of the Ivory Duo Piano Ensemble which focuses on film music arrangements and new music for two pianos & piano 4-hands. Natalie is also a trustee of the Cornelius Cardew Concerts Trust and runs a large piano studio in SE London with her husband, pianist Panayotis Archontides.

Currently, Natalie is a PhD student at City, University of London researching the piano pedagogue Gordon Green and the Manchester school of pianism.

 

Connect with Natalie on Twitter

 

How to help your child enjoy and succeed at piano lessons

The role of parents in piano lessons is crucial, by encouraging their children to practise, reinforcing the teacher’s instruction, and offering support and encouragement.

The decision to start piano lessons should not be taken too lightly. Learning and playing the piano is highly enjoyable and satisfying, leading to a deep sense of personal fulfilment, but it is also hard work which requires commitment and consistent practise to progress and succeed.

Chose the right time to start piano lessons. I have noticed an increasing trend amongst parents to seek piano lessons for very young and pre-school children. While I do not have an issue with this per se, I do feel that young children should have mastered basic reading/literacy before they start piano lessons. Children who start piano lessons at a very young age or pre-primary school should, in my opinion, be encouraged to enjoy exploring the instrument and its special soundworld before formal note learning begins. There are a number of specialist learning methods for very young children, including ‘Dogs and Birds’.

Find the right teacher. Sounds obvious? Piano teaching is unregulated and I am sorry to say there are charlatans out there and people who set themselves up as piano teachers without the appropriate qualifications and/or experience. Personal recommendation is often the best way to find a good teacher. Always arrange to meet a prospective teacher, with your child, and do not be afraid to ask the teacher about their qualifications and credentials, and for references/testimonials from other students and their parents. A pass at Grade 8 is the very minimum requirement for a piano teacher. A good teacher will also have an up to date DBS check (formerly CRB check).

Establish a routine from the outset. Ensure your child attends his/her piano lessons on the right day at the right time each week. This is a basic courtesy to the teacher, but also encourages commitment and routine. Make regular attendance at piano lessons a rule, and avoid over-scheduling your child with too many extra-curricular activities. Try to organise piano lessons on a day when there are not other after-school activities (in particular sport: I have had rather too many tired (and muddy!) students come to me for lessons straight after football or hockey).

Provide the right environment for learning. A well-maintained acoustic piano or quality digital piano/keyboard with weighted keys is essential, as is an adjustable piano stool. Many piano suppliers offer rental schemes and interest-free loans. Good lighting and a quite room are essential to good practising. Provide your child with a space away from interference from the rest of the family, and distractions such as television, computer etc.

Establish a daily routine of practising. Your child’s teacher will advise about the appropriate amount of practising required and should offer guidance on productive practising techniques. Encourage your child to practise regularly: little and often is far better than a lot the night before the lesson and leads to noticeable progress. Practice not only makes perfect, it also makes permanent. Supervised practice is essential, especially for young children, and parents do not need specialist musical knowledge to help their children with their practising. Many children need a parent to read out the teacher’s notes in the practice notebook.

Do not over-correct or re-teach. Over-correcting your child and constantly highlighting errors can be highly dismotivating and is the fastest way to kill a child’s enthusiasm. Praise good playing and offer positive suggestions for dealing with errors. Allow your child to learn and discover at his or her own pace. If the teacher has made specific suggestions/requests for practising, do not overrule the teacher’s directions by re-teaching your child between lessons (this can be incredibly frustrating for the teacher: I speak from experience!).

Encourage your child to prepare properly for each lesson. Practising is the equivalent of school ‘homework’ and should be undertaken with the same degree of care and attention. Make sure your child completes the practising set out by the teacher, and encourage your child to make a note of how much practising has been done each day (most practice notebooks have space for this). Also note down any aspects which are proving problematic so that the teacher is aware and can offer appropriate guidance at the next lesson.

Show enthusiasm for your child’s progress. Promptly purchase new music and other materials as requested by the teacher, and pay tuition and exam fees on time. Encourage your child to enjoy not just the piano but music in general by buying CDs, listening to music together on the radio and via streaming services such as Spotify. Attend concerts as these can inspire and motivate your child.

Get involved. Attend workshops and student concerts whenever you’re invited. Your presence demonstrates interest and support to your child and your child’s piano teacher. Think of performance as an opportunity to share music rather than a showing off exercise. Encourage your child to take part in performance opportunities organised by the teacher, and follow the teacher’s guidance in aspects such as readiness for exams or competitions and festivals.

Talk to the teacher. Don’t be afraid to ask the teacher for progress reports, verbal or written, and to discuss your child’s progress with the teacher. Be honest with the teacher if you feel your child is being asked to do too much, or learn music which is too difficult, or not challenging enough. Respect the teacher’s methods and decisions regarding exam entry etc.

Why piano? One of the great pleasures of the piano is that it is possible to make a pleasant sound on it from the get go, which provides in instant sense of accomplishment (unlike string or wind instruments which require a greater degree of mastery before the instrument begins to sound nice). The piano repertoire is vast and varied, offering music to suit all tastes and abilities, and learning the piano provides an important foundation in the fundamentals of music, music theory and artistry.