It's October, how do I get my child to practice?

October is a tricky month. September is usually filled with new pieces and a fresh start but once October comes around it’s more challenging to get students to stick with practice. Based on our experience there are a few tips that work well for motivating young children to practice but I researched a few other tips and I’ve linked to those articles as well.

  1. Routine is essential. I suggest that students practice at the same time every day - or on the 5 days that they have agreed to practice. Set a time and make it piano time. No excuses. Like brushing your teeth piano practice should be a non-negotiable.

  2. Remove distractions. This may seem obvious but it can be challenging with open concept houses. Try to limit radios or tv sounds, have other children find something quiet they can do for the duration of the practice so they won’t interrupt, and remove your phones/ipads and other distractions like large timers. I know that I find my phone a distraction so I leave it out of the studio when I practice.

  3. Sit with your student. Kids of all ages need positive reinforcement and often just sitting with your student can give them the encouragement that they need. No need to worry that you “don’t know” how to play piano - your student DOES and they can teach you. Read the lesson notes and ask questions about them to your student.

  4. While you are sitting there with your student and they are moving through their practice notes why not play a game with them? There are so many options for practice games and I’ve linked to a site with some good ones here and here and here is a pdf of some games you can use that I got from The Fame School years ago.

  5. Have your piano student goof off- and by that I mean have them make up their own piece and play it for you. Have them explain what’s happening in the piece and what they like about it - self expression is part of what we are teaching when we give music lessons!

  6. End on a positive note. Have your student play a piece they are proud of- or that they already know and love. This builds confidence in their abilities.

Piano Games - why they can be useful for practicing

I use piano games in my lessons;  not all lessons and not every lesson, but I do use them.  I find them helpful to get students to relax and concentrate on a topic we have been learning - and I find that if students bring the games home it reinforces the topic even further.  In school teacher lingo - it's extending the learning.  

My younger students tend to have access to the games in our studio - and I find it helps them immensely.  And my older students often get a "treat" when we play games in lessons.  Overall it's a strategy that has helped me keep students attention, extend the lesson and engage students who otherwise may not be interested that day.

If you have a student at home who is struggling with their practice games can help get you back on track.  I have a number of piano practice games that I employ and here are 3!

1) For doing repetitions and drills: get 7 coins, legos, action figures (whatever it may be but 7 is the magic number) and put them on one side of the keyboard.  Every time a drill/repetition is done well they move an item to the other side of the keyboard.  When they have moved all of the items they are done that job for the day. 

2) For reinforcing keyboard awareness - if students are telling you they can't remember what the keys on the piano are, use this game (magically they remember!).  Cut out 14 smallish pieces of paper and write the musical alphabet on them (one letter per piece) so you have 2 sets of letters. Choose two game markers (one penny and one dime work well) and your student puts the marker of their choice on one end of the keyboard while you put yours on the other.  Place the two piles face down and at the same time turn over the card.  You and your student each move your marker to the key identified on your individual cards moving closer to the middle of the keyboard.  Do this until you have gone through your cards.  The individual who has their game marker closer to Middle C is the winner.   (Susan Paradis has a great pdf for this game, from whom I originally heard of the game!) 

3) Gather a bunch of legos or your Mr. Potato Head. For every job done well (repetitions, playing a number of pieces, etc) during practice, the student gets to add a lego piece to their creation or add an item to Mr. Potato Head.  This works well with repetitions for students who are learning how to move their hands around the piano as they have to find their spot again after they add to their creations. 

I'll post more practice strategies for reluctant practicers so check back for more!

What To Do When Your Child Won’t Practice (Part 2)

Wednesday's post had some solutions for the resistant practiser. Here are a few more!

  • Where are they practising - is the piano far away from where the rest of the family is spending time or is the piano in a place that is distracting when they are working? Sometimes parents put the piano in a place that is far away from where the rest of the family congregates during practice time (like a formal living room when the family spends time in the family room) because they want to limit distractions and feel students can concentrate better. While I agree with this logic, often if students are practising alone this removal from family activity can feel very isolating and practice might start to be perceived as a punishment. If moving the instrument into a more common area is not possible, sit with your child as they practice. Make it a special time for you and your child - a thing to celebrate and makes them special. They get your undivided attention for the duration of practice and they are not distracted. If you can move your instrument to a more common area this might make your student feel better about practising. They can show off what they know to the family and other family members might encourage them to practice and then celebrate what they have accomplished.

  • Are they practising by themselves? Like the above point - practising in isolation can feel like punishment. For young children this is challenging - they need help remembering to practice and to stay on task. Helping young students on a daily basis can build confidence, their skill base and enjoyment of practice. Pre-teen and early teenagers can befit from having a parent sit with them from time to time - it shows you are interested in what they are doing and they get to show off to you. The key is that for children, practising is not something they will do on their own (for the most part) and they need your support to be successful with it.

  • Is practising something that happens sometimes or is it a routine you implement every day? My mother made me practice at 7 PM every day. Regardless of if it was a weekend a holiday or my birthday. 7 PM came around and I had to practice. This made a world of difference in how I viewed practice as a teenager and as a young adult. Even now sometimes 7 PM comes around and I think that I need to practice. Routine helps remove the negative stigma.

  • Do they worry that practising will be a very long time? Set a timer and show students that practice time goes pretty quickly and celebrate what has been accomplished.

What To Do When Your Child Won’t Practice (Part 1)

Some students don't like to practice (I know!  GASP!!).  Helping them to practice can be a frustrating job but if you find out WHY they don't want to practice it might help.  Here are a few solutions to some common reasons students resist practising.  Watch for Friday's post as it will have more solutions.

  • Does the piece seem too hard? Maybe they need to work on only a few sections of the piece rather than the whole thing at one time. Find a few bars and see if they can accomplish those bars and then add a few more until the practice time is up. Build on what they already know. Sometimes having them read the note and match the note to the key on the piano is a good starting point and then having them slowly read and play only a few bars a number of times can be that day’s practice.

  • Do they perceive they have more work than they do? Students sometimes feel that they need to do the whole thing every day. Breaking up a larger task into smaller segments (a certain number of bars for each piece if they have multiple pieces, learning only one piece a day and then reviewing what they have already learned etc) can be useful. For older students, accomplishing one element of a piece can sometimes be enough - have them make sure their notes or rhythm are correct for a certain number of bars or lines and then reviewing what they have done previous practice sessions. The key here is to build on what has already been accomplished.

  • Are they doing something they want to finish? I hear this reason a lot. Students often feel that they won’t be able to go back to whatever they are currently doing (a video game, playing with toys etc). Parents have told me that giving a time for when the current activity is up and they move onto practice sometimes helps, as does saying we can come back to this activity when practice is over. Whatever strategy you use for your child when they are engrossed in something but need to break for a meal or tidy up should work here.

  • How is practising perceived by them? (a chore, something to look forward to, a frustrating time etc). The previous point is related to this one. Often students feel that practising is a chore, something they must endure. If we can shift this thinking to something they GET to do we have won this particular practice battle. Set up a regular routine for practice and implement it - do this in stages and celebrate every positive part of practice from students going to the piano on their own to playing a piece properly, even to putting their hands on the right spot, to the effort they put forth to do a good job. This attitude and routine can change how students view practising for the better.

Hand position?  What do you mean?

Students come to lessons with varying abilities and hand strength (duh Emily!) but when they play, students NEED to have a good strong hand to do cool things on the piano.  But when you hear the words, Strong Hand Position,  do your eyes roll back?  What does it even MEAN?

 

My favourite tool is the Hutchinson checklist in exercise 1 of his book of activities.

Sit at the piano and put your hands on the piano.  Check your arms - are they bent with a V?  If so you are too close and you need to move your bum back.  You should have a reclining L - almost an I but not quite.

Then curl your hand like you are cupping a ball or something very fragile and put your hand on the piano.

Are your fingers flat? Shift them so you are playing on the finger tips!

Check your wrist!  Is it low?  Lift it up (you should be able to not see your finger nails!) and pitch it out toward the outer part of the piano.

Check your baby finger!!  Is it collapsing under your hand?  Make sure to lift it up and rest your finger tip on the key!

What about your shoulders?  Are they tense and almost touching your ears?  Relax them!

Try playing like this and see what results you get!

4 Ways to Support Your Piano Student

Being a piano student can be somewhat isolating.  It’s not like you are on a team where you meet your peers twice a week at a rink and play together. It’s all about you alone at the instrument everyday doing something that can seem less than rewarding.  So, as a parent, how can you help your piano student?  Here are a few.

  1. When your student comes home from their lesson have them show you what they learned. You may not understand what it is, but go through their lesson book through each item your teacher has written and have your student demonstrate what each of those items are. If the student can’t do anything written, immediately contact your teacher so that they can help solve the problem ASAP. Don’t let a week go without getting help! Not only does having your student show you what they have done in lesson show you if there are any issues, but they can feel good about showing you what they know, inform you of anything they might have learned new, and it gives them a chance to review what they learned in lesson.

  2. Make sure your piano is in a place that is frequented by your family. A family room, a living room - somewhere that isn’t out of the way. Practicing piano shouldn’t feel like you are being sent away to do your work. Parents can make sure there are limited distractions during practice time by clearing the area for the length of the practice, but ultimately the piano should be in a place of prominence.

  3. Make sure to sit with your student from time to time. Ask them to play their favourite piece or exercise. Ask them to teach you something they have learned, or teach you something so you can join in with them. If you want to do a duet with your student, let your teacher know - we have access to duets for parents and students.

  4. Praise your student. Sometimes it feels like we don’tget anywhere by practicing but when parents listen in and say good things about the piece it can make a student feel so much better about the process.

There are so many ways to support your student - these are just 4.  If you want to know how else you can make practicing smoother for your student, please just ask!  We have lots of techniques to help!

I’m A New Piano Parent.  Now What?

Congratulations on enrolling your child in piano lessons!  This is the beginning of a great adventure of learning a new language, developing skills, learning about perseverance and most importantly, how to express creativity.  We are super excited for you!

As a piano parent your job is essential to the success of your piano student!  Positive reinforcement, adhering to a routine, providing an environment for your child to practice and encouraging performances are all in your new job description.  But we can help!

  1. Review What They Learned in Lesson.  When you child comes home from their piano lessons it’s a great time to ask them what they learned and have them show you - even if you don’t know or feel comfortable with learning an instrument.  Your interest in what they learned is super important.  Having a piano student review verbally what they’ve learned in their lesson and show you on the piano are excellent ways to reinforce what was learned!  *Bonus tip - have your child teach you something they learned in their lesson.
  2. Routine, Routine, Routine.  Starting your piano student on a practice routine from the first day of piano lessons will help them to develop a schedule, and will reduce headaches for you in the future.  Parents who set up a specific time for students to practice on a daily basis have the best chance at success with music.  And students learn that this is the time they need to practice (like they need to brush their teeth before they go to bed) so it becomes second nature.  *Bonus tip - sit with your student as they practice.  Go through the lesson notes and have them check off the work they were assigned.  Not only are you doing this with them, but you are learning the process of practice so you can help them later!
  3. Minimize Distractions.  We are all easily distracted, so if your piano is located where the TV is, turn off the TV.  Ask other members of the family to leave the piano area for the duration of the practice.  Make the practice time as focused on the task at hand and you will see results.  *Bonus tip- although minimizing distractions during practice time is very important, having the piano in an area where the family spends a lot of time is important too.  Having the piano in a high traffic area can encourage students to play their pieces for the family even when it’s not a scheduled practice time!
  4. Promote Performances.  At GSDM we try to have a performance a month for students.  Some of these performances are very low key and others are very formal.  Encourage your child to perform at them frequently so when they get up to play they’ve had lots of practice and aren’t as nervous.  *Bonus tip - have your child perform for you and your family.  Make it a big deal that they can play piano - it will result in more practice!

Congratulations on becoming a piano parent.  We promise to help you as much as we can!

 

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