Helping your kids stick with music lessons

Q: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? A: Practice!

Some clever-clogs is playing Rachmaninoff on the piano at a party, and there it is again, that oft-heard adult lament of lost opportunity from a dejected onlooker: "I wish I could play. I wish my parents hadn't let me quit music lessons. I was just a kid -- how was I to know?"

It's a reasonable complaint. Why are many parents unable or unwilling to convince their kids to stick with music lessons? Almost no one ever says, "I'm so mad my parents forced me to learn music," after all.

The first impediment is the biggest factor by far, but perhaps not the most obvious. Piano, the instrument many kids start with, is difficult to master. Not only are you learning to read the treble and bass clefs, but you're learning to play each clef (and reading different written representations for the notes) with two hands, at the same time.

Another problem is that music is often more of a checklist item for parents, like "my kid should have some music of some kind," with no further consideration of what that might mean.

Then there's that word: talent. Parents worry about whether their kids have this ineffable stuff.

But discovering talent shouldn't be the main object. There can be a spectrum of goals, from learning to differentiate pitches ("staying in key"), to holding a structure in one's mind ("playing from memory"), to grasping intervals ("singing in harmony"). We might call all that "musical talent," but really, much of it just comes from practice.

And most kids will not practice without you playing coach.

Hanging in there

Suppose you're a parent with two children. One is a girl, 10 years old, who's been taking lessons for four years. The other is a boy, 7 years old, who's been taking lessons for one year. When two kids are both in piano, and they practice twice a day, it can lead to high drama on a fairly regular basis. On the other hand, when they take even one day off, the pieces go totally to pieces. This is just the way human brains function.

Let's say the older girl gets it by now and plays wonderfully, practicing without complaint, because she has learned two things. First, that the big arguments twice a day over practicing simply disappear if she just resigns herself to doing the work without complaint; and second, that she not-so-secretly enjoys playing piano, especially the pieces that are nearly complete.

For the younger boy, however, it's a fight twice a day before both practice sessions. He tries to bargain. He tries to reduce his practice time. He wants to quit entirely. It's a huge battle.

What parent, when faced with myriad other challenges, doesn't feel like giving up?

But parents should hang in there.

"Kids who want to be successful benefit greatly from supportive parents who understand that they have to be involved with lessons at home," says Diana Berryman, a Madison piano instructor with 40 years of experience. "The piano is played with a series of almost invisible motions that begin at the shoulder and involve the arm, elbow, wrist and hand. Principles involved in playing advanced pieces can be learned from the very beginning of piano lessons."

It's key to remember that this is for the kid, not the parent. "Playing the piano gives the student something that belongs only to them," says Berryman.

A good teacher will tell the kids straight up that piano is one of the hardest skills they will learn in life. The combination of using muscle skills, learning a new language, and then making the piece sound good, lyrical, flowing, with dynamics is a very tall order.

With some kids, it will just not be worth it. They will fight too hard. But if at all possible it's worth it to fight through that resistance, not just for the music, but to teach kids that what may seem impossible can be broken into measure-sized chunks and conquered.

One technique is to learn the piece backwards, measure by measure -- thus emphasizing the breaking-into-discrete-chunks model over the natural temptation to try to play it all at once. It is as much about life as it is about piano.

More than music

Results can be far-reaching. Research has shown that music training, specifically keyboard training, increases spatial-temporal reasoning skills for preschoolers much more effectively than does computer instruction.

"I hate writing, I love having written," Dorothy Parker once said. The same is true for musicians. The dirty little secret is that no one enjoys practice, not even the most advanced musicians. It's hard work! But when beautiful music begins to emerge from a choppy series of half-understood measures, like a statue emerging from granite as a sculptor chips patiently away at the stone, piano study becomes deeply fulfilling.

For kids, it can also be the cornerstone of a disciplined and structured approach to problem-solving, as well as a musical outlet.

Parents who recognize the importance of sticking with it will be rewarded with a child who can proudly say "I'm glad my folks made me stick with it" -- after impressing everyone at the party with a little Rachmaninoff.

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