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.

comments powered by Disqus

More to read

Loading More Articles
No More Articles

Mama Madison: Parental dice rolls?

Last week, in response to the county-wide Sleep Safe, Sleep Well public health campaign that encourages parents to "share the room, not the bed" with their sleeping infants, Isthmus contributor Ruth Conniff penned a lovely opinion piece in defense of bed sharing entitled "Confessions of a Co-Sleeper."

Mama Madison: What constitutes a keepsake?

As much as I'd like to believe there is latent genius in my daughter's early finger paintings, I'm pretty sure her works are not distinguishable from those created by the pointer fingers and pinkies of thousands of other children from across the world.

Mama Madison: Young love

Seeing Romeo and Juliet this past weekend was a definite reminder that I need to prepare for something that might resemble a (Near) West Side Story around our place pretty soon.

Mama Madison: What a mother fears most

All during childhood, we calmly tell our kids they don't need to be afraid of the dark, thunder or the monster under the bed. But it's pretty hard to keep your parental cool when your kid is about to embark on the one thing that terrifies you. I knew the problem wasn't really with him. It was with me.

Operation Fresh Start's Youth Conservation Corps helps kids, and kids help parks

Last January, when temperatures dipped below minus 30 and most people between the ages of 16 and 24 did anything to stay inside, a small yet sturdy group of at-risk teenage boys and young men stacked wood and managed controlled burns at Festge County Park near Cross Plains. Five months later, following a temperature swing of more than 100 degrees, Isthmus found some of those same guys removing invasive honeysuckle and buckthorn at Lake View Hill County Park on Madison's north side.

Mama Madison: Summer stress solved by yoga

The first week of summer break at our place usually comes and goes without incident. At times, one could argue, it even verges on pleasant. I have no school lunches to pack and the kids have no 7 a.m. buses to catch.

Mama Madison: The greatest fans of road repair

Have you tried getting anywhere on either Verona Road or East Johnson lately? I'm pretty sure a six-month old could crawl to Fitchburg, or across the isthmus, in less time that it takes me to drive there these days.

Mama Madison: The alarm sounds

As soon as the door closed behind him, I poured myself a cup of the coffee he had made and took a moment to let the enormity of what just happened sink in. My son was ready that morning despite my inability to properly set an alarm clock. My kid was ready that morning without nudging, cajoling, or reminding. He was ready, even when I wasn't.

Mama Madison: My summer book list

For the past 17 years or so (i.e., since I've had kids), I haven't made books the priority in my life I know they should be. It's not that I don't try. Just this past weekend I had the best of intentions of picking up, and even finishing, I am Malala, this year's UW-Madison's Go Big Read pick. But the copy still sits untouched on my nightstand.

Make Music Madison gives young artists a chance to perform

The longest day of the year is upon us. For those of you keeping track, the sun will rise at 5:18 a.m. and set at 8:41 p.m. on Saturday, June 21. All that daylight, courtesy of the annual summer solstice, will provide the perfect backdrop for Make Music Madison, a daylong event featuring hours and hours of free performances in nearly every corner of the city.

Mama Madison: Watching talent grow

Last week, for the first time, I made my way up to one of the open gallery nights during Madison West's Fine Arts Week, the school's annual showcase for all things creative. The scope of the event is huge, with nearly 1,600 students participating, and the quality of the presented works is phenomenal. It's almost as if the school had been lifted off its perch on Regent Street and traveled back in time to Belle Époque Paris.

Mama Madison: Writing time at Olbrich

If you have aspiring authors in your house, this summer offers a fabulous opportunity for them refine their writing skills. For its second summer, the Greater Madison Writing Project, in partnership with Olbrich Botanical Gardens, is sponsoring two week-long camps in August for young writers entering grades 3-8.

Mama Madison: When UW-Madison's semester is over, the kids want out too

There are lots of benefits to living in a college town. First and foremost, there is always something going on -- a lecture, a film series. Maybe even a protest, if you're lucky. And since becoming a Madisonian, I, for the first time in my life, find myself interested in college football.

Mama Madison: Another amazing talent show

My passion for the talent show clearly runs deep, but I'm more than just a fangirl. This year marked my second as one of the "Ziegfelds" of the Follies, Hamilton's annual showcase for singers, musicians, dancers and other varied forms of entertainment. Trust me, when you are part of the spectacle's "producing/directing" team you get a new-found appreciation for how hard the kids worked to get up on stage.

Mama Madison: Preserving children's stories

My daughter, who turned twelve just this past week, is not legally "of age" when it comes to social media. But I guess, in many respects, especially in those that involve screens, I am a permissive pushover. I've allowed her join some networks.

Tenting tonight? Not so fast -- take the time to prepare for the first family camping trip

What adults love about camping -- sleeping under the stars, getting away from it all, the sounds of nature -- can be scary for children. It's dark in a tent. Nothing is familiar. Of course, camping with kids is more work for adults, too. Stay cool, live in the moment. Forget about that lost fork. Making s'mores, spotting wildlife, that's what kids will remember.

Mama Madison: It's time for the college tour

I have just returned from a whirlwind, five-day, four-city college tour with my son. You know those "101 Things to Know Before Visiting Disney World" guidebooks that experienced theme park travelers have written to help the uninitiated? I think I am now officially seasoned enough in information sessions and campus tours to give some serious thought to penning a similar "insiders guide" for the junior-year parent.

Mama Madison: When mom gets a new roomie

This past week, against both my will and better judgement, I accompanied 50 or so middle school kids to the Future Problem Solvers Wisconsin State Bowl, a popular academic and skit-writing competition.

Mama Madison: Earth Day awareness

It may be a bigger waste of breath than electricity to ask my kids to turn off the lights when they leave a room. If I've nagged them once, I've nagged them a thousand times. No, I've never noticed anything amiss with their fingers. But it appears they are physically incapable of flipping a switch to the "off" position.

Mama Madison: Parents should know and understand school codes of conduct

I want to say thank you to the Board of Education for allowing Maia to return to class, unquestionably the place she belongs, as well as to thank them for adopting the new policies. But just as importantly, I also want to thank Maia and her family for their willingness to come forward with their story.


Emails from Isthmus Parents feature event highlights, story links, site updates, and occasional special offers from trusted sources. Name and email address are required. Thanks!