Supporting Your Child's Musical Journey:  Practising at Home

On the surface, it may seem that when it comes to music instruction, parental support requirements are low.  However, unlike other extra-curricular activities like soccer, baseball, gymnastics, hockey, and dance, music instruction requires that young children practise independently at home. This can be a daunting task for many students and their parents because the vast majority of children lack the discipline to make this happen on their own.

So what is a parent to do?  While music instruction is rewarding and enjoyable, it is also a lot of work and unfortunately, this work is unavoidable.  Students who do not practise will not progress, or at best, will progress very slowly.   In getting children to the piano, it may be helpful to influence how they are thinking about piano practice and music instruction. For example, parents may ask their children to practise because it is something that is good for them.   Brocolli and other vegetables are good for you. Sometimes we don't like brocolli but we eat it anyways because it is good for us and leads to better health. Piano practise can be like this too.  Sometimes children need to be reminded that practise always leads to better musicianship.  Sarah McLaughlin, Diana Krall, Chantal Kreviazuk, Bruce Cockburn, and Jeff Healey are pop, jazz, or rock musicians who are Royal Conservatory of Music alumni.  Bruce Cockburn recalls his royal conservatory of music experience as follows:

While I was in high school I studied piano and music theory with a private teacher, using the Royal Conservatory's curriculum. I acquired Grade 6 Piano, and Grade 3 Theory, which set me up very well for further studies at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. The Conservatory's system was challenging but doable, and I would recommend it to any serious music student. - Bruce Cockburn

If a particular child is also into sports, perhaps parents can sell piano practise to this child based on the idea that practice teaches focus and discipline and both of these are skills that make for great athletes. A great example of this from sports is pairs skater Eric Radford.  Eric studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music and ultimately wrote the music for the short program that he skated with his partner Meagan Duhamel at the Sochi Olympics.  Another child may thrive on academic performance at school.  This child may be sold on the idea of practising if he/she knows that there have been many studies that shown a strong correlation between the study of piano and academic and intellectual success.  Those close to Einstein noted the profound impact music had on him.  

He also plays the piano [as did his mother]. Music helps him when he is thinking about his theories. He goes to his study, comes back, strikes a few chords on the piano, jots something down, and returns to his study. . – Elsa Einstein

The daily practice session does not need to be a long one but will grow as a child matures.  In fact, I want my young students to be the children that they are and so, I set practise plans accordingly.  Generally, this means that beginning and very young students will need to practise about 20 minutes per day.  This amount of practice still allows a child to progress and also have generous amounts of free play time.  Setting up a regular daily schedule as to when practise will occur is important too as children do better in situations where there is structure and consistency.  Parents will also find that with a regular schedule, it is easier to get their child to practise.

Piano practice is a solo activity and can be a lonely one.  If your child likes company, sitting with them while they practise may be a good idea.  Be sure to offer copious amounts of praise while you do this too.  This can become a time that you both grow to enjoy very much.  If you have no musical background, your child may be excited to teach you what they know.  When doing so, your child will actually be practising without perhaps realizing that this is what is happening.  If you do have a musical background, you may enjoy playing the teacher duets that are sprinkled throughout your child’s music books.  For some students, just sitting and listening may be enough.  Other family members and friends can help too.  I know that my father really enjoys listening to my children practise and my children just glow under his warm praise.  Here are a couple of comments that you can make to encourage your child while listening to them play:

Wow!  That used to be hard for you!  Can I hear it again?

The middle section was so beautiful!  Can I hear it again?

Parents can also look to ways in which to inspire their children to want to practise.    This can be done through attendance at local concerts and music festivals, such as the North York Music Festival.   Admission is often free and these festivals are an opportunity to see up and coming talent.  If there is a teenager, or older child in your neighbourhood or family circle who plays the piano, these people can be good role models for younger students.  Often, the young students will be excited to hear these people play and then strive to be just like them.  In these cases, parents may find that the need to remind their child to practise becomes much lower.  Movies can also be inspiring.  Three of the best movies I have found for doing so are Mr. Holland's Opus, Music of the Heart, and August Rush.  Shine and Amadeus are also inspirational but some of the content is more adult.

In conclusion, piano practise can be challenging and great accomplishments do not come easy.  Improvement in any instrument or at any activity requires hard work.  We all do things that we don't want to do, when we are working towards something valuable.  Your efforts to support your child by encouraging them to practise at home will definitely pay off.