By Philip Johnston
1. Be Interested
The single best thing parents can do to help their child practice is to be genuinely interested in what’s going on with their music lessons. To be hungry to find out what happened in the last lesson, and how their child plans on being ready for the next one. To want to know how the flute fits together, or how to apply resin to the bow, or which hand pushes those buttons on the trumpet. And what that left pedal on the piano is called. What’s the highest note their child can play? How fast is that new study supposed to be? What are they most looking forward to showing off at your next lesson?
How is their child feeling about their next concert? What made them decide to choose to play this piece? Which scale do they hate the most and why? Which composer do they enjoy playing most? What do they mess up most often in lessons?
Such questions can happen in the car, at the dinner table, straight after lessons, while they’re getting their kid dressed for school, at the checkout at the supermarket…wherever. But they should happen a lot. Parents who ask questions like this won’t have to feign fascination—they’ll end up with greater insights into what their child is doing, and in turn be more interested as to how things are progressing.
Most children are delighted to be the centre of their parent’s attention, and will tend to view favorably any activity that thrusts them into the limelight like that. If music lessons can feature on that list of positive attention-getters, then a large part of the practice battle has been won already.
Parents don’t need to be gushing over every correct quarter note, but calculated positive feedback from parents is a great way of reinforcing behavior.
The logic is that if the parent catches their child doing something right, and then praises them for it, the child is likely to want to repeat that behavior in the future. This can be even more effective if the parent is well-versed in which issues the teacher is trying to develop, allowing for selective targeting of such praise. So if the problem for the past few months has been that the student practices too fast, the next time the parent hears a passage of slow practice—however fleeting—they should pop in and mention to the student how careful their practice is sounding.
They can also keep an ear out for when the student may be sounding frustrated with what they are doing—not so they can sweep in and fix the problem, but just so the child knows that there is someone in their corner. Depending on the situation, they can gently encourage the child to try the section a couple more times, or try it a different way, or try a different section altogether, or even to take a break for a while and come back later.
The point is that when the child battles with practicing demons, they do so with support, and with plenty of encouragement to persist.
At the heart of successful practice is the need for students to understand exactly what they are trying to achieve in the week ahead—well before they start the first practice session. This means that instructions from the teacher, and feedback during the lesson are more important than ever. Parents can ensure that the communication between studio and home is complete by having the student reflect back to them the essential information for the week ahead.
The student should be able to explain exactly what their tasks are, together with the practice techniques that were recommended to complete them. They should also be able to answer questions about key points that were raised last lesson, together with any details of upcoming deadlines or performances.
The questions from the parent are designed to help the student cement their understanding of what’s required, and are probably best conducted as soon after the lesson as possible (in the car on the way home is ideal!). It’s also useful to pop into practice sessions at random and have the student outline again what their goals for the week are…that way, if the practicing has been wandering from the task at hand, the student will be gently reminded to get their eye back on the ball, without anyone having to ask.
Even when kids are completely clear on what their goals are for the week, and have a comprehensive list of practice techniques to use to pursue those goals, they can sometimes be confused as to how to organize it all. Sometimes three pieces, five scales and some theory papers can feel like a lot, and a little help from parents can go a long way.
The parents can’t actually do the practice for them, but they can help the child work out how many practice sessions will happen, when they will take place, and how long will be available for each one. Once that’s been done, they can build together a plan for getting everything done, as outlined in the chapter on Project Management
Parents can also keep an eye on the practice sessions themselves, keeping a look out for any obvious appearances of the common practice flaws outlined earlier in this book. For example, if they hear the student spending twenty minutes on a section that they can already play, it’s time to go in and tell the student that the section already sounds great, and that they could be done practicing sooner if they concentrated on tasks for the week that they haven’t mastered yet.
While praise can be useful for reinforcing what a student is already doing, being enthusiastic can help motivate students to be excited about things they haven’t even started yet—affecting practice sessions that may not take place for months, or even years.
So for example, the parent and child might be listening to an advanced violin sonata on the radio in the car, and the parent might turn to the child and tell them:
"You know what’s really exciting? I love listening to this piece, but if things keep going the way they have been, by the time you finish high school, you’ll probably be able to play it!
Probably only one person out of every ten thousand who start violin lessons are strong enough inside to make it that far—when I tell you I’m proud of what you did in your lesson today, I’m not kidding."
It’s over the top. But it’s entirely appropriate, because coming from mom or dad, words like that can ring in the child’s ears long after the conversation ends.
Parents can enthuse about the new piece their kid has been given. They can enthuse about the fact that their child has almost finished their new book, and may even get through it all before the holidays. They can enthuse about the new instrument their child now has. They can enthuse about how much everyone applauded at the student concert, and how their child was one of the few to play from memory.
And the best thing about these various moments of enthusing? They don’t have to be done to the student. They just need to be said within earshot of the student. (In fact, such enthusing will have its greatest credibility and impact if the child believes they were not supposed to hear what was said).
So if the parent’s little aside was about how little Matthew is playing so well that it won’t be long before he is playing some Beethoven, don’t be surprised if little Matthew requests some Beethoven in a future lesson.
Why? Because being able to play Beethoven is obviously a yardstick for being musically grown up—they know, because they heard their parent say so once. As a mere teacher, no superlatives we may deliver about Beethoven would count as much as that.
6. Progress Checks
With the practice model being based around the student having specific jobs to do, rather than practicing for a set time, knowing whether or not they are ready for their next lesson is more important for students than ever before. Students need to know early in the week if they are starting to fall behind, so that the lesson itself doesn’t sneak up and ambush them—a week can go by awfully quickly if they’re not paying attention.
One of the best ways to assess progress is with a couple of well-spaced midweek Checkpoints (as outlined in the Project Management chapter), and the parent is the perfect audience for the student to show off their work so far to. The whole process is similar to the regular inspections that take place on building sites to ensure that the job is running to schedule. So if the student’s job was to learn two pages of music, then by half way through the week, they should be able to play one of them.
The check doesn’t exist so that the parent can lecture the student about keeping up. Even if the session reveals that the student is behind, all the response needs to be is a discussion about how to restructure the rest of the week to still meet the deadline—no mention needs to be made about the student having been sub-par at the beginning of the week, because there is absolutely nothing anybody can do to change that now. But there is plenty they can do in the remaining days to ensure that the bad start to the week simply won’t matter at the lesson
This restructuring is not just a conversation about how to fit in extra practice sessions. It should also target how the student is planning on practicing. Often students fall behind because the way they are practicing is not working, not because they are spending insufficient time in the practice room. The parent can go through the list of suggested practice techniques, and help the child look for alternatives to the one they had been using.
For those teachers who have their own studio website, midweek checks can also allow students to call for help between lessons—long before the problem grows into a big one.
My website is www.geocities.com/joyfulsounds88. Mark this as a favorite and go there anytime you want. There is also a contact me link. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
7. Knowing when not to help
Sometimes the best help is not to help at all. Some students work best when they are given room to move, and will actively resent parents leaping in with solutions for every practice problem they face. Other students are undergoing temporary difficulties in their relationship with the parent concerned, and may then also undergo temporary difficulties with their music lessons to if the parent tries to involve themselves in the practice process. (The same student would probably have temporary difficulties with chocolate ice-cream if that same parent announced that they really should start eating some)
Independently of the state of the relationship between parent and child, as students become more autonomous with their practice, the parental involvement model moves gently from helping regularly to simply being available should the student need it.
But no matter how independent the practicing becomes, parents continue to set the enthusiasm levels with their own attitudes towards what is happening in music lessons. It can be as simple as eye-contact and a small nod at the end of an obviously good lesson. Parents don’t need to compose a sonnet for their kids to know that they are proud. And they don’t have to be sitting on the piano stool with their kids for every second of practice for the child to feel thoroughly supported, and to feel that the excitement surrounding their progress in lessons is being shared.