I recently read a study published in the February 2014 Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) E-Journal on the practice habits of 2nd year piano majors at a university. These were all pianists who knew how to play the piano and could play it well. The researchers were interested in finding out exactly how did each student practice and how effective was that practice.
What was interesting was there was a direct relationship between how they practiced and whether or not they continued on in piano or dropped out of piano.
One student (student #1) identified mistakes and worked out one mistake at a time, listening closely to his playing. When he mastered it and could play it three times in a row well, he moved on to the next spot where he made a mistake. This is how he spent the majority of his practice session. At the end of the session he played through the whole piece and made a note of any remaining mistakes and that is what he would address in his next practice session. He mastered music quickly. Two years later he graduated in piano and was looking at continuing to study piano in graduate school.
On the opposite end of the spectrum was a young woman who said she enjoyed the piano and practicing. However, it was noted by the researchers that this student made faces (probably out of frustration) when practicing. She also spent more time practicing than student #1 and instead of focusing on small chunks of the music and fixing one mistake at a time, she practiced bigger chunks with multiple errors in it. The down side to this method was that she reinforced her errors as she was attempting to fix an error at the end of a passage. It took her longer to master the music. She ended up dropping out of piano lessons before graduation.
How you practice has an impact on your success and enjoyment at the piano. If you are not getting the results you want within a few tries, talk to your teacher about different practice techniques. This goes for all piano students, whether a beginner or more advanced student. When you are able to pinpoint a problem and choose an appropriate technique to solve it, the results are astounding. You deserve to have astounding results. Your child deserves to have astounding results.
Recently I attended a piano concert where the performer played some amazing music. The speed, dynamic contrast, and wide range of color coming out of the piano was truly a marvel. After one of the most exhilarating pieces came to a close, no one could contain their enthusiasm for what they had just heard. Among the applause I overheard an older woman say to her friend, “Well, I guess I’ll just have to sell my piano.”
I was surprised and disturbed. When I am moved by music at a concert, I go out and buy it so I can learn to play it myself one day, if not that day. It never occurred to me that for some people the expression of beautiful music reminds them of feeling inadequate.
It’s easy to compare ourselves to others and then shut the door when we think we don’t measure up. However, music is not just for a select few. It is for everyone. If you have that recurring thought about wanting to learn to play the piano or even to improve your skills, allow yourself the space to do something about it. Will you play the piece with which the concert pianist wowed the crowd? I don’t know, but the desire to create doesn’t go away, and if you have the desire that is what you have in common with the concert pianist. They did something about their desire to play. Will you?
As a parent you want the best for your child. You want them to learn and grow and become capable musicians, as well as adults. While it’s the child taking lessons that actually sits down at the piano to play, the parents and the home environment play a significant role in the success of the child.
What can you do to help support the success of your child in music lessons?
Listen to classical music in the car or at home.
Just have it going in the background. You can also attend classical music concerts. What better way to be inspired than to see an accomplished musician live.
When I was in my twenties I used to coach ice hockey. The biggest problem we coaches ran into coaching American players was that they did not have much exposure to watching high level hockey games. The skills and concepts we were teaching them they had never seen before or had limited exposure to. Meanwhile, in Canada, where every Saturday night nearly every Canadian watches Hockey Night in Canada, Canadian children are exposed to a high level game and see the skills and maneuvers they will one day attempt when they learn to play hockey. It is no wonder that Canada is known for its hockey players.
The same applies to children and music lessons. As a parent you can enhance your child’s learning simply by having classical music playing in the background. You don’t even need to tell your child what you’re doing. It’s just part of the home environment. Try it; you just might like it.
The detail of my last post, How to Practice, can be overwhelming to young beginners. Here’s a simplified version to help young students develop effective practice habits.
YOUNG BEGINNERS PRACTICE GUIDE
1. Name the notes without using the piano
2. Find the notes on the piano
3. Choose a fingering for the notes
4. Clap and count the rhythm (hands alone first)
5. Play and count (hands alone first)
6. Bonus: Add the dynamics (loud and soft)
Learning to play an instrument comes through practice. But what does practicing actually look like? Here’s a peek.
HOW TO PRACTICE
> Choose a part of the music you do not know and follow these steps order.
> When a step becomes easy go to the next step.
> If a step does not become easier after 6 tries then try going slower and/or break the music down into a smaller chunk.
> If this still doesn’t help then go back to the previous step and master that one before moving on.
Steps 1-3 are done each hand alone.
1. Name the notes without using the piano. Write in pencil any notes you do not know.
2. Find the notes on the piano.
3. Choose a fingering for the notes. Write it in pencil in the music. Always use this fingering.
4. Tap and count aloud the right hand part.
5. Play and count aloud right hand alone. After a few repetitions of playing and counting aloud listen for the articulation and phrasing (dynamics). If the music does not sound stunningly beautiful stay where you are and experiment with creating a beautiful tone.
6. Tap and count aloud the left hand part.
7. Play and count aloud left hand alone. After a few repetitions of playing and counting aloud, listen for the articulation and phrasing (dynamics). If the music does not sound stunningly beautiful stay where you are and experiment with creating a beautiful tone.
8. Tap and count aloud hands together.
9. Play and count aloud hands together. After a few repetitions of playing and counting aloud, listen for the articulation and phrasing (dynamics). If the music does not sound stunningly beautiful stay where you are and experiment with creating a beautiful tone.
*If you run into any problems, bring your questions to your next lesson.
When I used to teach students with electronic keyboards not one of them continued beyond a few years. They were technically proficient, however, the one thing lacking in their playing was sensitivity.
If you have no sensitivity it sounds like banging on the piano. Contrast that with the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard come out of the piano. That is sensitivity.
As a student you will only become as sensitive as the instrument you practice on. Students on keyboards tend to become frustrated when they can’t do on their keyboard what they can do on the piano at their lesson. The students who began on a keyboard, but actively sought a piano and found one, they found piano much more rewarding and stuck with it.
If you really want to learn to play the piano, find a piano. You will be so glad you did.