learning to how to practise
Well here it is, the long awaited article of exactly how to practise. This is a biggie!!
We sign our child up for piano lessons and everything is happy ever after. Nope – it doesn’t work that way. Children have no idea how to practise. They may not touch the piano between lessons; or they fiddle about getting disheartened; or, if they are very keen, they will keep playing through their new piece hoping eventually it will sound right. Adult beginners are much the same. Sound familiar?
Did you know:
- Children love it if you learn along with them and play together with them, duets or just the same notes. And don’t worry. If you are learning this can be very simple, but so much fun!
- Success is achieved by a combination of quality and quantity. But at the start efforts may not be brilliant, so quantity may have to suffice until quality kicks in. Make sure your child has enough to practise to keep busy. Rote pieces can be great for this – yes, even chop-sticks!
Even adults need to learn to practise efficiently
- Some children practise only one or two days for longer time, not realising that this strategy doesn’t work. Piano playing is a skill so half learning one day, forgetting, relearning the next day actually reenforces the process and gets best results. So at least 5 days a week to make good progress please.
For best results:
- Make sure your child knows what to practise – keep it simple – enjoy.
- Pieces should be practised in the head before playing. This saves children jumping in without thinking and is very successful.
- Longer pieces will probably have been broken into phrases by the teacher. Work on ONE phrase at a time. It doesn’t have to be the first phrase. I have been having great success by shutting the keyboard and helping the pupil memorise the piece before playing. This works so well if they really look. A phrase, if the right standard for them can be learned in as little as 5 minutes!!
- Repetition is an important part of learning. It needs to be done very deliberately to avoid mistakes creeping in. It should then be happily in long term memory, ready to call on when desired. I love this quote by Stephen Heller, a 19th century teacher and composer:
The amateur practises until he gets it right. The professional practises until he cannot get it wrong.
To become a good practicer….. well you have to practise!
starting to play
Let’s look at why practice is so necessary.
After years of teaching I know that to succeed in mastering the piano, three things are necessary:
- The determination to succeed
- Daily practice
- Good reading skills
If you are saying to your self, but my child doesn’t want to be a professional musician so there is no need to be practising long hours, you are only partly right.
Ponder these thoughts:
- How do you know that your child will not become super interested in music and want to take up music in some shape or form?
- Any amount of daily practice will give results if done regularly and with interest, but…
- Practice is only successful if it is done properly.
Children enjoy a challenge but most children don’t have a clue what they want to achieve or what to do at home.
This year I gave my students next year’s work before Christmas. Most welcomed the new challenges with great enthusiasm and couldn’t wait to get going. This suggests to me that the craving for new is a determining factor in the will to work. More about how to create interest in my next article. Let’s just talk a little about practice here.
- Your child should practise because playing the piano is a skill. The fingers and brain have to be trained to work together, just as you need to practise ball skills to succeed in that area. It is important to establish a practice routine right from the start of lessons.
- Your child should practise so that practising becomes a part of daily life, like brushing teeth. Even little children can be encouraged to play some pieces through each day in a fun way.
- Your child should practise everyday because establishing a routine is also easier for the parent to cope with. It just is – no questions.
- Your child should practise everyday because the amount of practice done determines the progress. But try not to watch the clock. Make practice goal-orientated.
- Your child should practise because not practising at all usually means an almost total lack of progress. Yes – unfortunately it is one after school activity that won’t happen by just turning up for lessons.
- Your child should practise to foster commitment which has a wonderful flow through into all other areas of endeavour.
practise means getting better and better
Parental attitude plays a big part in the progress of the child. Children are little clones of their parents until at least teens, and sometimes life long. You may not realise it but they pick up your attitudes like a sticky ball. Children will not like a piece if a parent doesn’t like it. If you want them to take music lessons but show no interest they will not be interested either.
If parents nag a child to practise but again show no interest, the child will not want to practise. Wild enthusiasm, interest and support give better results than nagging. And of course gently enforcing the practice routine.
The first thing parents should do each week is to check what their child is supposed to be practising. I write the weekly goals in a notebook. These are what should be achieved by the next lesson. But often I find the notebook has not been opened and the child has played old pieces all week. Parents can help a lot by keeping their child focused on what needs to be done.
The goals for the week are carefully chosen by the teacher to address the different aspects of learning the instrument. It might be finger training, looking for patterns in music, theory essential for playing, ear skills or improving reading skills. Challenges faced and overcome become a strength.
Left to their own devices many children will avoid aspects that they find not so interesting, thus causing weaknesses that can grow and become problems.
Practise takes effort and concentration but the results are enormous. Children can become addicted to the sheer success of hard work. Surely that can’t be all that bad! Why should your child practise regularly? Because without practice there will be no progress and they will fail to learn to play the piano. Learning to play is not just for the talented, but a wonderful achievement that anyone prepared to work can do.
Studies have shown that effort, not talent lead to amazing results. 10,000 hours seems to be the magical number required for mighty achievement but steady, regular practice will lead to success.
To spend years mastering an instrument requires the child to have great determination. Support and encouragement are very necessary. Teacher, student and parent all play vital roles in the learning process.
Our greatest gift is not talent but our ability to learn.
Parents must create the desire, fuel the passion and give children the confidence that they can and will succeed.
“Quantities of quality practice can transform a person of seemingly average aptitude into a much improved and possibly outstanding performer’. Michael Griffin
Parental involvement is the key to the child’s success. To have determination the child must be excited about learning. They should also be encouraged to commit to learning for however long it takes. This is a hard lesson to learn, but a very valuable lesson crucial for achieving anything in life. The only way to learn about commitment is by committing. The piano is a very complex instrument to learn. If the child and parent are not sufficiently committed, as soon as there is the inevitable low point learning will stop. Children are learning about responsibilities in many areas. There is a requirement to complete school homework and do household chores. But parents may need to encourage their child to do these, and so it is with music. If there are family expectations for some things but not music, it gives a clear message that music learning is not important.
Children who make a long term commitment makes the greatest progress.
The parent must encourage but not criticise and look for opportunities for the child to play and perform. Once a child has tasted some success they will be unstoppable. Determination leads to success.
Recommended reading: Learning Strategies for Musical Success by Michael Griffin
fuelling the desire
The key to success boils down to 3 essentials: determination to succeed, correct practising, and acquiring good reading skills.
Let’s talk more about determination, or sticking to the task however long it takes. What we might call having grit.
I want to debunk straight away the myth that you are either musical or you are not; that you are either musically talented or not. ANYONE CAN LEARN TO PLAY THE PIANO.
So why do so many fail to learn to play this beautiful instrument?
The answer is complicated, but our 3 elements are at the root of the problem.
- Fuel the desire. Those of you who have read any self-help books or looked into the whys and where-fors of success, will know to first fuel DESIRE. Without desire there can be no goal-setting and no determination. So first fuel your child’s desire to learn piano. Make yours a musical family. Sing and dance, clap and move as well as listening to a variety of music. Watch people playing the piano on Youtube. Make enthusiastic noises.
- Now we are warming up to the idea, fuel the desire by encouraging the goal setting and commitment. The commitment to learn to play should be open-ended, life long. The goal should be to become a good pianist, not necessarily in the professional sense, but to be the best possible. To decide to “try it for a year” is not good enough and doomed to failure.
The wonderful book by Michael Griffin, “Learning Strategies for Musical Success,” gives details of many studies that have been done measuring talent against hard work. Hard work wins out every time. In every case, child prodigies thought to be extremely gifted have found to have put in extraordinary amounts of practice. Mozart practised for hours from the age of 3. Tiffany Poon, the renowned prodigy who was awarded a schlorship to the Juillard School at the age of 8, played from the age of 2 and from the start of formal lessons at the age of 4.5 practised over 4 hours a day! She was also very curious about music. Encouraged by her parents, she developed the ability to concentrate for long periods of time at an early age. Yes, she may have been genetically more endowed, but it was her dedication and grit that lead to success.
And so it has proved for all professional players. Sheer hard work and persistence have been shown to be behind every success story. Child prodigies appear to be so brilliant because they are compared with children of their own age, not people who have put in the same number of practice hours. The magical number of 10,000 hours seems to apply, with professionals clocking up well over 10,000 hours of practice, competent amateurs at least 8,000 and so on.
In his book, Griffin also cites studies done comparing children who were told they were gifted and so had acquired a “fixed intelligence mindset,” with children not labelled talented or gifted but who had a strong desire to succeed. What was found was that the children with the fixed intelligence mindset assumed they would be able to everything easily, but were also reluctant to test themselves in case they were not as talented as they had been told. Children who believed in developing their potential were less worried by mistakes. When practising the same number hours it was the second set, those prepared to work to achieve their goals, who achieved the highest levels of success. Children who believe they are talented often have fixed ideas about their abilities and are less open to teaching and fresh ideas.
“In the investigation of superior achievement, precocity can be explained in terms of practice hours, opportunity, parental support, and a young starting age.”
playing music with friends
The road to success can be long and hard. But does it need to be? Learning to play the piano can be a real chore for some children, but for others it is a great joy. Why is this?
I would really love to say I have an answer that will turn every child into a budding pianist but perhaps that’s a bit optimistic. As a teacher I am always looking for better ways of helping each child to succeed. I have distilled the three essentials which seem to be true for all.
These three things that seem to indicate whether a child will be a struggler or fly along happily. Thank goodness all these things can be changed or improved at any time.
Children come in all shapes and sizes, and so do their natural musical abilities. Some children have no natural sense of rhythm, some seem to be born drummers; some can sing like angels, others need to learn how to use their vocal cords; some are natural memorisers, etc. etc. But everyone has the wonderful ability to learn.
These 3 essential elements greatly increase the likelihood of short and long term success.
1. Grit: Whether children are learning to spell, doing complicated sums, or learning to play the piano, the determination to succeed is crucial! Once the first excitement of starting the piano has worn off, there comes a realisation that to learn to play this beautiful instrument is really quite challenging. Some children enjoy this challenge and put everything into achieving ever greater goals. Some children groan and hand the whole responsibility of their success over to their parents and teacher. Needless to say without much success. Please note by success I mean baby steps. Really being able to play and enjoy a lovely piece how-ever easy. Grit, or determination keeps a child trying until they can – just like a little child learning to walk. Grit is crucial for learning a skill, and playing the piano is a skill.
2. Practice: Knowing how to practise and when to practise is a crucial skill and needs some organisation of self and home to get it right. It is a self-discipline, and as such has enormous flow-overs into every area of learning for your child. In fact it is life changing. It needs to be done regularly and properly. A time should be found which will work every day, and it should be stuck to. The gains are huge and the side-effect is that your child will start to love playing. The ‘how to” practise is more tricky. Aimless playing through and watching the clock achieves very little and should be avoided. Having a goal to achieve for the day/week and succeeding shows real progress and is very inspiring. There are many good books written on this subject. It is definitely worth getting this right.
3. Good reading skills: Teachers call this sight reading. It means that your child can pick up a piece of music that they have not seen before and play it. How wonderful is that!! Good reading skills mean that your child can have fun playing lots of music, not just the few they are learning. Good reading skills have enormous pay-offs because now your child can read and learn pieces much quicker and so, you’ve guessed it, make huge progress. Some of you may be thinking – surely that is why my child is learning the piano? Absolutely! And yet it is amazing how many children are not able to read anything without months of excruciatingly slow learning. You would find it amazing if after years of reading your child could not open a book and read a story, but this is what I see everyday when children attempt to play through a new piece. I work through sight reading every lesson, but children need to play new music everyday to bring their skills up to a level where playing piano is a pure joy.
climbing to success
So there we have it. Some many disagree with this list, but after many years of teaching I have found GRIT,PRACTICE and READING SKILLS are the key to success. Your teacher is doing their best, but show your child you are serious about music and help to improve these three elements and watch your child succeed.
stressed teacher or mum!
Once again we are in the last run-up to piano exam with the usual nerves and anxieties for teacher and pupil alike! If only children realised the stress they put their teachers through. When I was a child I can remember thinking how lovely it would be to be the teacher, immune to the worry of approaching exams. I wish!!
I think one of the biggest worries for the teacher is the unpredictable nature of children. I never seem to learn this, after many years of teaching. Once exams are over I seem to have amnesia, as with childbirth, and I forget the process entirely. Then here we are again. My carefully planned timing is completely undone, and with weeks to go there are children still painstakingly learning scales and notes, never mind my imagined meticulous polishing and adding exciting touches. So what goes wrong?
I think I am an idealist. In an ideal world all children would practise efficiently every day, they would delight in the musical adventure, laugh at the joy of speeding up scales and eagerly anticipate each new piece. Unfortunately there are very few children who fall into this category. These children are a real joy, and like other music teachers I see my teaching excelling as our enthusiasm feeds off the other. But some children are there only because their parents insist, and many more, while they like playing, are only too willing to fore-go the practice. So while we think pupils are making steady progress, there comes a week when other things get in the way, and then another happy-go-lucky week, and suddenly your plans are ruined and we are into damage control, our tense and tight voices panicking the child who is then ready to bolt, like a startled horse.
I wish I knew the answer… Allow more time seems a sensible idea, but I’ve found it often means the child delays doing anything. Some children just will not work until their backs are against the wall, and then it is often too late. Children are not good at planning ahead and assume teachers are old and fussy and all will be well in the end. I had one pupil who timed it to perfection. She started working about 3 weeks before the exam and walked out with a distinction every time, to my great annoyance and increasing grey hairs! Alas, this doesn’t work for many who usually scrape through, but never really achieve anywhere near their full potential.
Mastering the piano is a skill, and like all skills there are many hidden elements to be mastered. Every Olympian must have complete control over themself in order to succeed. We witnessed this year just how many great athletes failed to reach their personal bests because of faulty timing.
I guess these hidden elements are:
- self-discipline – ensuring daily practice comes first
- Taking the right steps, looking at detail
- Picturing the goal and being determined to get there
- Believing in yourself
Many of these fine traits lead to success in other things and are well worth cultivating. But to acquire them needs commitment from the child and great support from the home. So teachers – we can only do our best, the responsibility is then with the child.
Time for a glass of wine!!