Parents Help Time:
How to Stop Pulling Your Hair Out (And Get Those Kids Practising)
Ah practise. One of the worst words children hear – that and homework.
I know it’s difficult as a parent. Music lessons are *not* cheap. So if you don’t see the progression and you feel they’re not progressing through the grades or you are literally pulling your hair out trying to get them to practise, I know the temptation is to stop lessons. But here’s some advice on why you shouldn’t and why perhaps those lessons are more important that you might think. And there’s some great tips on how to make the dreaded practise fun again.
Why You Should Stick it Out
As a teacher I know that music lessons really are worth their weight in gold for students, but as a parent I do know the financial burden as well. With rising costs of living, poorer wages, no wage rises and the fact that children do expect to do so many things at the same time, it can be a difficult balancing act. One thing I’m reminded of it that so many adult students tell me that they wished their parents would have made them stick to music lessons, as they now can see the benefit. But I know this doesn’t help you if you’re practically dragging them there and then seeing the piano sat gathering dust in the corner. Perhaps it is something to consider though.
Usually in a 1-2-1 situation you’re paying for basically a bespoke service (if it was something on etsy or not on the highstreet that would instantly add another 0 to the price!). Lessons are structured to your son or daughters needs and tastes and rate of progression. The reason I love teaching so much is that no two students are ever the same. You can start two students of the same age on the same day with the same book and yes they might overlap, but after the first couple of lessons it’s completely different. As a teacher you need to learn to teach exactly the same thing in a million and one different ways. And then I can’t also not mention that sometimes it’s not *just* about progressing through a book. It’s learning to read, co-ordination, dexterity, breath control and not to mention confidence building.
And there’s all of that even before you factor in the human element. The joy of 1-2-1 lessons is that you do get to know your students, their mood, their stresses and strains and the outside world can’t help but filter into a lesson time.
Are you Expecting Too Much?
Most students have 30 minute lessons, but some are even 20. But if you take out 5 minutes for setting up, relaxing into the lesson with a minute of chatting about practise and how they got on with the pieces, 5 minutes of warming the instrument and the brain, and then allow 5 mins at the end to wind down and go over things that need to be worked on… That’s 15 minutes. 15 minutes to play the pieces that were set last week, start something new and go over any new issues.
I’m not saying sign up for longer lessons! For most students 30 minutes is the perfect length of time. But, before you cancel lessons completely perhaps it’s worth a thought about what you’re truly expecting. They say it takes about 10,000 hours to truly master something. And that would be straightforward improving every week mastering. They’ll take a step forward and a step back, they might race ahead and then get stuck. You just never know!
There’s no right answer for the rate at which students ‘should’ progress. Personally I hate the pressure that we feel about music exams – that if we’re learning something, not just music, then we need to do exams to validate what we do. Other countries don’t do exams, and for those that do there isn’t sure a need to be grade 5 by the time they get to secondary school like we have over here.
Yes, I know the pressure for students to get into a good secondary school is so much greater than it was when I was at school, and I know that by the time my little one’s getting towards year 6 and SAT’s I might suddenly start enrolling in French classes etc too! But something to consider… are exams really worth it if your son / daughter isn’t interested? I know they’re supposed to count for UCAS points, but actually most universities don’t look at them. I did a full blown music degree. Did they want to see the certificate before I started, nope, did anyone ever ask if I passed with a merit or distinction, nope. Could I have done the course without it – yes I could. Because I enjoy and love music. And that trumps pieces of paper every time hands down.
As a teacher I do encourage exams yes, but not for exams sake. Learning three pieces to pass an exam and get a piece of paper will do nothing for a student. If anything it will make them bored and hate it in the long run. Reasons not to do an exam (and why exams are bad for you) – are in another post that I wrote here.
So my question really is – are you expecting a return on your investment? Does your son / daughter feel the pressure of ‘having’ to do well so they’re not willing to relax enough to enjoy it. Are they actually getting more out of the lessons than you can see on the page?
Trust the Teacher
A good teacher really is worth their weight in gold (or chocolate and gin if any of my students are reading this).
So if you have any concerns about practise (or lack of) do talk to the teacher first. It could be your worry about practise isn’t anything to be concerned about. If the teacher is happy with the rate of progression, then hooray!
Don’t tell my students, but *actually* sometimes you can progress without having practised. Sometimes the brain does just need a few days to process ideas, but not all the time though.
Perhaps the teacher has a few ideas on what they should be focusing more – would a notebook for the teacher to write in help, so that way you know what they should be practising help?
Getting Bums on Seats:
(or just the instrument out of the case…)
Now this is where we get to the difficult bit. Actually getting students to practise…. Perhaps you’ve had to be mean parent and deliver the final ultimatum – no practise and you’ll stop the lessons… or perhaps you’re getting to that stage and don’t know where to turn.
Here’s a few hints and tips that might help.
The most important thing to remember is that music is supposed to be fun. Has all the nagging about practising zapped the fun out of it? Is looking at dull repertoire making their brains turn off? Sometimes that final serious ultimatum is needed for them to realise that you’re serious and for them to take responsibility for their lessons, but sometime it can backfire.
There are things you can do though:
Let them have fun. Encourage them to try something new – jazz, pop, music games on the ipad, learning a song by memory, playing along to a CD, finding something to listen to on youtube.
Could you sit and practise with them? Or even more importantly – could you just spend time listening to them practise?
A lot of parents feel lost when it comes to music – most haven’t learnt an instrument. But this doesn’t matter. Just listen. Encourage. You’ll hear when it sounds right and when it doesn’t, usually this is a great starting place.
Could you get your son / daughter to teach you something? Why don’t you let them be the teacher and learn the basics to play along. You’d be surprised how easy it is to self teach music via books and the web nowadays. Learn enough to play with them (and don’t worry about technique which the books can’t teach you, if you’re simply playing for fun, fun, fun).
Why not just have a jam and play something silly together. I know this is harder with teenagers but they still might enjoy just messing around.
ROUTINE, ROUTINE, ROUTINE
Their lessons happen at the same time, the alarm goes off at the same time, meals and TV time happen at the same time. So why don’t you make practise routine and just part of something that happens during the day. Routine really does work – you probably know yourself the things that you’ve been meaning to do for ages just get lost in the sea of ‘stuff’ that needs doing. And practise is the same.
Same day, same time. Get in from school, quick 10 -15 minutes before they go to the next club, or have dinner, or flop in front of the TV or electronic device of their choosing.
Try not to say that they can’t have the ipad etc unless they practise, as they’ll then soon end up resenting doing it in the first place – it should be just something that they do. Get home, practise, go on and do other things. If it’s not a big thing (unlike this blog post!) then they might find they spend longer doing it.
Little and often works.
Sometimes just a quick 10 minutes before school everyday (I know – our house is crazy rushed on a morning getting everyone up and out the door on time, but some people find this early morning routine helps).
You can see what routine works and doesn’t if you keep tabs. Younger students enjoy having practise charts and things to tick and stick stickers on – so you could try this at home. A tick every practise session and they get a sticker reward.
If you’re seeing a pattern of when you can find the time then you can see whether turning it into a slightly longer session works or whether little and often just helps.
It won’t take much to build confidence and increase note reading ability. They should see and feel a difference in how they play within a week or two if a practise routine is made.
If routine and everything is just becoming too much of a battle my next suggestion would be to back off and take a slightly different approach.
Can you find a local concert with some musicians playing the same, or similar instruments. The BBC young musician of the year programmes are a brilliant example of what determination and a lot of practise can achieve.
Live music is a wonderful thing as it always inspires the desire to play. They might then want to learn a different style or a new piece based on the concert.
Hopefully these ideas will help you encourage your son/ daughter/ grandchild to practise (and thanks for sticking with me – this has become a bit of an epic post!). It’s not easy. They will be demotivated and not want to practise every now and then – because music is hard.
It’s a completely new language but the rewards really do out weigh the annoyances. Stick with it.
Remember: You might not see the progression but they will be progressing.
Finally – just remember. Music is more than learning to play an instrument. It’s self expression and relaxation and much, much more.
If you want more hints and tips – why not come and say hello on our facebook group. If you want to chat more with other parents about the joys and pitfalls of encouraging practise – come join out Parents Practise Page