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Music Practice with Children: A Parent’s Guide

Many music teachers encourage parents to go to lessons and help with practice. Research shows that successful young musicians usually do have the support from their parents, so there’s no doubt that it’s a good thing. But parents can be troublesome, and it’s worth remembering that they need guidance and encouragement too. ​For many parents the idea of providing music lessons for their children means transporting them to lessons, paying the bills and hoping they like it enough to practice. The unfortunate truth is that no one likes to practice! And the only thing wore than practicing oneself is practicing with one’s child. It is like being a two-headed monster: both heads must agree on when to sit down and do the dreadful deed; both must acknowledge when the music is too fast, out of tune, or incorrectly fingered; and both must ultimately decide that the joy of playing is worth the suffering of practicing. The good news is that as your children get older, they will be able to practice alone, but don’t hold your breath! ​When I was living in Washington D.C., I recall the hardest hour of my day, which ran the gamut from being Executive Director of the Washington Chamber Symphony to juggling a household with conductor husband and two children, is the hour I spent practicing the trumpet with my 9-year-old-son, Basil.

In the early 1980s when I was living in Tokyo, I traveled to meet the famous violin pedagogue, Suzuki Sensei (sensei means “teacher” or “master” in Japanese) at his school near Okayama. I listened to his master class, heard his international orchestra of teachers-in-training and listened to some of the children at the school. With cigarette dangling from his mouth, he used his samurai-sword sharp wit and carried forth. I have come to the conclusion after many years as a music educator, Suzuki parent, and orchestra administrator, that Suzuki’s greatest gift to the music world has not been his violin pedagogical technique but rather the internationalization of the Japanese concept of the kyoikumama or “Education Mother.” In Suzuki teaching this is the “home teacher” or, put more simply, the parent who comes to the lesson and then practices every day at home with the child. This idea is neither surprising in the music world (How many hours do you think Leopold Mozart spent practicing with little Wolfgang Amadeus?) or in the Japanese world where the vast majority of educated mothers stay home with their children and devote their energies almost exclusively to the educations of their children. Yet for American parents this has been a relatively new idea, and many parents who commence music lessons with a non-Suzuki teacher are often surprised when the teacher announces that he or she will only instruct the young student if the parent agrees to come to all lessons and practice with the child. Why is “Suzuki’s idea” so universally held to be true?  YOU as a parent are the most important ingredient in your child’s success in music! Before you agree to give your child lessons, look at YOUR schedule and see where you can fit in his/her lesson and where you will put the thirty minutes to one hour of practicing into your day. Not playing the trumpet or not being able to read music is not the critical issue, the critical issue is time.  If you don’t play an instrument or read music, do you still need to practice with your child? YES! Take heart, you will learn faster than they do at the beginning, and you will bring all of your other intellectual skills. You also will be good moral support. Listen carefully at lessons, take notes, and try to have some practice time yourself after your child has gone to bed or when he/she is out of the house. You may even decide that you want to play the piano yourself, but remember: Never compete! You are the coach. Why must you practice with your child? First, you are ensuring that all of his/her time and effort is not spent practicing something wrong all week only to discover it after seven days of hard work. You are giving your child the benefit of your note taking skills, your ability to understand everything his/her teachers says during the lessons and to ask questions. You are an extra set of eyes and ears at every practice sessions. If you give the task your best not your worst, hour of the day, you will offer a sense of humor and the ability to make a difficult task more fun. Some do’s are: (1) Try to practice in the morning. Twenty minutes before school is worth forty minutes before bedtime when you both are tired. (2) Try to maintain a routine so that you both know when the fateful deed must be done each day. (3) Play every day, even if it is only for a five minute run through. (4) Compliment what is right as often as you point out what is wrong. (5) Turn it into a game whenever possible. (6) Maintain your sense of humor. ​I am the coach in my household. My trumpet fingerings are excellent although I cannot play a note. Together we sing, make up rhymes to remember key signatures, and fight over wasting time and whether the scale really was played correctly. There are intense, emotionally charged times. His teacher worries that I, not he, may burn out. I worry too at times. But then performance time comes. I am the coach. I sit hanging on every note, sighing with relief as he glides through the difficult passages, which we have worked on, standing back as others congratulate him. He comes over and gives me a hug and says, “Thanks, Mom. Without your help I never could have done it. And we both know it has all be worth it.



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