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When Will My Child Be Ready to Practice Alone?

Most parents who embark upon music lessons for their children hope that they will become skillful and enjoy it sufficiently to continue playing into adulthood. They often lament, “I wish my parents had forced me to practice,” or “I wish my parents had not let me quit.” The truth is that the parents of these adults were products of their times. They thought that if they bought the piano, found the teacher, drove the child to lessons, and told her to practice once a day, the music would stick if it were meant to be. Few of them had thought about Mozart’s father who devoted his life to teaching and practicing with his son, or Wagner’s wife who locked him in his study every morning and only let him out for lunch. Most professional musicians today will tell you the importance of the parent who practiced with them. ​Pianist Ann Schein related a wonderful account of her childhood. She began piano lessons at age 4. Her mother was a professional violinist and practiced hours with her daily. When Ann was 13, her teacher announced that he was spending the summer in Mexico and Ann could not be left on her own, pianistically, for the summer. It was agreed that her family would spend the summer in Mexico too. Ann was shocked to discover that her teacher arrived at 9 a.m., had a cup of coffee, and at 9:30 am they began to practice together! He left at lunchtime, returned, and they continued on until dinner, whereupon he ate with the family and went home, only to return again the following morning. Seven days a week, all summer long, this very great teacher arrived and practiced with Ann. Forty years later, this accompanist for singer Jessye Norman believes that teaching students how to practice is still one of the most valuable skills that can be passed on to the next generation. The successful child is inevitably the product of that successful triangle of teacher-parent-student. In the early years, the parent brings organizational and memory skills to the practicing. “Remember; we have to work on the E-flat major scale this week. Take a moment to think about rounding your fingers. I’ll set the metronome.” Sometimes the child is fortunate to have a parent who is a musician or an amateur musician, or even someone who took music lessons as a child. Often this is not the case. The enthusiastic and committed non-musician parent, however, is as valuable as the musician parent. Attending the lessons together and taking the time to practice together every day is the key. Remember, “Shall we practice now?” will ultimately reap far greater rewards than “Have you practiced today?” The question looms, however, will you ever be able to wean your child from needing you to practice with them? Good question! The bad news is that your child will be able to do homework alone long before being ready to practice an instrument alone. The good news is that the time finally does come. The question is when is the right time and how do you do it. One of the determinants of weaning is the skill level of the parent. For the non-musician parent, there will be a time when the child turns to you and says, “Mother, it says allegro, you are going much too slow. Anyway, it is in the key of G minor, so it doesn’t sound anything like the way you are singing it.” Having now surpassed the “home teacher,” as Suzuki calls the parent, your superior child will feel confident to proceed on her own and your role will fall into, “This would be a good time to practice, because you have a soccer game and afterwards you are going to Susan’s.” At this point, take on the role of student yourself; ask questions. “I see that you have been assigned a new piece; what does ‘adagio’ mean here in the upper left hand corner?” (even if you know the answer). Your role has become one of seducing your child to take the instrument out of the case and begin to practice. If they are putting it away after 5 minutes, return and say something like, “I only heard the end of that last piece. I really liked it. Would you play the whole thing for me?” This is the time for the light touch, good humor, no suggestions, lots of praise, total admiration for how far she has professed and how much she has learned. You will be amazed at how the youngster will blossom. For the more musically skilled parent, weaning will take longer. The child knows that you know how many sharps are in the key of C# minor, how to count the rhythm, and that no one can practice for 5 minutes and cover everything that is expected. But if your budding musician is approaching the age of 11, the time may have come to start thinking about transferring some of the practicing responsibility over to your child. The parents who have diligently practiced with their children for years have felt the price of accomplishment, even if they have never played a note. To suddenly think of not having the lesson prepared is like showing up for a meeting without having written your speech. Separating yourself and your pride from the practicing situation is one of the most difficult aspects of weaning your child from practicing with you. Consequently, step one is a serious talk with your child’s music teacher. Discuss whether the teacher thinks that this is a good time to begin the weaning process. Many teachers feign surprise that you are still such an active participant, but don’t minimize your role. If your child would never practice without being dragged to the keyboard kicking and screaming, say so. If you have to promise Skittles for every scale played, say so. This is the time for full disclosure. Obviously, if you and the teacher still have the fortitude, whatever you are doing is working. If the teacher feels that none of this should be necessary and you know that the instrument would never leave the case if you didn’t do all that you are doing, perhaps it is time for a new more realistic teacher. (I will never forget an interview with Pinchas and Eugenia Zuckerman. When the interviewer commented that their children love to practice with all the wonderful music in their home, they laughed and quipped, “Of course they hate to practice. Everyone hates to practice. Practicing is work.”)

You and your child’s teacher must adopt a strategy. Try small increments of the lesson, which will be the child’s sole responsibility. In the beginning it should be outrageously simple, perhaps even just two measures that the child will have to learn without your assistance and perform at the next lesson. Request that the teacher spend part of the lesson discussing the art of practicing and then show the child how to work on a two-measure passage. Put on the metronome; practice slowly, what are the sharps and flats, which are the tricky rhythms. In short, how does one dissect the passage, study problems, and then put it all together again. You may even want to be part of this “learning how to practice” lesson. Remember, it is an art, but it also can be taught. In fairness to your child be certain that the teacher is teaching the skills necessary to becoming an independent practicer. The key is to start small and build confidence. Two measures played perfectly is far preferable to an entire exercise played with several mistakes. Expectations must be very clear and lots of praise must be lavished by the teacher for a job well done. You should report to the teacher how things have gone at home, and the teacher must share ideas with you. You both must agree about what is reasonable to expect in the coming weeks. In the beginning, your child will not be as well prepared as when you work together, but will eventually own this wonderful skill and be enormously proud of it. The in-between is like pulling fish in on a line. You are fostering independence, but you don’t want to let them quit. You must encourage, but not criticize. You must lure them on to do more than they ever initially think is necessary. All of your diplomatic skills will be necessary to cajole your child into rigorously attacking a difficult passage or understanding that practicing every day means seven days a week, not four. Practicing with your child takes unending amount of patience. Weaning your child takes an equal amount. None of this happens in a month. Several years is probably more reasonable. In the meantime, while you are cajoling, suggesting, requesting, begging your child to get practicing over with, consider sitting down at the piano yourself or dusting off the instrument you used to play and playing for five minutes. You will be amazed at how much you have learned during your child’s lessons and how rewarding practicing can be for you!

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