Before we begin the count-down, let me set a little scene. I am a piano teacher mom so we have a studio in our home. It’s a room that has my Kawai baby grand piano and all of my other music stuff. It’s where I teach all of my students. My boys also like to “practice” in the studio. Which works out just fine. I have always encouraged my boys to practice their instruments.
Well anyway, one day, one of my sons, whom I’ll call Johnny (his real name) was in the studio “practicing” his violin. I had a friend over and she was really impressed with this. “Wow! Johnny is really practicing hard” she said. “No he’s not.” I told her. “What do you mean?” she asked “I hear him, he sounds great”. “OK. Yes, he sounds great”, I told her. “He’s very talented, but he’s not practicing right now, he’s playing, but he’s not practicing” My friend turned her right palm over and raised an eyebrow as if to ask, “What’s the difference?”
Alas, what is the difference? This is a question I face almost every day. Parents will tell me their child is practicing and I believe that they are seeing their sons and daughters go to the piano and hearing them play something. But honestly, if I am not seeing progress in the students abilities, they are not practicing, or at least they’re not practicing correctly.
Why is this so important? Because incorrect practice can actually be worse than no practice at all. Spend an hour practicing wrong notes, incorrect rhythm and bad technique and what do you get? Wrong notes, incorrect rhythm and bad technique. I am only with a student for one short lesson per week so I think that it’s important for parents to be able to distinguish proper, productive practicing from other things that may be going on during practice time.
I am writing under the assumption that you have a competent teacher that you trust has your child’s best interest at heart and understands his unique abilities.
To begin, I think we should define the word practice; practice is “the repeated performance or systematic exercise for the purpose of acquiring skill or proficiency”. With this definition in mind, here are 10 ways you can tell when your child is not really practicing while they are at the piano.
1- The teacher tells you that your child is not practicing.
This may seem like a no brainer, but if your teacher is questioning your son’s practice habits it may be time to check into what is going on in the practice room.
2-You are hearing the same piece or pieces over and over.
While it’s true that practice is about repeating parts of the music until the music is learned, you shouldn’t hear your daughter playing “Carol of the Bells” over and over especially if we’re in the month of July. If you suspect this may not be what the teacher has assigned go ahead and check.
3-Your child is spending weeks and weeks on the same page in her piano book.
Beginning through early intermediate students should progress through their method books fairly quickly. At the beginning, even the youngest students should be learning at least one new piece per week. Toward the end of most piano methods (about books 3 or 4) students should spend no more than three or four weeks on any particular piece. As for the intermediate through advanced crew, it is more difficult to say how long each piece should take to learn. But, by this point, students should be responsible enough to manage their own practicing.
5-The music doesn’t sound good
Too slow, full of mistakes, bad rhythm. All of these things are signs that something is not right and it’s time to find out what’s going on during practice time.
6- The music sounds more like just doodling around.
This can be a tricky one, because I am all for a certain amount of doodling (or I should say improvisation). I once saw an interview with Billy Joel, where he said his mother would tell him to spend more time on Beethoven. I guess the point is, Beethoven is great but you also need some doodle time.
7-He doesn’t want to go to his lesson
It’s no fun to go to a lesson unprepared. If your child is regularly trying to get out of going to his lesson it may be because he isn’t learning what has been assigned by the teacher. I’m not talking about the occasional “off week”; Most teachers make exceptions for that. When going to the lesson becomes a problem for more than two or three weeks, it may be a practicing issue.
8- The music books are always getting lost.
This falls under not wanting to go to the lesson. When my student shows up without his books odds are good that he hasn’t done much practicing.
9-He never seems to get any better.
Maybe your son plays a few thing pretty well, but he never seems to progress to a higher level. You may also notice that his piano peers seem to be leaving him “in the dust”.
10- Your child wants to opt out at recital time.
It’s probably not a big deal to miss a recital from time to time. But if your child is isn’t getting pieces together in time for performances he may not be practicing enough or correctly.
I hope this blog post will help parents to be more aware of what is going in the practice room. I know it isn’t easy. Practicing is super hard work and kids will sometimes come up with lots of ways to make it easier. I once had a student who would record himself playing and then just hit the playback button for 20 minutes so his mom would think he was practicing. His sister finally “ratted him out”. I had to give him an “A plus” for ingenuity.
Sometimes students may not know how they should be practicing. If there is an question, discuss it with the teacher. Teaching kids how to practice is a big part of the job. Your teacher wants to see your child succeed.
Learning piano is a long-term project. There are bound to be ups and downs in your child’s practice routine. Helping your child to stay on track can help him reach his goals and make playing the piano a lot more fun.
So what ever happened with Johnny? He actually became a Worship Leader and plays music all of the time. He is married and has three kids, now it’s his turn to get them to practice. 🙂