For many families, piano lessons are the first musical activity a child pursues. Often these lessons start at a very young age - 6 or 7 years old. With my piano students one of the first questions I ask in the very first lesson is "Why do you want to take piano lessons?" A variation of the same answer always follows: "I heard a piano piece on the radio" "I heard my cousin playing a beautiful piano song" "I saw someone playing at a concert, and I want to be able to play like that." Often times my students will even have a specific song they want to learn to play as well.
Ask a parent why they want their child to take piano lessons and they will likely give an answer having to do with higher order thinking skills, more creative expression, and improved discipline.
So why is it that even with all these reasons in favor of studying piano, the lessons themselves so often times become the dread of a child's week? I hear stories from frazzled parents all the time about how difficult it is to get to piano lessons and I remember as a piano student myself how I sometimes groaned at the thought of yet another weekly piano lesson.
Why might this be?
When a student states that he or she "hates piano lessons" he's actually referring to only a part of the piano lesson experience. Normally, when a child says this he is referring to one of four things:
- The Practice Time itself
- The Instrument
- The Repertoire
- The Teacher
Also be sure to download this free weekly practice sheet to take the stress out of practice time!
1. The Practice Time
The first way practice can contribute to a student disliking piano lessons is in the situation of not getting enough quality practice time.
This might sound a little strange at first. A child needing to practice more in order to like piano lessons? Aren't children normally begging for less required practice time? While it might sound counter-intuitive at first, keep in mind that no one likes to be in the spotlight in something they feel they're bad at. This is precisely what happens when a child walks into a piano lesson without adequate practice. He ends up feeling embarrassed at being the sole recipient of their teacher's attention and making the same silly mistakes he made last week. If you took private lessons as a child you might remember the sinking feeling in your gut as you sat down at the piano bench under your teacher's watchful eye, knowing that the sounds which were about to take place were in no way what your teacher was expecting to hear, nor were they what the composer wrote on the page.
One way this sinking feeling can go away is simply through more, or better yet, more focused practice time. The difference between the two is great. Simply spending more time at the piano does not make your child better. Time spent sulking, plunking at the keys, or playing through what your child already knows over and over and over shouldn't be counted as practice. . It should be counted as time wasted when he could be playing outside or helping set the table or playing video games or playing with siblings, or any number of other things. . . But those 20 minutes were not practice.
In contrast, focused, quality practice time where the student makes a little progress day after day after day builds confidence in playing ability. Your child will find that it even can be fun to practice each day, get better, and walk into a lesson proud of what he is about to present!
What you can do:
Be available to help in your student’s practice time, but don’t demand perfection.
When my three sisters and I were taking piano lessons our mom learned with us through several books so that she could answer questions at home. This helps kids not feel so isolated and “stuck” when they practice. She never nagged about our not playing perfectly and she didn’t try to take on the role of the teacher, but she did help us figure out where our fingers went on the keyboard or reminded us about rhythms and note names. A helpful comment goes a long way in a child’s feeling of accomplishment.
2. The Instrument
Sometimes students are musically inclined - but they’re inclined to a certain instrument. Piano is by far the most common starting instrument because anyone can make a sound on it simply by pressing down the key. It also is the most practical instrument for learning music theory because a child can visually see the layout of the notes. However, it is not the only instrument children are interested in learning. Violin, guitar, drum set, and voice lessons are great instruments to study as well and very popular choices. There is a whole world of exciting musical instruments (flute, harmonica, hammer dulcimer, trumpet, marimba, cello. . . ) that can teach the same concepts as piano - perhaps even with less cringing at every weekly lesson.
What you can do:
If your child says that he or she “hates” piano lessons, ask if there is another instrument he would rather be studying. Most teachers recommend at least one year of piano before going on to learn another instrument. I happen to agree. Ask your piano teacher for a professional opinion and come up with a plan to finish out at least one year of piano lessons you’re already committed to. Then go to your local music store and discuss the cost of renting a tuba or saxophone or whatever instrument to which your child is musically inclined.
3. The Repertoire
Have you ever had a song that you hate stuck in your head on repeat over and over and over? If you had the choice, would you make that song go away?
If a student is stuck practicing music he can’t stand, he is likely going to try to opt out of ever playing it! It's a very understandable concept. Students are most motivated to learn songs that they like. That doesn’t mean that children should only play piano songs that they choose themselves out of the blue. It doesn’t mean that we only play pop tunes on the radio. It doesn’t mean that we ditch the lesson book. But it does mean that we tap into the reason the child is taking piano in the first place - he wants to play music he enjoys for the sake of the music itself - not for the sake of piano technique or theory or music history. There is plenty of quality piano repertoire that teach these concepts. Sometimes these pieces are found inside a lesson book. Sometimes they aren’t.
Also, just because a child is practicing assigned music doesn’t mean that he can’t add in the “fun” pieces to his daily practice. He doesn’t have to practice the candy pieces in the place of the vegetable pieces. He can add them in to create variety in his learning.
What you can do:
The solution here lies in freedom within limits. If repertoire selection is what’s causing your child grief every week, talk to your piano teacher. Can she recommend three or four pieces that are age appropriate and teach the same musical concepts as the piece he doesn’t enjoy? Let the child listen to (or play) each piece that week and come back with his choice.
4. The Teacher
If a child does not connect with his or her piano teacher teacher it can be discouraging to walk into the lesson room week after week. Some things that contribute to a teacher-student can basically be broken down into competency, instruction, and demeanor:
- Is the teacher highly qualified and competent both as a musician and as an educator?
- Variety - Does the teacher try to make piano lessons an exciting experience?
- Communication - Does your child know what he is supposed to be practicing each week and how he should be practicing it?
- High Standards - Does the teacher encourage your child to do his or her absolute best each week?
Personal and Professional Demeanor:
- Friendly: Does the teacher warmly welcome the child each week?
- Empathy - Does the teacher try to put herself in the child’s shoes to help solve a problem?
- Patience - Does the teacher calmly let the child make mistakes as they are learning?
What you can do:
Before you change teachers:
This can get a little tricky. If your child is letting you know that the teacher is not displaying some of these qualities, perhaps it is time to start considering a new teacher. If this is the route you choose, make sure your child knows that he is to treat his teacher with respect, regardless of whether or not they have a strong teacher- student connection. Also, finish out your piano commitment to this teacher, whether it is for the rest of the semester or the rest of the year.
Once you have chosen a new teacher:
Most teachers have an “interview” styled first lesson. If you do decide to change teachers, let this first lesson be an interview for you and your child as well. Encourage your child to ask questions so he knows exactly what to expect during lessons each week. Ask a few questions of your own as well.
Where to begin:
I know plenty of children whose piano lesson is the highlight of their week! They’re proud of what they’ve accomplished through practicing on an instrument they love, working on songs they enjoy, to show a teacher they connect with.
If this isn't your family right now, try having a simple conversation with your child where you narrow down the reasons piano lessons aren't as enjoyable as they could be. Then use these tips make a plan for a dynamic musical piano experience!