The Parent Practice Problem: 4 Ways to Help Your Child Practice When You Aren't a Musician

I recently received an email from a reader asking about her child's at-home practice. I get a lot of questions about practice throughout the week. Some are from my students' parents, some are emails from readers. This reader explained a common parent practice problem: she didn't know how to help her child practice at home.

A mom of a 9 year old piano student, this reader said that she diligently sends her son to the piano bench only to hear a combination of "tinkering", silence, and frustrated groans. She said that there is a piece of the practice puzzle missing, but as a non musician she has no idea how to help. 

4 Ways to Help Your Child Practice When You Aren't a Musician

The Teacher, Student, Parent Trifecta

To get the most out of piano lessons, every party has to be involved in the learning process. The teacher, student, and parent all work together to create a unique and valuable learning experience. The teacher is responsible for showing up with knowledge and encouragement. The student is responsible for being ready to learn and giving his or her best effort all the time. The parent. . . . . . . .

Well that's where the problem is. 

What does the parent do besides drop off and pick up?

The Weekly Iceberg

Did you know that the bulk of your child's learning happens away from your teacher's piano studio? That's right. The majority of the learning takes place on the parent's watch - not the teacher's! Your child sees his piano teacher once a week for private instruction. This lesson serves as a guide - a framework for the week ahead. Keep in mind that your child has 168 hours in the week and only sees the teacher for 30 minutes of that time! The lesson is just the tip of the iceberg. The real learning happens at home.

Here are my top four ways to help your child when you hear him struggling from the bench.

1. Start Learning! 

My sisters and I took piano lessons growing up and I don't know how we could have practiced at home without our parents' help! My mom never took private music lessons, and doesn't consider herself a musician. However, when we were taking piano lessons she took the time to learn the material with us so that she could help out when we got stuck. It made all the difference when we were practicing at home.

Look over the lesson book on your own and ask your child's teacher to show you some of the basic note reading and theory elements. 
You'll want to know: 

  • The names of the piano keys

  • Basic rhythms

  • How to read the notes on the staff

You may be surprised to realize that's all you need to know to solve most practice issues!

2. Read the Directions

Often times when students get stuck, it's a classic case of not reading the directions. Children need help slowing down, taking a breath, and looking at the music in a new light. If your child is working out of a method book, take the time to read through the instructions - maybe even back up a page or two to review. Is there a new note that's being introduced? Maybe that's the culprit. Is there a new symbol your child hasn't realized yet? So many times simply stopping to figure out the song's actual purpose is enough to help get your child unstuck. 

3. Ask the Right Questions

What if you've learned all you can, or the song being practiced isn't part of a method book series? In this case asking the right question can make all the difference in the world. Try these questions out this week: 

  • What is your first note in each hand? What finger plays it?

    • In order to start playing the right notes, children need to figure out where on the keyboard to place their hands. This can be confusing to find, even for students who have been taking lessons for a while.

  • What is the hardest measure of the piece? Can you play that for me 3 times?

    • Help your child stop and figure out what exactly is causing the hiccup, and then help him smooth it over.

  • Will you play this song in slow motion?

    • Again, the simple act of slowing down can work wonders!

  • What does this ______ mean?

    • Point to a sign, a note, anything on the page to help your child remember what he learned in his lesson.

4. Write a Note to the Teacher

Have your child circle the part of the pice that is giving him trouble. Maybe it's one note, maybe it's the whole page! Then, help him write a note in his own words to his teacher explaining the challenge. Was it the rhythm? Was it the notes? Was there a marking he didn't know? Your teacher can address the confusion in the next lesson much more quickly when you help your child pinpoint the issue and communicate. 

The Parent Practice Formula: High Expectations plus Endless Encouragement

It's so easy to let children quit when they get discouraged - especially if you're not sure how to help them out. However, we create the right circumstances for children when we combine high expectations with endless encouragement and praise for their efforts.

C. S. Lewis once wrote: 

The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come.

I encourage you this week to stick with your child throughout this learning process. Use these four tips as a guide and enjoy every single musical sound that comes from the piano bench. The magic is in the process! 

With music,