Learning to play the piano, or any other musical instrument well requires continual effort over many, many years. Being able to maintain interest and motivation over a long time period can be difficult to achieve so it is worth looking at ways that parents and teachers can help with this.
The process of learning to play a musical instrument well is a journey. As with many journeys the feelings of happy anticipation are very strong at the start, but once into the journey proper it can sometimes be difficult to keep going at a good pace.
For children who start young, parents can help a lot by encouraging and cajoling. If the early years go well and a good routine of practice and lessons is established then the progress made by the student brings its own sense of satisfaction and achievement. If, early on in the journey, children can experience the rewarding process of working on a piece and getting to know and play it well they will find it easier to put in the effort next time round in order to experience the same again at a more advanced level.
Self-discipline is good!
There is no denying though, that the process of acquiring the skill and craft of playing well is often very routine. Practice really does have to be done regularly (several times a week) if progress is to be made and, if the student is human, this will often mean sitting down to practise even if he or she is feeling tired or totally uninterested. There are some personality types for whom this self-disciplined application comes very easily but most will have to battle with themselves and look for ways to keep on renewing their determination and interest. It helps to remember, constantly, that at the end of the day the level of musicianship acquired will be in direct relation to the number of hours of practice put in and that the satisfaction of being able to play well makes the process of learning well worthwhile.
Don’t forget to make it social
There are a few little tricks that can make the journey go faster and one of the best is to involve family in friends. Just as most people would prefer to go on holiday or to the cinema with friends so most learners get more enjoyment by learning with others. If there is a school or college orchestra, band or choir the student should join it. Even if the music they play isn’t always totally suitable the student gets a chance to show what they can do and to “compete” with other students. It is sometimes difficult for pianists to join in with group playing so, for them, I would definitely suggest joining a choir. Many of my piano students claim that they can’t sing and get very embarrassed if I ask them to do so. But they nearly always can sing much better than they claim to be able to. In a choir they would not only get the chance to make music socially, but would also develop the aural, sight reading and musical memory skills that are so important when learning to play an instrument musically and expressively.
Musicians who are in a band or choir also get valuable performing experience and the enjoyment of taking part in regular concerts. This must be one of the most rewarding aspects of playing a musical instrument and if done in a large group it need not be the nerve wrecking experience that solo performing often is.
Make it competitive
It is the challenge of trying to win that helps our greatest sportsmen and women to achieve ever more. We tend to think of music as an art and a means of expression rather than as a competitive activity but even in music a bit of competition can work wonders.
Many towns in the UK stage competitive music festivals. There are usually classes to suit almost every level and age of musician. For example my local music festival has classes such as:
Brass solo, under 12 years old…Own choice of piece
Guitar Duet, grades 3, 4 and 5…Own choice of piece
Instrumental Solo, grades 5-8…Own choice of one piece in a jazz, blues, rag or rock idiom
Piano Solo – 13 and under ……Own choice of one piece from More Romantic pieces Book 2
These are just four of over 128 different classes which budding performers are able to take part in over a period of a couple of weeks. Many of the classes have trophies for the winners and there is a gala concert at the end of the festival in which many of the prize winners are invited to take part.
Variety is the key
There is more to learning music that simply learning how to play a musical instrument. As discussed in earlier chapters of this book, it is important to listen to music often, both in recordings and at concerts. In the process of listening students will often feel inspired to have a go at another instrument. Indeed some very keen students end up playing two or three instruments. This is great, as long as they have enough time and energy. I usually find that if the interest is there then the time will be found and the additional interest created by trying another instrument is more than enough to fuel the extra work needed.
School may well help here. These days many schools, as well as having the usual school orchestra will have one or two choirs and maybe a ukulele orchestra and a samba band. Both ukulele and samba drumming take very little effort to master but playing in such a group is fun and very rewarding. A student learning to play, for example the classical violin, will still have time for fiddle practice but will very quickly pick up the skills needed to play a ukulele or drum. Whilst learning to play one instrument it is possible to introduce variety by experimenting with different musical styles and, indeed, by trying out different learning styles. If a student has always learnt pieces by studying the musical score then maybe they should try to learn some music purely by ear. Parents often tell me that their children are practising, but not playing the pieces I have set for them. On investigation I often find that they are teaching themselves to play by ear, and trying to play a tune they have heard on the television or radio. It is difficult for parents when children do this as the process of learning by ear can often sound quite chaotic. But, in my opinion, the ability to play by ear is a fantastic skill to have and if young people are trying to do this they should really be encouraged. It will help their musical development in many, many ways. Aural skills will be honed, musical memory developed.
Improvising can lead to composing
Another way to vary the learning process is to have a go at learning to improvise. The ability to improvise is rare in students who have been traditionally taught using some of the many tutor books available. It is possibly a skill which only a minority of students will be able to acquire. Many of my students are very reluctant to try to improvise, being worried about playing wrong notes. However with gentle encouragement they can often tap into their latent creativity and find this a very rewarding change to the usual routine of reading and practising. If they are good at improvising they can take the simple and exciting jump towards becoming a composer too.
Share success and get recognition
Even the most motivated of learners will sometimes ask themselves why they are working so hard at practice when so few people get to hear what they can do.
When athletes, swimmers or football players perform well the score is noted and a prize can be won. Cups and badges are awarded and much kudos gained by the winners. Artists can display their work for months or years and get a lot of satisfaction from sharing it. Musicians, on the other hand, can spend many weeks preparing a piece, give an excellent performance to their parents and teachers and be rewarded (if at a concert) by only a short round of applause.
Much of what has been written so far has been attempting to address the challenges of how to motivate and encourage, but if your children are still struggling with endurance here are just a few more ideas of ways that you share what your children can do and give them the recognition they deserve:
- Each time they learn to play a piece well, record them playing it. When you have about 30 – 40 minutes worth of music you can create a CD and make, say, a dozen copies of it, which can be sent to grandparents or cousins and given to friends. (They make great Christmas presents!)
- Make a video recording of the pieces that they are really good at. For example, if they take a music exam, record them playing their scales and pieces in the week before the exam. This will provide and interesting record of their standard at the time of the exam and will give them extra useful performing practice just at the time they need it.
- Once they are confident enough, ask at school if they (and others, so that they are not doing this all alone) can play in assembly or at other school functions such as open days and award evenings. This is a great way to get used to performing by doing it little and often.
- If you are a church-goer and your church has a band, ask if your child can join it. Their input will be appreciated by the rest of the band and the congregation alike.
- Tell them how well they are doing and praise them in front of friends. You, their parents, are the people they want to please the most.