Encouraging Children To Practice Piano

Piano Lessons Surrey With Natalia Paradalis

“I think we’re going to stop lessons because Susie won’t practice and I can’t fight with her anymore”

As a music teacher, I hate hearing these or similar words, because I feel that it reflects on me – since in truth, it means that I have failed as a music instructor! I have failed to pass the love of music to the child who then WOULD desire to practice and to learn how to create music.

Going through my mother’s notes, from her studies with piano educator, Francis Clark# and writer of the Music Tree series, Ms Clark is quoted as saying, “Practicing piano is like brushing teeth, kids won’t do it on their own.” Spring 1975

So how can we get students to practice? How do we go about creating life-long habits of loving and creating music? Often the most important lesson in my teaching is the first lesson. At the end of the first lesson, I present to the parents an information package I have developed. I explain that my task is to teach their child but it is their responsibility to make sure that the child practices. Like brushing teeth, children will not always want to practice, so the parents are entrusted with the task of making it a part of the child’s life. Parents need to be actively involved with their child’s lessons. Until the child is in middle school, (except some rare cases) the parents are expected to sit in all the lessons. Besides the encouragement and the child’s innate desire to please the parents, I find that it eliminates any negative behavioural issues. Although this practice is of critical importance once the child becomes older, especially during their teen years, it is also critically important that the parent does NOT sit in the lesson. Children during those years become self-conscious. This prevents them of demonstrating all they are capable of. But even during the teen years, I remain in constant communication with the parents. I keep them updated on our progress and I involve them in our plans.

In the past, when I taught at a music store, in most cases I did not have the opportunity to meet with some of my students’ parents. So to sidestep this obstacle I would send off little cards, inviting parents to attend their child’s lesson. I would also remind some parents to drop their child off and see me for a few minutes. In some unfortunate cases, after the lesson, the child would wait for a long time in the waiting room watching cartoons. That gave to the child the subconscious impression that the music teacher is nothing more than an educational babysitting service. And even worse that music lessons are not important. This conduct from the parents invariably will affect the child to take the lessons less seriously with the inevitable result of loss of interest and diminished practice time. When I started at my own studio, I made it a requirement that until a certain age one of the parents had to sit in the lessons.

In my information package, I specify the approximate required practice times for the different levels and ages. I also explain to parents that every child is different and as a result learns differently. Practice habits that will work with one child may not work with another child. In finding a system that will work with their child I present to parents different ways of practicing. For the first few months of lessons we will try practicing at different times. We will try practising in the morning or in the afternoon or in the evening. Split practise during the day or even practicing every other day and so forth until we achieve an acceptable practise plan for the child, and the parent. Sometimes, like anything in life, a child may become bored with a certain practice regiment so we will improvise and mix it up; never giving up and always with the supervision of the parents.

Another important point is quality versus quantity. During my teaching career I have encountered teenagers who would practice while reading mystery novels! This type of practice can be done for hours on end but invariably achieving very little. These teenagers would “practice” for hours yet nothing would work. They would practice two to three hours a day but it would take them forever to learn anything. When they eventually realized the futility of their “method” and revealed it to me I explained the importance of focused practice and they discovered that they did not have to practice as long. Parents sometimes make the mistake that it is long hours of practise that will bring forth proficiency. I have met parents who were persuading five year olds to practice for an hour each day. Less practice but with a strong focus is often more. It is about consistency but it is also about focused practise.

There will inevitably come days or even weeks when little or no practise at all will occur; as in the event of an illness or time off for a vacation. Some missed practice time should not cause a panic. It can be made up. It is more about constancy in the long run. Perhaps the child may not be able to practice his pieces but he/she could check YouTube for recordings of the pieces. Receiving such “encouragement” from outside sources can be very beneficial. Last year, when Taylor Swift was on tour, one of my students had not practice much during the week of the concert. Seeing Ms. Swift play a white glistening grand piano with such proficiency, she was inspired. With renewed determination and fervour she focused on every phrase and every note of her pieces and on top of that she doubled her practise time. Her progress was unprecedented and she is now experimenting with composing.

It is critical that music is incorporated into the child’s daily life. The parents need to endorse this as well as the teacher. One parent, as discipline, took his son’s internet privileges away. The father was rather displeased when I told him that I needed his son to check YouTube quite often. We came to the compromise that his son would go to YouTube under supervision. His son, for encouragement, needed and needs to watch great pianists play. It will not only inspire him to practice more but it will also help him in procuring musical ideas intuitively. I constantly email my students different YouTube videos. I also encourage my students to attend concerts. Often when I attend concerts, I invite my students to come along. There will inevitably be down times, but if we endeavour to arrange opportunities for the student to be musically inspired nothing is lost. Of course we are not talking about missing practise time due to excessive activities. In such a case the parents need to understand that for progress to be made, they may need to limit the amount of activities their child is involved with.

It is also helpful to ensure that children are excited with the material they are learning. I recently got a transfer student who told me that I am the “coolest” because unlike her old teacher, I knew who Demi Lovato is. It is crucial to keep in touch with all the popular music out there. My mother always used to tell me, “I will teach a child any style of music as along as it helps them in enjoying and playing the piano.” The longer I teach the more this rings true. I always encourage my students to bring in their favourite songs as long as they make a deal with me, to promise that they will learn some of “my” favourite music as well. Slowly, their musical knowledge expands, and suddenly their new favourite piece is a Mozart’s sonata or a Dean Martin oldie. Initially children may not like classical music. Either because they do not understand it or because they do not feel a connection to it, but as their music mentor it is my mission to guide them; to help them become competent in their playing and make music a life long friend.



Natalia Pardalis

Natalia Pardalis is a 2nd generation piano teacher. She teaches through her studio, Pardalis Music Studio in Surrey BC. Her studio in in the Surrey Central area right by Gateway Skytrain. For information on lessons, email her at npardalis@hotmail.com www.nataliapardalis.com


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    Sometimes, for me, getting students the music they want entails me transcribing a particular pop song for them, that involves a lot of decisions for me about trying to be true to the original melody so the students can play along with the track (key, rhythm, register, etc) or transpose the piece to an easier key and with a simplified rhythm which will enable them to play it more easily. Sometimes giving them a very difficult transcription which is clearly beyond their current abilities is an excellent motivator, and sometimes it isnt, every student is a unique individual who responds to a wide range of positive or negative reinforcements- some will rise to the challenge and work their butts off to be able to conquer the piece and some will curl up in a little tearful ball and quit. One parent came up with an excellent motivator for her daughter (who was a very commercially minded girl), she paid her $5 for every day that she practiced on her own for 30 minutes or more- but at the end of the week the child had to pay for her lesson herself. Pretty quickly the student realized that if she practiced 7 days a week she would be turning a $10 profit weekly, and promptly doubled her efforts at home. Everyone is different, and part of our job as teachers is learning what makes each pupil tick, and helping them develop good discipline which will reward them with a wealth of achievements, both in music and life. This is the way we do it at my studio, http://www.nassaubaymusiclessons.com anyway​

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