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4 Common Myths Parents Have About Learning Piano
14 Mar 2019 | by Nabillah Jalal
Over the past 15 years of my music career, I’ve had to get up close and personal with many myths about learning the piano.
Some of these are usually put forward by parents of beginner learners. It’s not their fault, though. Unlike math and science, music education is unfamiliar territory. Most parents can walk their child through a problem sum or a comprehension passage with little effort, but they will realise that coaching a piano beginner is a different ball game. (For one, there’s no answer key!)
Even if the parents themselves are trained in the piano, it does not mean that they can provide effective piano playing instruction to a beginner player.
Here, I will disprove a few misconceptions that parents may believe at some point. Hopefully, this will help you understand what it takes for a piano learner to be successful.
Myth #1: The piano teacher can train my child.
Truth: Children are more likely to be successful pianists when they have highly involved parents. (I use parents as an umbrella term to describe any parental figure in the child’s life, including grandparents, elder siblings and guardians.)
As a teacher, I only have 60 minutes per week with each student, tops.
During that 60 minutes, my priority is to provide pointers on his interpretation of the pieces, practice strategy, sound and pitch, sight reading, ear training, fingering, and even general knowledge. It is to assess the student’s strengths, weaknesses and all the aspects of his personality that influence his playing, and then point him towards a playing style that will fit him like a glove.
Outside of those 60 minutes, it’s mostly up to the child. He will only be able to make headway if he goes into practice using the pointers I’ve given.
This is where a parent is absolutely essential. Unless your child is an independent learner (this is rare), nine times out of ten she will loathe practising. It’s normal behaviour and it doesn’t mean that the instrument is incompatible with your child.
Your role as a parent is to provide structure in the form of a fixed practice routine. Set aside time to sit down with them as they practise, and consider it an opportunity to bond. You have a front row seat to your child’s performances – if you’re enthusiastic about them, your child will be, too.
Myth #1: One year is enough time to get to Grade 1.
Truth: ABRSM suggests that it will take 1.5 years for a beginner to be ready for Grade 1. My caveat is that this will only happen if the parents are highly involved, if the child has an average to above-average learning speed, and if the child has consistent quality practice throughout the 1 year. I’d like to touch on the last point.
With piano beginners who’re working towards ABRSM grading, I teach them how to practice smart. Practising requires laser focus. It is not about random repetition.
What’s worse, the incorrect practice methods can be damaging to a beginner’s foundation. It won’t matter how much a child practises if he’s using the wrong fingering; in fact, she may come out sounding worse than what she started with.
Case in point: I have taught a 6-year-old who was ready for Grade 1 and who was performing in a recital within a year. I have also taught an older child who was first introduced to piano through group lessons. Their difference was in the quality of their practice. Even though the older child had a stronger interest in the instrument, he was light years from Grade 1 because of poor practice habits that went unnoticed by his previous teacher.
Myth #3: I don't want to purchase a piano. It's a waste of money if he loses interest.
Truth: A beginner learner is more likely to lose interest because of the absence of a piano at home, not the other way round. Unfortunately if that happens, the amount of money (and time) you’ve spent on piano lessons would be wasted either way.
The reason is simple. Without a piano for home practice, your child will not see any meaningful progress in his playing. To him, it will feel like charging against a brick wall, and the activity will bore or irritate him at some point. When was the last time you continued showing interest in a task you can’t get the hang of?
Compare this example with another child who can practise on a piano in the comfort of her home. For a beginner, being able to master a new tune can feel like an exciting milestone. On top of this, the child will also be rewarded by recognition from her family members, classmates and teachers. When children are given the resources to excel in a craft, the resulting endorphin high can cultivate their interest like no other.
Myth #4: It's enough to learn ABRSM pieces.
Truth: Exam pieces are a necessary starting point for developing a good technical foundation, especially when it comes to finger strength and speed. But they aren’t enough to prepare your child for the next grade, let alone a general competence in piano.
Learning the piano has some similarity with learning languages. For instance, you can’t expect to master French by memorising your textbook alone. That’s why, as much as I spend a large part of lesson time on exam pieces, I make an effort to include unconventional pieces that train students in other aspects of piano playing. This helps them mature into more balanced, nuanced artists.
There are other practical benefits to venturing beyond exam pieces. It develops your child’s repertoire, which will serve him well when he’s working towards Grade 6 and beyond. It also benefits his sight-reading as well as general knowledge of music.
On that note, sight-reading is a skill that can exclusively be learned by well-rounded musicians who have been exposed to a variety of arrangements. To master sight-reading, learning exam pieces alone will not be sufficient.
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The list is not conclusive, but it’s a start! Examining these misconceptions more critically can help you, as a parent, support your child’s progress with the right mindset. A lot of it involves committing to your child’s learning in terms of providing time and resources. It’s also about being patient with her progress and trusting your teacher’s coaching strategy.
NJ Studio specialises in the narrative teaching approach, using storytelling to transform how children interpret and relate to music. Speak to us about our piano lessons today.