Saturday, 28 January 2012

Music and Words

Benjamin Zander is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and an inspiring public speaker. He believes that everyone can love and appreciate classical music. If you have any spare time this week, please, please, please watch this short talk he gave at a TED conference in 2008: It is informative, funny and, in the end, moving.

One of the points that Benjamin Zander makes is that the things that we say can have much more significance than we imagine at the time. This applies especially to the kinds of things that people say to children. How vividly we remember certain things that were said to us, both positive and negative, which deeply affect our self-image and the paths we take for the rest of our lives. How many of us, for example, believe in our deepest souls that we cannot sing, or do maths, simply because an influential figure told us so in our formative years?

So as parents we need to take care about exactly what we say to our children, and how, and when, we may tell them things. In the field of learning about and learning how to play music, this is no less true. A parent's opinion given at a critical moment has the potential to do great damage or great good. And as we aren't easily able to predict when those critical moments may occur, it is the wise parent that is, as far as possible, always conscious of what exactly they are saying to their child, and how they are saying it.

Giving Praise

Of course, it's important to praise your child's efforts. This is one of the rewards that they (and, let's face it, most of us) are willing to work for. Simple praise (Well done! That was great!) is good, but meaningful praise is better. Meaningful praise refers to the actual content of the effort, identifying and highlighting to the child the things that went well: Wow, you played all the notes correctly that time! It should be possible to always find something that went well, even if it's only the fact that the child sat on the stool!

Giving Feedback

Without thinking about how to improve playing, though, there can be no progress, so you may also want to point out to your child things that could get even better. The best way to do this is to encourage the child to listen to and reflect on their own playing, then the motivation to improve comes from within and is not something that is being imposed. One way that my son and I do this is to write out a small grid of points to remember, such as playing with a soft left hand, then after each piece he can tick which he thinks he did. It's important not to overwhelm a child with several things they should try to focus on all at once, though. One or two is enough.


As adults we sometimes have the habit of saying things, especially negative things, indirectly, but I think it's important to remember when speaking to children that adults have a large linguistic advantage. We've been using the language much longer, have a wider vocabulary, and understand how to manipulate meaning into sarcasm, irony, implication and insinuation with ease. Children can be confused by such use of language, or completely miss the point of what they're being told. This is why I believe it's always best to be clear and direct with them. It is fairer and your statements are easier for them to understand.


Words are important, but equally so is their absence. Sometimes, when we're having a bad day, and my son is grumpy about practising, tempers may start to flare. I've found in these circumstances that often the best response is silence. Maybe the thing that was said was not really meant, and simply not replying allows the speaker time and space to consider their words. I don't mean a resentful silence, but a calm and pleasant acknowledgement without reply. Some things do not need to be answered.

Similarly, silence on the part of the parent gives the child a space to speak into. There is no need to feel uncomfortable about silence and always fill it with your own voice. Maybe it takes your child a while to formulate their thoughts. Children need a silence to play into and to reflect in at the end of their playing, as well.

In short, I think that as we ask our children to listen to their playing, we should also be listening to ourselves responding to them. This way we can then be truly supporting our children and not hindering their growth. We will also be providing a good model to them. Not only will they be learning to play an instrument, they will also be learning how to speak respectfully and thoughtfully to others.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Going Through the Motions

I came across this excellent guide for parents by Alexandra Westcott, a London-based piano teacher. She summarises many of the points I've tried to make in this blog, to help other parents and to remind myself of what I am doing and why.

Alexandra writes:
I try not to use the word practice.  A couple of  the many dictionary definitions are ‘habitual performance’, and ‘repeated or systematic exercise’. You cannot do either unless you KNOW what it is you are doing! So a session at the piano is about LEARNING until such a time when KNOWING is reached.  Then follows playing, and perfecting, both with a curious and enquiring mind. At no time do I advocate unmindful repeated ‘drilling’. All time spent at the piano should have attention and concentration so as to incur clarity of the text and freedom of muscles.  (See my article on Piano Playing and the Alexander Technique). Unmindful practice doesn't make perfect, unless you can include perfect mistakes and a perfectly awful technique!  Engaging absorbing and attentive study at the piano makes perfect, takes a lot less time, and is a darn sight more interesting along the way! 

This chimes in with my own thoughts about spending time at the piano. Traditionally, a lot of mindless repetition occurred, such as the playing of scales, which was supposed to improve overall performance, but was this really the case? Research would suggest not. Studies over the last twenty years or so have shown that experts and masters in many fields have often performed many thousands of hours of practice, but those practice hours were not mindless, they were deliberate.

The Road to Excellence, edited by Anders Ericsson, a leading researcher on expertise, demonstrates how it is only thoughtful, considered practice that improves performance. Moreover, the point is clearly made that over 10,000 hours of such practice is enough to create what the world considers 'prodigies' with 'inborn talent'.

Now, I don't want to get carried away with this. I am not advocating deciding which Nobel prize you want your newborn to win and going all out to reach that goal. The dangers and cruelty of such a scheme go without saying. But it does show the value of practice (sorry Alexandra!) and if your child is going to practice  you don't want to waste her or his time as well as your own by simply going through the motions of playing without really listening to or thinking about the music.

Last week I wrote about how I roped in my eldest son to give the younger one a fresh viewpoint on his performance and encourage him to consider his playing a little more. Unfortunately now the eldest son has returned to university and I'm left without a novel audience, so I have had to think of a new incentive. This is what I came up with:

With the help of Kaki and Cat I've been reviewing my son's review practice. 

Since he started to learn to play, his sessions have always included pieces he has learned. As the number grew, we rotated them so that he played them all at least twice a week. As time has gone by, however, his playing of these pieces has grown stale and thoughtless at times. After all, children are interested in novelty, not repeating things they already 'know'.

This week I told my son that we would write his review pieces' main polishing points on a card of his choice, then if he played the piece well with all its polishing points included, we would put it away and he wouldn't have to play it again for another two weeks. The Kaki and Cat box contains lots of pretty pictures of cats in various poses, and he had a lot of fun choosing which card we would use for each piece. 

Some cards were 'saved' for favourite songs

 So far, his performance of review pieces has noticeably improved and it's great to see him really thinking and trying hard. We will keep the cards for two weeks' time, when we'll see if he can match or exceed this week's standard, in which case the piece can be safely mothballed for another spell.

An unforeseen advantage of this method has been that it has identified those pieces that he really cannot play very well yet, rather than the ones where he just wasn't really trying. By default, the former remain in the review box and will get more practice.

I'm interested to see how his review pieces sound after their rest!

Friday, 13 January 2012

Your Child's Support Network

I recently had my older son to stay with us over the Christmas period, and it was towards the end of his stay that I realised I had not made full use of his presence in our house. My current goal is to improve my younger son's playing of all the pieces he currently knows. He can play them, but often doesn't really listen to the sound he's making, nor include the polishing points that he's learned in the past. This 'going through the motions' type of playing doesn't improve technique or tone and in fact can lead to bad habits. Each time the learner plays, they should, as far as possibly, be trying to improve.

So my recent strategy, to encourage my son to listen to himself, is to set up a competition between his review songs. At the end of the review part of practice, he must reward each of them, figuratively, medals according to how beautiful they sounded. He currently reviews four pieces a day, so the medals range from platinum to bronze, and we discuss why each song got its placement - did he play the left hand softly? Was there a beautiful tone? And so on.

One day as my older son was present I decided to make him a judge, and asked him to award places to the songs, then the two of them could discuss whether they agreed. The effect was quite remarkable: my younger son's interest increased noticeably and he enjoyed asserting his opinion in the discussion afterwards.

This got me thinking about the wide support network that most children have and how this can affect the progress of their learning. My previous piano teacher once told me of a pupil she had who had given up. The teacher found out that her father used to watch TV in the same room as her when she practiced! Not only would the child have had difficulty concentrating with the noise from a television in the background, what also had this habit conveyed to the child? That her playing was unimportant, and that television was more interesting, I imagine. No doubt her father had had no desire to give this impression, he just hadn't really considered the impact of his behaviour.

If all of the members of a child's family view his or her learning as important, however, the child cannot help but develop the same opinion themselves. That isn't to say that the family should make critical comments or badger the child about their practice, but ideally they should treat practice time with respect, actually listen when required to do so and at home performances applaud and comment positively, though always truthfully, on the progress the child makes.

Other things the family can do is attend performances, buy piano or music related gifts, take the child to concerts and take an interest in their playing. It all comes back down to playing and practice being a part of the child's life. To a young child, their family makes up the majority of their world, so the family as a whole needs to act as a support if the child is to succeed.

Your child's support network also extends to their teachers, friends, friends of the family and relatives in the extended family. You will know best how to encourage these people to support your child. At my son's previous school music was not a valued part of the curriculum, and although he had told his teachers he was learning to play the piano none of them had ever really taken much notice. Then one day his teacher at that time asked him to show her what he could play. She was impressed and invited his class in to watch. Then she invited some other teachers in, then one of those teachers invited her class too. Finally, he was asked to play at the school fete that year. Needless to say, the effect on my son's attitude to playing was extremely positive.

It's not only the child that needs support, though. Sometimes, the parent who is the main practice guide is in need of support too, at least, I know I certainly am at times! One thing I do is read other blogs, and one of my favourites is this one: The poster on here recently reviewed some books, which are of course another great source of inspiration and support for parents. Next on my reading list is Lang Lang's autobiography, Journey of a Thousand Miles.

I'll let you know it's like!

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Tips on Finding a Teacher

Just recently, after moving countries, I've been struggling to find another teacher for my son. I think I've found the ideal person now and I thought I'd share with you some factors that I've taken into consideration as we've gone through this process, based both on my own feelings and advice from my son's former teacher.

Choosing the right teacher for your child can be the single most important factor that determines their success in achieving mastery of their instrument. A good teacher can be the making of your child's musical education, while a poor teacher can dampen the most enthusiastic child's spirit and actively hamper the growth of their talent, yet parents are often unclear on exactly what makes a good teacher.

Quite often they will sign their child up for lessons with a teacher recommended to them by a friend or acquaintance, or they may enrol their child in lessons offered through the school, or even simply pick a name off the internet. These may all be good places to start, but it would be foolish to believe that the search should stop there, or that all teachers are basically the same.

The first thing to bear in mind is that it is important not to sign your child up to a large programme of lessons at the first meeting. In fact, a good teacher would never do this. If you're pressured to sign up straightaway, it may indicate that they're more interested in your money than your child. A good teacher will want to talk to your child, find out about them as a person, and see what she or he is able to do for them before deciding to take them on. A teacher who thinks that all children are the same and they can all be taught in the same way is not a good teacher. Each child is an individual, and good teacher will need to assess whether they will be able to teach your child well.

What should a parent look for at the first meeting?
Some points to consider:

Does the teacher ask to hear your child play? Even if your child is a complete beginner, it can be useful to see how she or he approaches the instrument, and if the teacher isn't interested in hearing your child play at the first meeting, they're unlikely to develop an interest as time goes on.

Does the teacher watch your child's entire body, not just their hands? Correct posture has a large influence on the sound a musician makes.

Is the teaching room quiet, well-lit, warm and comfortable? Children can easily lose concentration if they're cold or distracted by noise.

Does the teacher listen and watch carefully, perhaps making notes?

Does the teacher give feedback and is it positive? Most children are extremely sensitive to criticism, and the smallest ill-considered comment can have a far-reaching impact. A good teacher will be able to find something positive to say about a child's playing, no matter how much it hurts the ears!

Finally, is he or she able to offer concrete advice on playing - practice points, ideas for listening etc.?

I would say that if you're unable to answer 'yes' to all of these questions, you may need to seriously consider looking for another teacher.

Some other points to consider:

Compatible personalities
Most piano teaching is done on a one-to-one basis, and for this reason it's important that teacher and child get along well with each other, so you need to consider what the teacher's manner is like, and whether this suits your child's personality. Some children feel intimidated by a serious teacher, while others respond well. Some children need a teacher who is kind and gentle, or playful and funny.

A learning community
Introducing your child to a community of children learning the same instrument can do a lot to help their motivation. Ask the teacher if she or he offers the opportunity for the children to sit in on each other's lessons, or perform together. Perhaps the teacher introduces the parents to one another so that the children can meet up outside lessons or go to concerts together. This would be a sign of someone committed to supporting your child's interest and ability. (As a parent you may be able to organise some of this yourself.)

Qualifications give a good indication of a teacher's commitment to their profession and tell you something about what other professionals think of their ability, either as a musician or a teacher, or both.

Conversation versus learning
Some teachers love to talk! Either to you, or your child, or anyone else present. Of course, some communication is necessary but this can be done to excess by verbose individuals. Such a teacher is probably not ideal. Your child will learn best by listening to music, not words, and by playing rather than talking.

Long experience may be an indication of quality in teaching, but it also may not. Most helpful to you will be the current and former pupils and parents that your prospective teacher will hopefully be able to refer you to.

Finding a good teacher for your child can be a time-consuming process, as it has been for us, but in the end seeing your child take pleasure in their lessons, make good progress and produce beautiful music, makes the effort worth it. I hope these these ideas have been useful to you.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Keeping going

My posting on this site has slowed down recently because, as you may know from reading my other site, we've recently moved to Taiwan. This has been an upheaval and, I have to admit, a serious challenge to my son's piano practice. A piano isn't the kind of instrument you can take anywhere, and we decided that we would ship our piano here rather than sell it and buy another when we arrived. Consequently, my son hasn't had a proper acoustic piano to practice on for several weeks now.

In an earlier post I wrote about how it was important when you start out to buy the best instrument you can afford because this impacts the quality of learning your child experiences. I warned against hiring a tutor who teaches on an acoustic piano but allows your child to practice on a digital piano at home. Now that we've been keeping our son's practice going until his piano arrives with the use of a digital one, I can safely echo the advice I gave earlier. There are many things that my son learned to do that he simply can't practice using a different kind of instrument, such as playing legato and echoes. While it's been better than nothing, using a digital piano has reinforced my understanding of how it is a completely different instrument from an acoustic piano, and the perceived similarities are merely surface appearances.

From our experiences, I can give some tips as to how to keep going if you're moving house or even just going on holiday.


  • Define a practice location in your accommodation. This helps reinforce the idea that practising is an important part of everyday life.
  • Stick to your normal routine as much as possible. Practising an instrument should be like a habit - don't get out of the habit!
  • Carry on learning. It can be tempting to put progress on hold until circumstances improve, but for many children one of their greatest pleasures is learning new songs. Don't deprive your child of a sense of progress and achievement.
  • Maintain musical interest. It easy to ignore those aspects of life that support learning and motivation, but continuing to listen to music, watch performances and read about composers are some of the easiest activities to sustain.

  • Substitute a poorer quality instrument if you can avoid it. Some piano shops will hire out pianos for practice, or if you're very lucky your hotel may have one in the lounge!
  • Delay finding another teacher. It's taken us some time to locate the possibilities in our area, and minimising the break between lessons is ideal.
  • Forget to allow for practice time every day (or however often is normal for your family). This is very easily done when other routines are disrupted.
Continuing to work with your child in their musical education can be challenging when your everyday lives are temporarily or permanently changed. One positive thing to come out of this is the knowledge that if you can manage to maintain good habits during these times, then you're on a steady path for the future.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Cultivating an interest in music.

A genuine interest in and love of music can be one of the best motivators in a child's musical education, and of course, a source of inspiration and pleasure throughout their lives. If you're playing the target musical pieces constantly in the background, as is wise, it can be easy to sometimes forget that there are a lot of other excellent examples of musicianship your children can learn from and enjoy. Parents often start with the famous classical pieces that were written specifically for children, such as Peter and the Wolf

and The Carnival of The Animals

But there is no reason why any other classical piece cannot be played for your children's enjoyment.

It is said that if you want your child to read, read yourself. I believe the same applies to music. It is difficult to encourage musical appreciation and understanding in a vaccuum. Similarly, if no one shows an interest in your child's playing, they will understandably be less inclined to play. So, if you want your child to have a good attitude to music, the answer is to lead by example.

Listening at Home
In our household, we're in the habit of always playing music in the background at family dinner times. Not only does this expose my son to good quality music, it also teaches him that enjoying music is a normal part of everyday life. Sometimes the music is a topic of conversation too; usually it's our appreciation of it or occasionally why we want to turn it off! But the idea behind this habit is that my son's musical interest is being fostered.

Of course, you needn't confine background music to any particular time of day. I have only instituted evening meal listening time to ensure that we heard some music every day. Another possibility, and something else we do, is to always play classical music stations on the car radio. Whenever there is no other background noise to compete with there is an opportunity to put on something beautiful. At the very least, it improves your quality of life.

Attending concerts and operas
The next time, (or perhaps the first time!), you attend a classical concert or operatic performance, take your child along with you. We generally don't give children much credit for their ability to enjoy classical music and opera. In fact, we give them the message that it is difficult, boring and inaccessible, by dumbing things down to their 'level'. In my experience, with the right preparation, children can successfully attend and enjoy sophisticated musical events from a young age, certainly from the age of eight with most children.

The key to not having a child squirming in their seat and embarrassing you by loudly asking when it will be time to go, is to prepare the child properly for the event. For example, when my son was 5, a performance of The Magic Flute was coming to my town. We had three months or so to go before the performance, so I bought a couple of dvds of the opera and started to sit down and watch it myself. My son was initially just interested in just one or two parts, such as the Queen of the Night's arias, but as I watched it several times and explained the story to him, he became genuinely interested in the whole opera.

These are the versions we have: this one and this one.

As the performance date drew nearer we explained to my son that we had tickets to go and see it live and emphasised what an important occasion it would be. On the night, we all got dressed in our best clothes and went to the performance with a view to leaving at the interval, thinking that would be quite enough for a 5 year old. In fact, not only was my son amazingly and unusually quiet (we had bought tickets towards the back of the theatre to make a quick exit if he became noisy) he actually wanted to stay and see the rest of the performance!

Lives of the Composers
Children understand and are interested in concrete things that are relevant to their lives. Abstract thinking is something that develops with time. As adults, we know that the music we hear has been written by a real person who had, or still has, a real life. It can be of great interest to children to find out about the composers of the pieces  they are listening to and learning to play. Just a little research into Mozart's or Beethoven's life reveals many interesting facts, and even things such as the fact that a composer was a child once with brothers and sisters, and that they had lessons and practiced too, can be a revelation to a child.

Why Beethoven Threw the Stew is a good example of a book that provides some interesting tales. It can also help to have portraits of composers on display, or watch films based on their lives, though 'Amadeus' is apparently not  historically accurate!

In short, your child's musical education need not be , and should not be, confined to the music they play. There is a world of listening for them that will enhance their playing, help them relate what they do to the wider world, and give them enormous pleasure.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Keeping up with the other children

One of the best things about learning a musical instrument using the Suzuki method is that usually your child will be learning in a community of children and parents, all with the same goal. Part of the learning process is to sit in on another child's lesson, so that the exposure to another child's playing and instruction can enhance the learning process. So much of Suzuki is listening! Also, the local Suzuki association will often organise one or two concerts a year, plus workshops. So there is plenty of opportunity for parents and children to hear and see what other children are doing.

Similarly, in a more traditional environment, such as school music lessons, the school orchestra, or when studying for music exams, children and parents can, if they wish to, compare their experience and achievement with others.

These opportunities to share in musical learning are usually beneficial for many reasons. There is a sense of community, the chance to share tips or offload concerns and worries, and the pleasure of hearing others play, to name but a few. Sometimes, however, there is a more negative side to this situation.

Parents want the best for their children, particularly the parents who go to the trouble and expense of providing them with a musical education. Children also want to do their best and not feel as though they are worse at anything than their peers. We all approach learning with baggage from previous experiences, our individual personality traits and our pre-formed expectations of what will happen. Unfortunately, any of these factors can occasionally cause things to go awry.

Personally, I had a crisis of confidence when my son started sitting in on lessons with a girl about a year younger than him. She had an older sister who was also learning to play the piano so she had been exposed to everything her sister had done, as well as the endless hours of hearing the Suzuki CDs. Consequently, she progressed very quickly until she caught up with my son and they are now roughly at the same stage in terms of the songs they have learned.

My son is naturally competitive and noticed very quickly that this little girl was learning new songs far more quickly than he had done. He also had that perception of an age hierarchy that is instilled in children in mainstream education, so was disturbed to realise that a younger child was 'catching up' with him. On top of this, because I lack a musical background, I also lack confidence in my ability to guide my son through this process. The result was my son spiralling down into a mire of self-doubt and unhappiness over his playing, compounded by feedback from a concerned mother who was convinced that somehow she was to blame for his apparent lack of progress.

I became convinced that I should pull my son out of his learning programme, because it was clearly becoming detrimental to his self-esteem, and practice sessions were becoming tortuous ordeals, very far from the enjoyable industry that is the ideal. I had failed. After a rather emotional email to his teacher, asking for help, we had a long talk about how children progress at different rates and her perception of what he had achieved so far, and also about how parents can unconsciously influence their children's feelings about their learning.

It wasn't a good time for either of us, but I feel it was so helpful to my son and me in the long run. I learned not to mirror back a negative attitude to learning and to concentrate on praising the things my son could do, not to worry about what he couldn't do. I stopped acknowledging his comparisons of himself and this other child and concentrated on making his practice as much fun as I could.

I now understand that learning anything is not an even path. Sometimes we struggle uphill and the going is slow, other times we are racing downhill at a pace. There is no predicting when these times will come. Sometimes many months of patient repetition pays off all at once. Other times the progress is by such small steps that achievement arrives almost unnoticed.

I've found it helpful not to think in terms of the number of songs learned when it comes to my son's musical acquisition. Each time that a child or adult practises, as long as it is a striving, purposeful practice, then that is one step forward. Whether the effects of that practice are immediate and noticeable or not doesn't matter. When learning an instrument, there is so much to learn in terms of technique, knowledge of the instrument, and general musical knowledge, that to think in terms of simply learning more and more complex songs is deceiving and prosaic.

For children, though, this is often how they measure their progress and maintain interest. The novelty of a new song is preferable to improving technique while playing an old song. It is something simple and easy to understand, some tangible evidence of the work they have done. If a child is focusing excessively on number of songs learnt, this means they don't perceive or value the other ways that they progress.

I realised with my son that something I could do to develop his perspective on his work was to make apparent the results that he had achieved. These days, I take time to talk things through with him before and sometimes during practice. He knows what he's doing and why, and could write his own practice schedule now if he had to (though he would probably be shorter than the one indicated by his teacher!) I also keep recordings of performances and parts of practice sessions, so that in years to come he'll be able to see how far he's come and how well his hard work has paid off.