How To Talk So Kids Will Practice

How to talk to your kids so they will practice music

How To Talk So Kids Will Practice

Just about everyone I’ve talked to has a challenge with getting their kids to practice. 
I too had this issue.
When my son Alejandro was young, not only was I the parent, but also the teacher. It was very challenging and we would often end our lessons in tears – his and mine!
It was extremely frustrating! 
It’s like that quote from the film Cool Hand Luke. 
“What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
It’s true. Communication is probably the biggest challenge humans face in all walks of life. 
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” 
– George Bernard Shaw
At age 9, Alejandro went to camp and became “piano guy” as he banged out requests on the old upright in the mess hall. Now at 16, he seeks out time to practice on his own. It’s become an outlet, a passion and a constant companion. Music has become part of his identity. 

So how did we get here?

Flashback to ten years ago. My brilliant and beautiful wife knows a lot about developmental psychology. Besides giving me a time out! – she gave me a book to read. You may already know about it. 
Reading this book was a major breakthrough for me.

In the book, the authors discuss four key strategies:

  1. Listen with full attention
  1. Acknowledge their feelings with a word
  1. Give their feelings a name
  1. Give them their wishes in fantasy

Listen with full attention

This is a rarity nowadays. I’ve seen so many parents staring at their smart devices while their children are begging for some attention. When Alejandro was a toddler, he would grab our faces and literally turn our heads and say, “Look at me!” Pretty funny and effective.
Getting attention is like getting oxygen. Your child wants your attention, approval and notice of what they are doing. Practice time can be an incredible bonding time. Get interested in what they are doing, and they will do more of it. It’s why I recommend always placing the piano in the center of the living space. It shows you care about this and it’s important to you. 
Did you ever notice how sports-crazed kids usually have sport-crazed parents? It’s the same with music, movies, arts, crafts, dance, whatever. Your children want to share in your passions. In other words, where your attention is.

Acknowledge their feelings with a word

It doesn’t even have to be a full word. It can be just, “Oh” or “Hmm” or just a caring look and nod of acknowledgement. One thing that is also very powerful is to just reiterate what they said. This works wonders when your child is upset. They don’t necessarily want or need you to fix things, they just want to be heard. As a man, I know I have the tendency to want to fix the problem, as the book  Men are from Mars, Women from Venus illustrated for me. My wife sometimes just needs me to hear her, not fix the problem! The same is true for your kids.

Give their feelings a name

This is especially useful for younger kids who don’t have the vocabulary to express what they are feeling. Heck, many adults don’t either! There is a movement towards social-emotional learning (SEL) with full curricula to emphasize this. 
When your child is upset, they don’t always have the words to tell you what they are feeling. Giving them a vocabulary is relieving in that they are acknowledged. 
This chart used to be on my refrigerator. It is a useful way of articulating how you’re feeling.
You can try having your child point to the picture that most describes what they are feeling right now.
Bonus points if you make that face too!

Give Them Their Wishes in Fantasy

This is fun and a way to build empathy and connection. Obviously your child knows it’s a fantasy. But they feel heard and acknowledged. You’ll see what I mean below.
Here’s two examples of how to talk about practicing, one obviously better than the other.

Scenario 1

Child: I don’t want to practice 
Parent (looking at phone) : You have to practice! How are you going to get better?
Child: But I don’t want to!
Parent: It’s not a choice just go do it!
Child: No
Parent: You know you need to practice – why don’t you just go practice?
Child: I don’t feel like it.
Parent: Well I don’t feel like doing many things either, but I have to. Do you think I want to go on the stinky subway everyday? Now go and practice, NOW! 
Child leaves crying and bangs on the piano.
Parent: What did I do?

Scenario 2

Child: I don’t want to practice 
Parent looks directly at child: Hm. You don’t want to practice.
Child: Well…I know I should, but I don’t feel like it right now.
Parent: You’re not ready to practice right now.
Child: No.   I want to go to the beach!
Parent: Well, that would be fun. But I know the beach is over an hour away. I wish I had a magic wand to make us just fly to the beach right now! 
Child: Ha ha….
I’m a little hungry, can I have a snack?
Parent: Ok I’ll make a snack.
Child: And then I want to show you the new song I learned!
There’s so much more in the book. I encourage you to try these strategies out. Also share this with your friends and families.

Why Every Child Should Learn Music With Tips, Strategies and Resources

listening is programming

We had a lovely Parents Curriculum Meeting this morning. It was wonderful to see so many of you.  Here’s a summary of what we covered.

The Benefits of Music Lessons

My philosophy of teaching music is to impart an enjoyment, appreciation and ability to create and perform music while having fun.

I don’t expect all my students to become professional musicians, but I do expect them to gain life-long skills such as

  • goal-setting
  • problem solving
  • conceptualization
  • organization
  • memorization
  • categorization
  • structuralization
  • delayed gratification
  • self-discipline
  • persistence
  • tenacity
  • the last 3 can be combined to be called grit
  • and  learning the process of how to learn just about anything.

Structure Of A Typical Lesson

  • Repertoire – a fancy word for a group of memorized pieces at a performance level. Having a memorized repertoire means you can play anywhere at anytime. It also starts to give rise to conceptual skills such as seeing/hearing structure, order and experiencing how feeling can be transmitted to others through music. It’s very empowering! These pieces are usually taught by ear, visual memory and my color system. They are usually a bit harder to read from traditional music notation but within the student’s abilities to perform. Sometimes I’ll use video to help communicate tricky pieces especially for students whose parents do not read music.
  • Reading – Learning to read music opens a door to the thousand year tradition of written music. Just like reading books gives access to timeless ideas, reading music gives access to timeless music. I use several different method books, none which are perfect where we are learning to see what music sounds like.
  • Theory/Technique – I use many games to help understand the very abstract concepts of music like harmony and how the symbols of music are visualized. These take a long time but through weekly intervallic training , we accomplish great things.

Tips For Parents of Students:  How To Guarantee Success At Home

  • Organized – by having all the learning materials organized in a binder or some kind of system where they can easily find their notes in chronological order enables students to learn quicker and to learn valuable skills of being organized.
  • Daily Practice – repeated practice (of anything) at daily interval activates a higher retention rate for learning. For younger ages 5 to 10 minutes may be enough, but as soon as they are able, we should be aiming to bring that up to 20 or 30 minutes or more per day. The complexity of the music requires more time.   A kitchen timer is highly recommended.  For young boys, using a metronome and/or duets with an adult, older student or  the video or  recording may force them to play at a normal human tempo!  We also discussed how to get your child to practice the older repertoire and many loved the dice game I created.  See below.
    [box] Dice Game: Number all the songs in the repertoire. Roll the dice. The number that comes up corresponds to one of the pieces. Play that piece. Roll again and play the next one, etc.   All of a sudden they’re willing to play old songs they never wanted to play before![/box]
  • Listening is Programming Your Child – just as we all watch what our children eat, media consumption can be monitored and “programmed.” I like to play my son classical piano music in the morning at breakfast as it calms and focuses him, but is also giving him the knowledge of pieces that he is working on or will be soon.  Listening to only Top 40 Hit radio is like a diet of soda and potato chips!   We need to expose our children to the world’s greatest music from Baroque to Classical, Blues To Jazz, Folk To Country, Rock To Electronica to Merengue to Cumbia…the list goes on.  I wrote this article and this one, about a recommended order of listening to music for the youngest children where I talk about starting with simple singable folk music   and then adding  early classical music.  As with visual art,  children start with primary colors and then learn to mix more complex ones later. Structures in early classical music are simple to understand and lend well to learning how to play.
  • Listening is programming your child
    Watch your musical diet.
  • Going To See Live Music – we live in a city of riches for live music. Summer concerts in the park, Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall and the Met all have programs for children. And, you can view almost anything on YouTube though you may want to screen them in advance as some of the related video content is inappropriate for children.

Resources For Experiencing Music

There has been an explosion in ways to access music anywhere and anytime. Here’s a few of my favorites.

  • WQXR – Classical radio station now owned and operated by WNYC (yes I’m a member!)  Fabulous repertoire of all the hits of classical music, some modern pieces and even film soundtracks. Love it.    You’ll start to learn the composer names, performers and even coming concert dates in the area.  Available online, on FM radio 105.9 and as an app for smartphones.
  • YouTube – back in the day, after radio,  MTV was where kids found about new music.  Today it seems YouTube is where kids go automatically to find new music. As I mentioned above, you may want to screen first for appropriateness depending on age of your child.
  • Suzuki Method CDs – all my students start with the Suzuki Book 1 and the CDs. These are folk songs arranged for piano and are perfect for any age. Volume 2 and on are excellent classical piano repertoire and lovely dinner party listening too.
  • Spotify – A free (w/ads) or paid ($5 or 10/month) internet music streaming library. It seems to have something like 90% of all recorded music.   It’s available as a website or an app.  Fantastic learning, research tool. I’ve made some playlists for my students and will be sharing with you shortly.  Here’s an article with a playlist for great songs for a roadtrip.
  • Pandora – an internet radio station that monitors what you like and delivers more like it. You type in an artist or song and it creates a “radio station” that plays that music for you. Free with ads or you can subscribe for $4/month.  Available as a website, app, or even built into some smart TVs.
  • iTunes Radio – Apple’s new radio streaming service that is similar to Pandora. Just launched this October 2013 (Free with ads or pay $25/year.)  Available on Apple devices and PCs.

Technology to Help Create Music

Recording technology has taken massive leaps in the last 10 years. Here’s a few we talked about.
GarageBand – Apple’s truly-amazing, easy to use multi-track recording software with virtual instruments and it’s less than $5! For iPad, iPhone and Mac (this one is more like $30)

LogicPro – this is what I use to create film scores, songs, and most of my music production.  This is professional music software and it only costs $200.  That’s an incredible difference from when I was a kid!

Notation Software to Write Music on Staff

Professional music engravers use Finale or Sibelius, both have student options:

  • Sibelius First – I use Sibelius and love it.   I find it much more intuitive to learn and use than Finale.  It’s used by many, many professional musicians.  This student simplified version is about $99 and works on Mac, Windows.
  • Finale Songwriter – I hear that most professional music engravers use Finale, perhaps because it is more powerful, but with that power comes complexity.  This is their simplified version for songwriters.  Not sure if it is that much easier.  It is cheaper though at around $50.
  • Finale Notepad – FREE!  Well FREE is a pretty good price so you can check it out and decide for yourself.
  • Musescore  – free open source – I have no experience with this but looks pretty good.
  • Noteflight – an online software – you get up to 10 for free and then after that you need to sign up for a subscription.  It sounds pretty good – though I never tried it.
  • Of course you can also just get a nice music notebook like this one from Moleskine.  Use pencil so you can erase!

New Ideas

We had some ideas suggested at the meeting.

  • Longer lessons –  45 minutes  for older students – may need to wait until next year to implement as the schedule is tight!
  • More playlists of music programmed by Andrew – coming soon!
  • Piano Buddies/Mentors – organized piano mentor sessions with older students. Older students teaching younger ones as in Montessori Schools or Summerbridge (now called Breakthrough Collaborative) Very positively received idea and looking into how to implement.


10 Tips For Parents To Help Their Children Learn Music

Many parents have expressed their frustration at getting their child to practice their musical instrument.  Here’s some tips to help.

  1. Re-frame the notion of practice from chore to a fun activity or even a reward.  Don’t force them to practice, it will only drive them away from it.
  2. Place the piano in a central part of the home.  If a guitar, put it on a stand in the living room, or even hang it on the wall like in the guitar stores.  All instruments have some kind of stand you can buy.  By having it out and in easy reach, the instrument naturally gets picked up at various times of the day.   If the instrument is in a far off corner of the house, it feels like a banishment or punishment.
  3. Make a consistent time of music time everyday.  Some people have found 5 minutes in the morning before school is a great thing.  Others find right after school or just before bed.  By having a regular schedule, it becomes a habit and that makes it easier to have consistent and frequent time at the instrument.
  4. Take interest in your child’s playing (even if it’s awful).  By giving attention, the child feels rewarded and they will get better – really, I promise!
  5. Ask them to teach you the lesson (even if you already know it.)  By teaching, the child has to be able to organize their thoughts and really know how to communicate the knowledge.  They learn by teaching.  This may work better with one parent than the other when one is a musician and the other not.
  6. Listen to music in the home.  Take some time to consciously choose music that features the instrument your child is learning.  Listen to all kinds of music and talk about it.
  7. Go see live music.  Take your child to see live musicians and then talk about the concert.  You’ll be amazed at the observations they make.  They also may take a new interest in a different instrument as well!
  8. Sing (or  hum) together.  Many people feel very shy about singing.  Actually everyone can sing and if you start at a really young age, they can’t criticize you.  You’re just their parent singing and that’s always music to their ears.  Holiday carols or folk songs are a great fun family activity.
  9. Take music classes yourself.  In my lessons, I actively engage the parents to stay at least on par with the child’s musical knowledge.  It becomes a family experience.
  10. Have a family concert (or a music playdate).  By having more people making music (or sounds, noise) it becomes a social and group activity.  Fun!  Just don’t play saxophone with a mouth full of potato chips – that’s gross – I know from experience.