So you've decided to put your child in piano lessons. Now you need to know how to get the most out of that investment. You are now part of a piano-learning team that includes your child, his or her teacher, and to greater or lesser extents the rest of your household. If the team works well together, your child will learn a skill that can benefit them and give them pleasure for their entire life!
So how can you be an asset to Team Piano? Here are some tips:
1. Find out what your piano teacher wants from you.
Piano teachers usually have guidelines that explain how you should be involved in your child's learning. Their instructions should override anything you read here! Ultimately, your teacher is in a better position than we are to judge the specifics of a situation.
That being said, think about what kind of involvement you want to commit to, and talk it over with your teacher. One thing that will be universally true: if your child doesn't practice at all, they will not improve, and will receive minimal benefit from their lessons. Teachers might ask you to actively make sure your child practices as instructed. Some methods even require you to sit with your child every day.
Your teacher is coach and captain of Team Piano, and they're the ones with the game plan. It's not a great idea to stray from the plan without telling them - and if you can't do what they ask, it might be best all around if you find another teacher.
2. Get a decent instrument, and keep it in tune.
Do not underestimate the importance of practicing on a decent piano, even for beginners! And by decent, we do not mean that you have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. But you should save up for something better than a cheap, unweighted electric keyboard if you possibly can - even if it means postponing piano lessons for now.
A digital piano can be a great option, so long as it includes an 88-key, fully-weighted keyboard. These are very, very good a simulating the sound and feel of a real piano. They don't require the upkeep of an acoustic piano, and they allow your child to practice with headphones on to keep the noise down.
Of course, an acoustic piano is also a great choice, but remember that it will need professional attention from time to time. Most piano manufacturers recommend that pianos be tuned at least twice a year by a professional; if you don't keep this up, your child's playing will never sound as good as it should.
3. Make sure your child practices regularly.
Practicing is not optional. If your child doesn't practice, they will not learn, and the money you spend on lessons will be wasted. Get buy-in from your child before you even start lessons - they need to understand from the beginning that regular practice is going to be part of the deal.
It's also important that everyone on Team Piano knows that piano lessons are not tests you can cram for - your child should practice almost every day, even if its just for a few minutes.
If getting your child to practice is a struggle and your teacher is out of ideas, check out books like Practiceopedia. The author, Philip Johnston, has also written an article with experiments you can run to improve motivation. It's written for teachers, so some of the suggestions are beyond the scope of a parent, but some aren't. If you're thinking of shaking up your child's practice routine, make sure you keep their teacher in the loop.
4. Don't let them give up too easily.
It can be tricky to know how hard to push with music lessons. None of us want to force our child to do something that they don't enjoy (especially when it's quite an expensive hobby!) At the same time, there are plenty of people who say they regret not being pushed to practice more when they were taking music lessons.
If your child finds regular practice a chore, in spite of your best efforts...well, they're not going to improve without it. Kids aren't necessarily good at taking the long view, and may be inclined to give up future piano skills in exchange for a few extra minutes of freedom now. This doesn't mean they won't regret it later.
If your child seems really unhappy, try to probe for the cause. Do they struggle to get along with their teacher? Try a different teacher. Are they disappointed in their lack of progress? Ask your teacher for tips on how to practice smarter (see also the following section). Do they hate piano competitions? Don't make them participate. Do they hate the music they're playing? Let them choose pieces they enjoy.
Ultimately it's up to you and your child to decide when to throw in the towel. Just remember that many have made the mistake of giving up too quickly.
5. Learn how and what your child should be practicing.
Most piano teachers have their students keep a book of practice notes, which the teacher writes in it every lesson. Read these notes! You should have some idea of what practice should sound like, and what the goals are.
This means you can have conversations with your child, both to course correct and to recognize the progress they're making. For instance, if your child is always playing pieces from start to finish, you'll know to ask which specific parts they should be working on. Alternatively, if they've been working on the difficult passages like they're supposed to, you can give well-informed praise.
Unless you play piano yourself, the teacher's notes may be hard to fully understand unless you sit in on lessons from time to time. This can be a great learning experience for you, and really help you support your child. However, if you do, try to stay quiet for the most part - piano lessons are generally meant to be conversations between the student and the teacher, and it's best for parents to just observe and learn.
You can also find resources that offer great tips and approaches for smarter practicing. Philip Johnston argues that smart practicing is itself a skill that needs to be taught. Two of his books might be of interest to you: The Practice Revolution is written for teachers, but is also great for parents who want a deeper understanding of practicing challenges and how to overcome them. Practiceopedia is meant to serve as an illustrated reference book for students and parents who want quick ideas for making practice more engaging and effective.
6. Create an environment that supports piano learning.
Give some thought about how the piano is going to become part of your home life. This includes physical space, piano resources, and what you do as a family that supports music learning.
Think about where the piano is in the home. Will there be lots of distractions? Will there be people asking your child to stop practicing so they can hear the TV? On the other hand, is the piano set up in a room where your child will actually want to spend time? Hiding it in a remote room in the basement might keep the noise down, but also make piano practice less appealing.
Believe it or not, there are some parents who put their children in piano lessons and then complain about the noise. Be ready to remind everyone that noise is part of the deal! If you think it's going to be a major problem, consider getting a digital piano so that your child can play with headphones without worrying about disturbing anyone.
Also, let there be piano music in the home! Listening to recordings and going to concerts is inspiring to music learners, and helps develop great musical instincts. It's also something that the whole family can do together, and reminds everyone on Team Piano that all the practicing does serve a purpose.
For piano lessons to be a success, everyone involved needs to understand the process, buy into it, and be prepared to play their part - this means you, your child, your piano teacher and your household. If everyone works together, you can enjoy a rewarding music experience!