If you’ve read my blog recently you know that my 5 year old DS started piano lessons in September. Since I chose the Suzuki method of training I am VERY involved in the process. There is no dropping your child off for the lesson, running errands and then picking up your child. In fact, I attended a series of parent classes and was required to read several books on the method prior to Clark ever even sitting at the piano. The parent classes helped to put my role in perspective and convinced me that I chose the right teaching method for him, but it’s still up to me to figure out a way to get him to practice.
There’s so many things to figure out. Among them are: how much should he practice and when, how to get him to practice without nagging him, how to help keep him focused and encouraged (especially when he needs to be corrected on something)? Luckily, we’ve seemingly been setup to succeed in a few different ways, our Montessori approach to homeschooling keeps him fairly self-directed, our Suzuki piano teacher is also a Montessori teacher (which is ubiquitously evident), the location of our piano makes it always easily accessible, and Clark can read fluently.
Within the first week or two of lessons I setup the following approach which is at the core of what we do. This is the required prep. I use two sets of craft sticks. I write each individual thing he needs to practice during that week on a craft stick and color the opposite side of each craft stick blue (because it’s his favorite color). On the second set of craft sticks I write silly things to do to challenge himself while playing one of his blue sticks (e.g. stand on one leg, close your eyes, stick your tongue out the whole time, have someone try to distract him during the song, etc.). I color the back of each of the challenge sticks orange (for no particular reason other than it’s easily distinguishable from blue). I purchased three short square vases (about three inches tall) and filled them about half way with small red kidney beans and set them all next to each other on the piano. All the blue sticks go into the first vase and the orange sticks in the second vase.
Throughout the day, Clark picks a blue stick and practices whatever it says. He may or may not take an orange stick as well, it depends on his mood. When he’s done with a stick it goes into the third vase. Clark may decide to do all his “blue sticks” at once, or he may pick one up when he’s walking by the piano and happens to notice them. When the first vase is empty, his expected practice for the day is completed. That’s the time he can practice other things that he’s not specifically working on with his teacher at the moment.
Though the “blue sticks” aspect is the main feature of our approach to piano practice, there’s a lot more I do as a parent to support the whole effort. I’m learning right along with Clark, so I practice as well. I take notes during his class, but sometimes it’s hard for me to see the exact fingering or the right notes. So usually when we get home, we review the new things together to make sure that we both got it right. It helps us to get the week off to a good start. Sometimes during the week we’ll challenge each other to see who can play it with no mistakes, or who can practice something through more times. Also, as is the Suzuki tradition, we play a recording of the songs he’s learning for about six hours a day. It’s playing in the background at LEAST during homeschool, breakfast and lunch (not dinner, that’s when daddy is home and is reserved for family conversation) and whenever the mood strikes. We can even keep it playing during piano practice because when you’re playing the piano it’s so much louder than the recording (which is played on a device in another room). Don’t underestimate the value of knowing the piece by heart that you’re trying to learn to play!
Also, the day after our lesson Grandma visits. Grandma has always wanted to learn to play the piano, so on that day Clark teaches Grandma something. It used to be something from his recent lesson, but Grandma doesn’t practice enough so she’s a bit behind (smile).
Another thing we do is have Clark give mini performances to those loved ones who aren’t so involved in the lessons (Grandma and daddy). We try to do it at least twice a week.
Something we’ve just started to do is to put the recordings on a portable device for Clark so he can have it near the piano. This is so that after his required practice is done for the day, he can try to pick out a piece by ear that he wants to play but hasn’t been taught yet. (In the Suzuki method, reading music comes later. First, they learn by ear.)
Our humble approach has been working great so far, but it’s only been 3 1/2 months! I’m sure my naivete on the subject will be embarrassing in years to come, but it’s working so well right now that I wanted to share it with others who might benefit. I would appreciate comments and suggestions from those more experienced parents. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE hearing the piano being played in the house and I hope it continues for years to come.