This is a guest post by Ben: parent to two young music students and someone who works closely with music teachers (but is not one himself). We hope to provide a unique perspective that hasn't been provided before, and that it can help all of you music parents out there!
When parents are actively involved in their child’s development, studies have shown that the benefits are enormous. To name a few examples, involved parents lead to:
- Higher levels of achievement
- Higher self-esteem
- Stronger mental health
- Lower rates of school dropout
- Lower rates of depression
Music education is no different. When we put our children in music, we can’t expect our music teachers to do it by themselves. For some, parents can be the difference between success and failure. Imagine how far your child would get if he only saw a math teacher once a week for 30 minutes, then was given a week’s worth of homework to work on alone at home. Would your child be frustrated? Unmotivated? Confused? Most likely, the answer to all is yes.
Even without a background in music, parents can play an important part in providing the proper support to help their child prosper. Below, I will discuss important actions parents can take to make a difference.
Share your goals with the teacher
A great way to start off your child’s music education is to share with the music teacher what your objectives are for your child to learn music. Based on the direction you’d like to go, your teacher may choose different paths and can tailor an approach that is appropriate for your child and goals. Do you want your child to be able to play songs on the radio for fun or are you hopeful that he can be a professional musician? Is your priority to develop life skills like perseverance, or is it to help him get into a top college? There may be multiple goals or you may not even know yourself, but it’s good for you to share your thoughts with the teacher in the beginning and keep him/her updated as it evolves.
Provide models to emulate
Not knowing how to practice is one of the biggest reasons why music students fail. Without sufficient models, students cannot gauge how well they are practicing and if they are practicing correctly. More often than not, students without models practice ineffectively and end up spinning their wheels, not making much progress. This hurts their motivation and they start to lose interest in practicing...which then spirals to the inevitable.
If you or your spouse is a musician, you can serve as a model and guide your student through what a good practice is like. If, however, you cannot serve as a model, then seek out someone who can. You can ask your teacher to dedicate a lesson to practice and have your teacher guide the student through a real practice. Then do it again every quarter to ensure the student continues to develop strong practice habits. You may even consider hiring a ‘music tutor’ to help with practice like you might do with a ‘math tutor’. This can be another music teacher or a college music student. Models will help you and your child answer these important questions:
- What are the habits of a good practicer?
- How do I start learning a new piece or exercise?
- What is too fast (and what is the right tempo when starting)?
- What are criteria for stopping and moving on to the next assignment?
- When is a piece considered mastered?
- How do I break up a long piece of music?
- How do I handle complicated sections?
- How do I develop exercises to tackle advanced techniques?
Avoid the Pitfalls
Aside from knowing how to practice, other common pitfalls in learning music are actually not unique to music. In fact, they are general life skills: organization and communication. Often, music is spread across books and independent sheets of music. Teachers who write assignments are limited by time (and maybe space) to write out thorough assignments - which is not good, seeing how most verbal instructions to students fly in one ear and out the other. By the time your child takes out his assignment book to practice the next day, all he is left with are the teacher's hastily scribbled assignment notes (which are
sometimes most of the time indecipherable) and no easy way to clarify with his teacher... until the next week. This in turn leads to partial practice, wrong practice or no practice at all. In fact, most families ‘lose’ hundreds of dollars a year in wasted lessons due to common issues.
As a parent, you can help structure and organize all the materials using binders and folders, but more importantly, teach your child how to stay organized. Develop routine habits for maintaining organization before and after practice and also when receiving new materials. Also dedicate time to ensure instructions are clear before leaving the lesson. Take additional notes or rephrase the teacher’s assignment notes if needed: you know better than anyone how your child's mind works. Moreover, consider working with your teacher to invest in a practice tool like Better Practice to stay organized and to minimize any communication roadblocks during the week.
Enjoy Music Together
Quick quiz. What is your favorite song or some of your favorites songs? Do you have one? Does your child? If neither of you have one, consider making music a more integral part of your everyday life. Turn on music in the car, play some background music during dinner. Sing together. Dance together. Have impromptu performances and 6 minute dance parties. Play air guitar or bang on nearby furniture (okay, maybe not furniture, but you get the idea). Don't strive for perfection. Strive for fun. Your child will love it. Over time, you’ll see your child develop his own musical taste. Encourage it, even if it’s something you wouldn’t normally listen to. Play his favorites and also introduce new music. Your child's love for music will grow, and it will become foundational in his musical growth.
One of the biggest motivators for your child is your encouragement. Celebrate victories no matter how small. Even if you have high expectations for your child, understand that it is a process and your encouragement is the fuel to get through the process. Sometimes the process goes fast, and other times not so much. Be patient and refrain from allowing any doubt to seep in. Focus on incremental improvement and celebrating those improvements.
Learning an instrument is not always easy. Like any other high skill activity, it requires a lot of work and practice. It also means a lot of time and commitment are required. Today, it’s common for parents to overschedule their children, but by doing so, we’re actually putting them at a disadvantage. Our aim should be to put our children in a position to be successful. By overcommitting, we could be doing the opposite. Be aware of what your child can handle and handle well. Recognize that most teachers say that learning an instrument requires a minimum of 5 days of practice each week. Be reasonable and allow a schedule that can support it.
On the flip side, be sensitive to burn out. If five days a week, 52 weeks a year is too much, take a break and recharge the battery. If your child is constantly working at something with great intensity, it is often helpful to step back and reflect on the progress and restart later with renewed vigor.
With these six suggestions, you will establish a solid framework for your child's development as a musician. Your music teacher is incredibly talented and dedicated, but his/her reach can only extend so far. They may not have ever told you, but in order to increase your child’s chance for success, they also need your help and support. Help your child succeed.