I’ve always heard that piano teachers cannot teach their own children. During the several years that I taught piano while my husband was in grad school, I had several students who were children of musicians. There seems to be something about the dynamic of being both the teacher assigning the music homework, and the parent enforcing the practice that makes for a bad combination. It makes sense, and in a homeschooling family, there is a lot of value to having an outside authority figure in an area like this.
In our family though, being responsible with our finances means that we cannot outsource piano lessons. If you are like us, I thought you might be interested in hearing how piano lessons around our house have evolved over the past two years.
When my oldest turned eight, I bought him the piano method books that were my favorite when I was teaching. We set up a once-a-week lesson schedule, and a daily practice schedule. For the first few weeks, we had our lessons, and I gave him practicing assignments in the exact way that I learned when I was a kid, and that I taught when I was a teacher.
It worked for about three weeks. We quickly fell behind on the weekly lessons, to the point that we would go a month or more between them. He would not practice regularly, and as a homeschooling mom, there were already so many other things I was making him do (math!), that piano practice fell to the very bottom of the enforcement schedule. I gave up. He quit practicing, I quit asking.
Then he started playing on his own. He would listen to things on my ipod and mimic them on the piano. We had a ClearNote Songbook printed out, and he would attempt the melody and chords. He would listen to me play something and then sit down and try it himself. After watching him teach himself, and enjoy doing it, I revamped the way we do lessons.
He still has a method book (I heartily recommend Faber and Faber, and he’s using the Accelerated Piano Adventures because he’s a little older than a traditional beginner), but he moves through it at his own pace. He reads the concepts at the top of the page, asks if he has questions, and then works on it himself. When he thinks he’s mastered it, he asks me to come listen. I have several things I’m listening for: steady rhythm (sometimes I’ll have him count out loud just to make sure he can), attention to dynamics, rests, pedal markings, articulation, and general musicality. If he does well, he gets to move on. Sometimes he only spends 15 minutes on a piece before getting to move on, sometimes it’s much longer.
As far as technique goes, I’m taking an (educationally) Classical approach. He is learning scales. Right now he’s learning majors, parallel and contrary motion, one octave, going around the circle of fifths. He has no idea what this means, but I’m making him spend 5 minutes a day on scales, making sure that his hand position is good and his notes are solid. Once he masters majors, we will move on to two octaves, the various minors, and maybe arpeggios at some point in the distant future. This technique work will build the foundation later for any music theory that he wants to do, and the knowledge of all those scales will be the foundation that he builds everything else off of. It doesn’t take much time now, and the payoff in the future will be huge.
This system has worked wonders for us. I’m only heavy handed about the 5 minutes of scales a day. All the rest is completely up to him. Some days, he practices for 2 hours, mastering several songs for me to hear. Others days, he skips it entirely and plays outside instead. I know it’s not the most orthodox approach, but what I love about it is that he is learning to love the piano. I have no desire for him to be a professional musician–I want him to be comfortable and confident with music, and use it for relaxation and enjoyment.
One of his favorite things to do right now, when he’s got a few minutes to fill, it to sit down and pull out a book of hymn arrangements that he’s learned. He will open it up, then find the same hymn with the verses in the hymnal, and line them up side by side. He’ll sing and accompany himself through all the verses in the hymnal. I don’t think it’s possible to tell you what joy this brings me. This is what I want music to be in our house: a tool to enjoy, to worship God with, and to bless those around us. He’s off to a good start.