practice makes perfect

There are two things my kids don't have a choice about learning: swimming and music. They have to learn to swim for their own safety - they should be comfortable in the water - and also because it's good, smart exercise. Music should seem obvious; since music is my profession, I want them to have good, basic knowledge of it growing up. It's kind of like when people move to a different country and they want to make sure to raise their kids with the language and culture they themselves grew up with so the kids don't see the parents as total foreigners. It's not exactly like that, but sort of. Even if neither of my kids grows up to be a musician, and I really don't have expectations one way or the other, I want them to have some knowledge of and respect for what I do.

Daniel started piano lessons last June, the day after school was out. I found him a really good teacher who lives nearby, and so far things are going well. He loves lessons and is happy to practice every morning before school. (He's often too tired or too busy playing with friends or in his fort to practice willingly after school.) Two weeks ago, he played three short pieces in a studio recital in front of other students and their families, and it all went very smoothly. He wasn't even nervous.

This last week, though, we hit a bit of a bump in the road. One of his assigned pieces was harder than he expected, and he - and I! - had to figure out the best way to handle his frustration. Now, my child is no prodigy, but he's smart enough and enthusiastic enough about piano that until this week, he hadn't encountered any piece or exercise that he couldn't figure out in one or two practice sessions. But there was just something about this particular piece that had him stumped.

Ordinarily, I don't sit down to practice with Daniel unless he wants me to play the teacher's duet part. In fact, the more I stay out of his hair while he's practicing, the better. Of course, I heap plenty of praise on him when he's playing well. But I don't correct his mistakes unless he asks my opinion, and even then, if I point out any errors, he gets mad at me.  But I am a stubbornly independent learner, and so is he, so the two of us sitting at the piano bench together is a volatile combination. He does not welcome my input.

Then this  week we had the piece that was a Major (yuk yuk) Source of Frustration. He kept messing up the rhythm in one particular measure, and for some reason couldn't hear the mistake. He asked for my help, then refused to listen and yelled at me when I tried to help him. He stomped his little feet when he couldn't get it right. He threatened to quit playing the song (he didn't go so far as threatening to quit piano all together...yet). I told him that I have music that frustrates me too, when I can't play it right even after going over it hundreds of times. I showed him every practice technique I could think of, and once he stopped throwing fits and started listening to me, and more importantly, to his own playing, he finally started getting it right.

It's not quite there yet. If he's not concentrating really hard, the original rhythmic mistakes creep back in. Today, though, there was definite progress, and I think he can tell.

Every piano student goes through this, usually multiple times. You're sailing along on the easy beginner music, then some new concept or technique throws you for a loop and suddenly wham!, you have to really concentrate and practice over and over (and over!) to get it right, and until you do, music isn't so much fun. In my experience, when this happens kids like Daniel for whom reading and math and everything in school isn't particularly challenging (yet), the idea that they will have to work really hard to learn something is a difficult pill to swallow.

So yeah. I guess learning music teaches some valuable life lessons, too.


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