Teaching My Own Children To Play Piano

Whenever I tell people that I give piano lessons to my own daughters, the most common response is any combination of joy and curiosity, such as, “That’s great that you are able to do that! I’ve known many parents who weren’t as lucky – what’s your secret?” Many ask me about what I do during lessons and what I expect from my kids during lessons. The first part of my response is usually exactly the kind of response they expect: “I treat them exactly the same during lessons as I treat all of my other students.” The second part of my response is not expected even though it seems obvious with 20-20 hindsight: the biggest part of my success teaching my kids has to do not with the 1 hour per week that I teach them, but with the other hours per week that I help them practice and the even more hours during the rest of the week that I’m parenting them.

First, let’s discuss the part of the article that everyone probably expects will be 7 pages long, but in reality, it is the simplest and shortest part to describe.

The Teacher Hat

hndspoWhen I say I treat my children the same as all other students, I really mean it. I don’t teach them whenever it’s convenient; they’re in my Google Calendar just the same as all of my other students. They come in at their assigned times with books in their book bags. I give them all the same types of goals written in the notebook, and I give them praise whenever possible. They can’t wear pajamas to lessons on days when there is no school. I ask them how their week of practicing went even though I usually have a pretty good idea what they’re going to say before they say it. When I hand out newsletters to students, I give the newsletter to my daughters to “go give to their mother after their lesson” just like I do with my other students. I do not photocopy music for my kids just because it’s now my pocketbook that has to shell out money for sheet music. I buy them their own books that they can use to build their own music libraries, just like they would if they studied with someone else1. And if they give me attitude during their lesson, I threaten to call their parents. Just kidding about that last one. Everything that can possibly be the same is the same.

Perhaps less obviously, I put myself into the same emotional and mental state of mind when they walk in. I talk no differently to them than I would to someone else’s child. What that means is that I don’t let familiarity with my own kids stop me from speaking with the same very high level of courtesy that I use in dealing with others’ kids. It’s easier to become negative with kids we are extremely comfortable with, and I believe this happens when we take our teacher hat off during the lesson and temporarily replace it with our parent hat. We must constantly be consciously aware of the idea that familiarity breeds contempt, and make sure this familiarity is not tainting our behavior in any way. I’ve caught myself doing this a few times, but I’ve generally been very good about making sure parenting does not occur during the lesson. Parenting occurs outside of the lesson. For me, keeping my teacher hat on during lessons is the easy part, but I suspect this might be the most difficult part for some.

Update on 2/8/13: One example that can be challenging is the case when the student and parent have one of those “difficult” practice weeks. When we teach a student who is not our child and the student shows good progress, we still give the student praise and stickers all the same, even if 95% of the progress made wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for the parent’s persistence. I also recognize parents for their hard work, and there is nothing in my heart but joy over the progress of the parent and student together. If the parent indicates frustration (we can all remember when we’ve said to the student, “Great job on that goal this week,” and the parent interjects with a moan and a glare at the student, “Mmmm, after 3 days of stubborn resistance…”), I tell the student how lucky he is to have a parent who is so good at helping him practice, and that he’s going to get ahead of other kids because of this. Then I have the student promise not to give mom or dad trouble in practicing – they must do everything they’re told. But when we (the teacher) are the parent, it can be tempting not to give the student the positive reinforcement they might have received with a teacher who didn’t have an omniscient (and more importantly, personal) view of the practice that week, because we can still feel the parental frustration that built up over the week. Compartmentalizing this frustration can be difficult. Again, I try to do what I’d do with anyone else. I congratulate my child on the wonderful progress, and then I tell my child she’s lucky to have such a completely and utterly cool parent who is so freaking awesome at helping them achieve progress week after week. Ok, so perhaps my treatment here is a little different than with other students, but how can I pass up an opportunity to make my kids laugh?

As an extreme example of a complete failure in this department, a former student of mine began her studies with me at an old age. She had lessons from her mother at a young age, then finally quit after a few years of emotional abuse from her mother. It took her decades (and her mother’s death) to be able to study piano under the direction of any authority figure. I learned that I had to be very careful to always give her suggestions in the most humble way, since she was much more likely to follow a suggestion than a mandate. Part of this was surely due to the fact that this student was a bit on the stubborn side and tended to greatly overestimate her skill level, but more of it was due to the psychological baggage created by her mother. Most likely, my student’s mother (who was obviously a very negative person in the first place) never took off the overbearing parent hat while teaching. Maybe my student never even got to have a formal “lesson” each week, but instead was subjected to daily yelling at the piano with no end or rewarding goals in sight. A weekly lesson with a positive, uplifting teacher just might have been all my student needed as a child to get her through each week of abuse.

The other part of this simple equation is how my children treat me during lessons. Do they treat me the same as they would treat any other teacher, or at least as they would treat me if I weren’t their father? Maybe not totally, but definitely mostly, by far. I recently caught one of my daughters complaining in her lesson about something (don’t remember what). I immediately corrected this by pointing out to her that she never would have talked that way to her 2nd grade school teacher, and I deserve to get the same respect from her that she gives to any other teacher. She was very receptive to this, clearly feeling bad about her mistake, and she has been great ever since.

I fully acknowledge that nature probably plays a considerable role as it seems to with most things, but I really must point more to the part of the article that is coming up. For most students, good parenting is what primarily facilitates success in the parent-teaching-child relationship. Good parenting will lead to good kids, and good kids will respond well when their parent takes on a teaching role. I realize that this sounds self-complimentary, but it’s the truth. Had I not become a parent, I believe I still would have come to the same conclusion through witnessing the role that good and bad parenting plays in the success of students.

The Parent Hat

I believe the single most important element in successful teaching of any children (your own children or not) is effective practice facilitation, and the single most important element in effective practice facilitation is effective parenting. We can say or do whatever we want in our kids’ lessons, but if practice facilitation isn’t there or isn’t effective, the student and parent are in for a very bumpy road (more likely a dead end).

While it was important for the teacher to take off the parent hat during lessons, it’s not as important for a parent to take off the teacher hat during practicing. Remember that many of our students’ parents are musical themselves, and this musicianship always helps the student progress even faster. I don’t mean to suggest that we give students a formal lesson every day – that would be ridiculous. But it would be more ridiculous for us to simulate being parents who know nothing about teaching music while our kids practice. The key for any teacher or practice facilitator to remember is that their ultimate goal should be to make themselves obsolete – to make the student a truly independent learner one day. That is why good teachers and good practice facilitators 1) only stop the student when a problem has clearly gone undetected, and 2) only tell the student how to most effectively address the problem if it is clear the student doesn’t know.

Worse, in the early beginning years, students make tons of mistakes, and they detect almost none of them. That is why parents of young children have a far more difficult job when they facilitate practicing than the job teachers have when they teach. When I teach a student for one hour each week, my job is simply to make sure the student knows what to work on that week and how to work on it. But parents are faced with the daily chore of making sure the practice is carried out regularly and efficiently. This is draining, especially for young students (ages 4-8) who hate to work so much, and doubly so when one is trying to help two or three children practice in this age range (the parent now has an exhausting part-time job). This is the time during which parents must teach kids that practicing isn’t about having fun; it’s about making progress which in turn creates far more fun and excitement than fleeting pleasures gained by practicing inefficiently or procrastinating. That is why I dreaded the first 12-18 months of piano lessons with my daughters, and why I dread the same thing when my son is five and a half. I look forward to becoming his teacher, but I do not look forward to becoming his practice facilitator.

Facilitating practicing of our children is already difficult enough under good parenting. It becomes next to impossible with bad parenting. What is effective parenting? We all have our own definitions of course, but I will share my opinion about it, whatever it’s worth.

Good Parenting

Good parenting is too many things to list, but I can at least point out the element that is of absolutely critical concern: raising obedient children. A disobedient child will turn practice sessions into a living nightmare for parents. I think this is because so much of what practice facilitators must do is demand things that their children don’t think are necessary, such as taking a tempo that is slower than the child thinks is necessary to get something correct, repeating a passage 3 or 5 more times than the child thinks they need to do (i.e. the child thinks getting it correct once or twice is surely enough), counting out loud when the child thinks that counting in their head (or just “feeling the beat”) should be sufficient, etc. So much of what constitutes effective practicing goes against the extremely short-sighted senses and limited experiences of children. So, let’s talk about obedience, beginning with exactly what it is and what it isn’t.

  • If we have to count to two and three-quarters before a child does what we want, this is disobedience. If we ask our child to do something and they do it slowly or only after a long delay, this is disobedience. If our child complains while complying, this is disobedience.  Obedience isn’t just doing what we ask: it’s doing what we ask immediately and with a happy (or at least pleasant) heart. Obedience isn’t about raising brainless soldiers who follow orders without question. It’s about ensuring that our kids will respect the one source of instruction in their lives that is guaranteed to always have their absolute best interest at heart, especially in times when it really counts (such as when not listening to parents puts them in danger). I don’t remind them to pick up their toys if I already asked them to. They face appropriate consequences immediately. If they disobey in a way that is “cute”, I don’t laugh it off and then forget about it, which I’ve seen from a lot of parents. When people do this, they are focusing on the pleasure they derive from their child’s misbehavior – or perhaps trying to cope with public embarrassment. Either way this is a selfish, inner-looking focus rather than a focus on the child’s long-term psychological and emotional health.
  • The word discipline has the same root as disciple, both related to teaching. The purpose of discipline is not to punish for the sake of punishment (a sense of “justice”); it is to teach. Consequences should always be chosen with this in mind. After a child has gone through consequences, don’t forget to explain to the child what they could have done differently and why they should have done differently. This changes a child’s heart. Punishment void of explanation only has the effect of changing outward behavior without necessarily changing the underlying heart that caused the behavior. (This is why I personally have a harder time with toddlers – they don’t have the cognitive abilities to understand many explanations, so I think it is more difficult to keep discipline heart-oriented.)
  • Make your children aware in advance of certain boundaries and consequences. There isn’t much that is more disheartening to a child than to get punished for doing something they simply didn’t know was wrong, or for being punished more severely than they were led to expect. Also make sure consequences are not a negative force in their lives. For example, not allowing your child to read books should probably never be a consequence no matter what they do since reading is such a good thing for them.
  • Always follow through. Always. Always. The most common example I see of failure to follow through occurs in public situations, because the parent wants to avoid embarrassment by not “creating a scene.” Unfortunately, this only makes it worse. A child very quickly learns that rules are different when in public, and misbehaving in public can become routine for these kids. Remember that a little embarrassment now is better than endless embarrassment later. If we are exhausted after a long day at work and our child needs medicine, we still give our child medicine for their physical health. If we are sitting in the front row of an audience and our child makes noise even after we ask the child to be quiet, we should pick them up and take them outside, even if it causes the child to scream. The psychological/emotional health of children should be no less of a priority than their medical health.

The ultimate goal of parenting is to make sure our children are taught how to lead happy and productive lives, but many parents focus so much on their own happiness that they forget to do their job. Kids need boundaries, consequences, and consistency (BCCthis acronym will only have a double meaning for e-mail nerds). Kids love to live in a world that is consistent, organized and predictable, which is why BCC is one of the things that makes kids feel loved. Raising obedient children is not something that is done best by a cold, militaristic family – it is done best by a warm, loving family.

There are some rare exceptions, but the vast majority of 6- and 7-year-olds hate to work! Piano lessons give students far greater challenges than what they receive at school in purely academic study. Kids at that age simply do not understand the need for isolation, drilling, going slow, counting out loud, tapping rhythms, and so many other practice techniques that make more sense to adults. Without the key element of loving and trusting obedience, the rapport you build with your child would likely not be strong enough to persevere when the child inevitably goes through a phase where they don’t want to dig into the art of efficient practicing because “it’s too hard” and would instead rather play through all of their pieces the same every day, week after week, making little or no progress at all.

What to Expect, What to Gain

I would guess that probably 90-95% of all kids will experience tears at home at some point in their beginning years, perhaps many times with some children, before they finally snap out of it and permanently welcome (or at least accept) the discipline required to practice effectively every day. There are many parents out there, and even more teachers (those who don’t have kids), who don’t realize that tears are often a good thing. How terrible do we feel when we get pulled over for a speeding ticket? When we get caught doing something we know we shouldn’t have done, or when we simply don’t want to do something that would benefit us, we can be driven to tears, just as children are when they are mandated to play the 4 measures correctly 5 more times, or when we add 10 minutes to their practice timer because they just spent 1 minute complaining and arguing. (If things get really bad, I have the child sit on the couch and calm down, then we resume practicing after that. There is no getting out of practicing, but I also don’t want them to practice while very upset.) Some parents simply don’t have what it takes to push through these tears, especially for more stubborn children. They become short-sighted and think that the short-term displeasure isn’t worth the long-term gain, perhaps they don’t even have the foresight to see the gain at all, or perhaps both parents work and neither parent has the considerable emotional energy it takes to be a practice facilitator each day. Some parents incorrectly equate tears on the part of their children as some kind of childhood “abuse”, when in fact it would be far more abusive to let the child’s out-of-control emotions win yet another battle, sending the child the clear message that emotional outbursts get them what they want in life.

Unfortunately, most kids who don’t have proper support during practicing time are doomed to quit, because they will inevitably make very slow progress (if they make any progress at all), and the frustration will intensify over the years until finally it’s just not worth it anymore. Even as good as I feel my kids are, both of my daughters still went through the same phases at the ages of 7-8 (1-2 years after starting lessons) that it seems every one of my students goes through at home with their parents, when they really resisted my help as a parent. This has almost nothing to do with the teacher – it all rests on the parent’s shoulders. Some parents might be tempted to say, “Fine, I won’t ever help you again.” This is the worst thing we can do. The best thing we can do is to send our kids the message very quickly that practicing is just as much a required “chore” as doing homework or walking to school, and they simply aren’t mature enough yet to refuse help in practicing. This message may need to be sent over the course of years, but if the message is firm and consistent, it shouldn’t need to be sent too frequently.

Ultimately, my relationship with my children is closer because of teaching them. When they receive praise in their lessons each week, it has double the meaning coming from a teacher who is also their parent. They know I don’t give them special treatment above other students, so they know the praise means something, and all the more meaning when it comes from a special person in their lives who they so deeply wish to please. Praise in lessons each week is probably my favorite part of teaching them, with witnessing successful recital performances (and the pride they show for it) being a close second.

Financially, it is a double-edged sword: while I don’t have to pay anyone else to teach my children like everyone else has to, it does take up permanent time slots in my schedule, and when my son is old enough to start lessons, this pro bono time chunk will be 3 hours per week, which is more pro bono time than I’ve ever given before (it has usually been between 1-2 hours in my schedule). Considering that I would have paying students in those time slots if my kids weren’t there, teaching them doesn’t really save any money, although perhaps it puts me in a lower tax bracket. But I don’t see this as a choice, because I have something great to give to my kids that goes way beyond all the normal gifts parents impart to their kids. It is cliché to say that someone will always be “in here” after they die (pointing to our hearts), but long after I’m gone, music itself – which already gives us such great joy on its own – will connect us and touch them forever.

(c) 2013 Cerebroom

  1. I also don’t have them share books – they each have their own books to work from, but that’s my preference. I want each of them to be able to take all the music they ever learned with them once they move out.

About Chad

Chad is a pianist, composer, piano teacher and blogger with a Masters Degree in Piano Performance. He received the 2005 Nevada Arts Council Fellowship Grant for the composing and performing on his Ostinato CD.
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7 responses to Teaching My Own Children To Play Piano

  1. I think obedience is tricky. I allow my children to be disobedient but not disrespectful. I welcome objections to my commands, because sometimes they have legitimate reasons for not doing what I ask immediately. However, to refuse means they have to have a reason and they have to convince me. This also works for getting “stuff”: If they want a new toy, or a new game, or a new anything, they have to convince me that they deserve it. Christmas and birthdays notwithstanding, this has worked well so far. The point is, for older children who can begin to understand reasoning and logic, allowing them to speak up and disagree is an important skill. Otherwise, it is too easy to quietly object to a situation out of fear of being “disobedient”. I see people all the time at work who strongly disagree with something but won’t speak up about it, and they end up getting walked on, bullied, and forced into situations they hate. My parents expected obedience when I was young, and only welcomed debate when I was older. My inability to speak up cost me many missed opportunities and some significant heartaches. I’ve been developing the skill as an adult, but I’m trying to cultivate the skill in my children.

    This person offers a similar viewpoint:

    Respectful disobedience is fine. Disrespectful tones and actions are not tolerated in our house, and immediately lead to consequences.

    A scenario of this happened to us in a McDonalds PlayPlace. Some boy wore his shoes into the slide area and was stepping on other childrens’ fingers and pushing them around. Even though he was older and bigger than my son, my son was the only one to speak up. When the boy pushed my son down, he got back up and punched him. I said nothing, allowing this situation to work itself out (as long as nobody was going to get seriously injured). The other boy’s father stood up and immediately started screaming at my son (ignoring all of the terrible behavior from his own son and all of the tears from other children who had since left). I snapped around and told him plainly that one more word from him would result in a punch in the face, and I promised that it would be significantly more painful than what my boy had done to his. I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful, I simply stated a fact. This man then had a decision to make; continue yelling at my son and get hurt, or stop yelling at my son and talk to *me* in a reasonable tone. Instead, he grabbed his son and left in a flustered state. I congratulated my boy for standing up for himself, but also told him that in situations like that it’s probably a better idea to get a parent involved before it comes to punches. I don’t know how much of that he understands yet, but at least he understands that I will always support him when he stands up for himself and that neither of us will allow other people to disrespectfully force their will upon us.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment. We definitely agree that there is a certain amount of sense that applies to the concept of obedience (knowing when, where and for whom to demonstrate it). The obedience I learned was more a matter of respecting what my parents expected of me, and that’s what this article promotes. That is why I still immediately obey my mother if she tells me to help her, while in high school, I threatened to go to the principal of the school if a teacher didn’t fix the unfair grade she gave my grammar assignment. I would argue that other kids who don’t stand up aren’t necessarily “obedient” kids – sometimes they’re insecure kids, shy kids, fearful kids, apathetic kids, or any number of other things that can cause kids to not speak up when they should.

      I also think society attaches a negative connotation to the idea of obedience because of things like slavery, wedding vows in certain denominations, getting everyday people to participate in genocide because of obedience, etc. And, after all, disobedience is how democracy comes about, so we naturally live in a culture that gives great recognition to the virtue of civil disobedience. But it would be unfair to the principle of obedience (which is closely related to respect, as you know) for us to treat obedience as a vice just because too much of it isn’t good. There are many virtues that can turn bad when taken too far – love can turn into unhealthy obsession. Too much loyalty can lead to corruption.

      There isn’t really any research out there that proves one way or the other about obedience – it’s just a bunch of people with opinions and blog posts, like me! I would be very interested to see a long-term study that shows results of obedience training alongside a control group. My gut tells me that the ones with obedience training will be better off, because I do believe that obedience serves us in more numerous positive ways than the negative ones. It’s like plane travel – it’s the safest way to travel, but many people are afraid of it because of the horror stories. Obedience is an overwhelmingly positive thing, and we really don’t hear much about it when it is done right… but we sure hear about it when it goes wrong!

    • I want to expand on one more thing – the fact that our democracy was born of civil disobedience and that disobedience is such an integral part of our society. Consider the bumper sticker that I saw a long time ago and have always remembered: “Be different – conform.” The only way it is possible for such a bumper sticker to even be funny is if one lives in a culture saturated with disobedience. This bumper sticker wouldn’t be funny – and therefore wouldn’t even exist – in places like North Korea, China, or or even South Korea. So much of the disobedience we learn is from society itself, whether from television (everything from Mulan 2 to 24 – in fact nearly every good movie or show I can think of involves some form of disobedience that is necessary for good to prevail) or from school itself (I first learned the term “civil disobedience” in school, not from my parents). What I’m suggesting here is that maybe, just maybe, we don’t need to be taught how to disobey at home? Maybe we already learn plenty of it elsewhere.

  2. Michela

    A fantastic article here; thanks for sharing! I am storing in my memory the way you have explained some of the points about supporting their children as “practice facilitators” to discuss with parents.

  3. Anonymous

    Thank you for writing such a comprehensive article. I was very successful teaching my own children, and did many of the things you have articulated.

  4. Lynn

    This is an old post, so I am not sure if you will see this, but I wanted to see if you know if it is possible to successfully transition from “mom is teaching piano” to “Teacher Mom is teaching piano.” I started teaching my son a year ago after he turned 5, and I’ve kept my Mom Hat on because I’ve been pregnant/nursing a new baby/taking care of 4 kids age 6 and under, and having a formal teaching time has just not been an option. However, my son is doing fairly well given his temperament and age, and he gets up every morning before school and practices his music without instigation from me, which I am pretty happy with considering he’s 6.

    It will be a couple years before I will be done having tiny babies around, and at that point, I want to transition from Mom Teaching to Teacher Mom–more your style. Do you have any recommendations for taking on a more formal approach slowly so that it’s not a huge problem for me and the kid(s)? I am planning on starting informal lessons with my daughter when she turns 5, with some improvements because I’ve learned from making mistakes with my son.

    Any help would be appreciated!

    • I have always found the “teacher” part of my “father-teacher” job to be the easiest. I think the key is to treat your kids exactly the same as other students, including how they enter the studio. Shoes on, books in hand, same entrance as other students, in your regular schedule (before/after other students), etc. For me there was no transition – from day one, my kids were “brought” into my studio (the converted garage at that time) by the nanny at lesson time. My kids saw me as their teacher. The difficult part of course is the parent part: any parent who has helped their kids practice and instrument knows it can sometimes be the most difficult part of parenting! Kids do not want to work by nature – they just want to play from beginning to end, and even when they’ve been taught how to properly practice, they just don’t want to do it, so they need constant monitoring and correcting at home. Frustration is almost inevitable when, for the 78th time, the parent has to remind the child to actually work on whatever goal(s) are written rather than just playing through without thought to changing anything.

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