Getting a child to practice a musical instrument isn’t always easy, as many know, either from their own experience as children or with children of their own. When L. was in second grade last year, he had the opportunity to begin piano lessons right at school, taking a 30-minute lesson once a week from one of the music teachers. We asked the bare minimum of him to practice at home: 15 minutes each day. Compared to the amount of time he could spend playing outside or with toys, going through a level of a video game, or reading, it was truly a drop in the bucket. V. and I have watched him progress from absolute beginner, to performing in two school recitals last year, and making it all the way through his first instructional books. V. never studied music; I played the flute from 5th grade through high school and now play occasionally, usually to accompany L. as he plays his weekly songs. Piano, though, is a pretty foreign object to everyone in the family except L., and I don’t think he realizes the significance of that yet. He can do something better than anyone else in his family, and he is seven and a half. I think that’s pretty special. I can read music, so I’m able to help him here and there, and I have been able to pluck out the tune to some favorites just by figuring out the notes myself, but I can’t read the bass clef notes and I have never tried to play with two hands at once. Maybe I can get L. to teach me!
Back to his practice: sometimes there are tears. There are complaints about it not being fun. There are desperate cries of “Mommyyyyy! Now?????”. I know from my experience and his, that “later” almost never happens, so if it’s time to practice piano, it’s time to practice piano. V. and I try to encourage him by reminding him that it is a great privilege to study a musical instrument, that what he plays sounds good to us, that we can hear him improving each time, that it’s something that can bring joy to others, and that it’s something he can do all his life! This is little consolation most of the time.
One thing that helps him get happily through his time practicing is changing the setting on the keyboard to “pipe organ” instead of “grand piano”. I’m not sure what sparked this interest in the sound of the organ (possibly the Count on Sesame Street from his preschool days?), but he has said that he likes things to sound sort of spooky. I grew up attending a church with a beautifully crafted and beautifully played pipe organ, so it is a pleasant sound to me, but there’s something a little strange about hearing the sound of that grand instrument playing “Yankee Doodle”. But we let him choose this setting without making too many comments, because it’s something that makes the practicing cheerier.
Just this past week, L. discovered something else that helps the time pass more quickly. He started singing along to the songs that had words in his lesson books. At first, I didn’t think much beyond the amusement factor, but as I thought about what I was hearing, I realized that this was something of a milestone in his musical learning. He had gotten the hang of playing the tunes well enough to divert his attention to singing! He kept the right tempo and played the notes accurately. His pitch when singing wasn’t perfect, but he didn’t falter in keeping in time with the music. Now, before anyone thinks we gather around the keyboard to sing hymns, or Christmas carols, or even classic children’s songs, I believe there is some humility and humor in the first two songs to which he sang along: one is about a Thanksgiving turkey, and one is about a singing donkey. In the latter song, there is an entire line with the words “Hee-haw” with appropriately discordant notes. Pipe organ + “hee-haw” = more fun than piano practice has ever been!
I’m willing to let him be outside of the box in this case, because it is bringing him happiness instead of grumbling when it’s time to practice. Behind every brilliant musical performance are hours and hours of practice, repetition, and more practice. Even if he never gets to that level of commitment to piano, I know he is beginning to realize how much work goes into becoming good at almost anything–which is doubly good for a kid for whom almost everything academic has come pretty easily. I also know he is seeing how a little imagination and good sense of humor can make many things more enjoyable. I hope he is seeing that his performances for our family are truly a blessing, and I hope he sticks with piano for a long time (and plays the donkey song for us every now and then just for fun)! Hee haw.