Piano: learning how to learn

Helping my son to learn piano is one of the most difficult things. My thoughts on why it is so tricky and what might help him (and me!)
Posted: Fri 23 Sep, 2016, 18:32

My Dad was awarded his Piano Grade V in 1954. I know this so precisely because I found the certificate yesterday when I was searching for some other paperwork. We used to visit him in the holidays, he would sometimes play the piano in the living room. I remember seeing him play and watching his hands confidently moving over the keys to play When I’m Sixty Four. Often though he would sit down to play when the day was over and we were in bed, and I would lie in bed listening to the music drift down the hallway. He knew we were listening and it was a wonderful way to fall asleep.

My musical accomplishments are not so impressive. I played the violin in primary school and then chucked it after a couple of years. Dispite being told I was musical and wanting to play something, I could not translate this into actually learning an instrument. I remember later on in secondary school, asking to play the clarinet and the music teacher distractedly asking me to sing the note of B, and then D, and then declaring I was simply unteachable. During my exam revision I somehow bought a Casio keyboard with earphones and played away on this for a while.

So the overwhelming feeling as an adult is that it was a missed opportunity. I had the chance to learn an instrument and I blew it. As a parent now myself, it is all too easy to translate all our regrets and missed opportunities into goals for your own children. Before long they are burdened with “activities and interests” and we expect them to succeed where we have failed. And the more we invest, be that in terms of time, money or support the higher the stakes become and the more overloaded their experience becomes. The more imporant we deem their interest to be for them, the more we want them to succeed.

So with my son learning the playing the piano, I find myself uncertain if, when or how much to help when he is struggling to play a tune. If I let him find his own way then he may not manage, and maybe this is how it should end. I sometimes wish I was a better teacher, because I really think that would help now. To encourage and support, without expecting too much or equally without helping too much and making their success artificial.

And yet learning an instrument is not easy. As this article suggests, there are many reasons why it can fail. One aspect that this article does not mention that I feel is very important is when you are encouraging your children to pick up a skill that you yourself do not have. Like playing the piano, when you don’t. This is tricky. They can reach a level very quickly where they are beyond you and then if they struggle, how do you help? As parents we end up hoping to guide and assist our children (to a certain age) but what happens when they grow beyond our own accomplishment. I guess this is part of growing up, we all out-grow our parent’s experience and have to figure it out for ourselves. When this happens we succeed or fail based on our own aptitude.

At time of writing, my son has had a tough few weeks on the piano and his teacher is grumbling. This has coincided with the summer holidays (the article says they must keep playing, and he did not!) and very little help from me. Rather than sit with him and learn the tunes together, he has been more independent and ended up hitting a wall. So I plan to resume familiarising myself with his homework to be confident of how they should sound, otherwise it is hard to help. Trying to play them myself helps me realise the effort required to master a particular piece, and shows a bit of solidarity. But he needs to figure it out himself and succeed on his own.

And I need to move into “help him help himself” mode, rather than helping him do it. Otherwise we will be doing it, not him, and he needs to learn how to learn on his own. If he enjoys it, this will be easy and he will keep on learning.