As any parent who home-schools could probably tell you, making the transition from being your child's parent to being their teacher is a potentially tricky one. While my kids are not home-schooled, there is one aspect of their education I am conducting on the homefront: their musical education. Yes, they still have music class (for perhaps 20 minutes a week) at their public school. I was excited, however, to pass on what I learned through 10 years of piano lessons.

 

As my mother once told me, the piano is a great instrument to start on because you can learn music theory basics, play melody and harmony without needing other instruments to accompany you, and pianos can be found just about everywhere (and I found this to be true - other people's homes, nursing homes, youth camps, etc. all have pianos somewhere, albeit gathering dust in many places). I began piano lessons at age 8, and I remember feeling a bit behind friends who had begun earlier. Yet I liked learning this musical second language and I worked hard at practicing at home so I could earn a sticker on each song from my teacher. There are the not-so-fun memories, too, like the embarrassment of having to play for her when I hadn't practiced much (or at all) in a given week and didn't pass any songs. And I'd rather forget how she kept a nail clippers on top of the piano so she could cut your nails if she thought they were tapping too much on the keys!

For the most part, though, I fondly remember my after school lessons and now I realize what a great treasure an instrument really is - you learn the valuable lesson of not giving up but continuing to persevere in practice even when a new skill is hard to master, you come to appreciate music itself, pounding the keys is a healthy outlet for your emotions, as is playing a tune that echoes the sentiments in your soul. At my loneliest times, finding a piano available to play on was a great comfort. I remember that during a college summer internship thousands of miles from home, in the midst of missing my boyfriend (now hubby), sounding out Richard Marx's "Right Here Waiting" and playing and singing that in my condo community's common room and crying at the same time was such a catharsis!


I digress. Anyway, as I've begun teaching Helena and James to play piano, it's been an interesting musical journey.

We began in September as school was gearing up, and penciled lessons in the calendar for Sunday afternoons. The kids, who are 5 and 7, have been faithfully practicing before school and even on weekends as part of their morning routine. They probably average 10-15 minutes of practice time, which I don't always think is enough, but it's manageable for them, and the early songs are basic enough that that amount of time is probably reasonable.

We've been using the Alfred piano series (my old books in fact) and are about half-way through the Level 1A books at the moment. It's a fun trip down memory lane for me to use my old materials, and even though I haven't played in quite a while, it's like riding a bike - I sit down and my fingers just seem to remember what they're supposed to do. I also have my music flashcards from the series, so the kids practice with those. Since I had completed my Theory books way back when, I've been finding similar exercises on the Internet and printing off those worksheets for the kids to complete. I've done a few in packet form, but that seems to overwhelm them and they spend so much time on their worksheets that they don't have time to play their songs. So sticking to one a week seems to work better.

We've also been using the Cascio keyboard my in-laws generously gave me for Christmas one year, which has keys that are easy to push down, so that part is helpful for small and weak fingers. However, we're looking forward to moving my parents' piano here over the holidays, so the kids will then have all eight octaves to learn on, plus pedals for when they get that far. I also think having the piano on the main level, rather than using the keyboard in the basement, will facilitate frequent practice. Their fingers will get stronger, too, and practicing dynamics should be easier. Thank you Mom and Dad!

Being your child's piano teacher is wonderful in that you get to see your kids experience something you fondly remember and still enjoy as an adult. You have the knowledge that, as I've mentioned, this is a skill worth having. Learning piano was a great help when I began singing in the school choir in 7th grade (and I've continued singing in different worship bands, choirs, etc. until the present day). The kids, however, do not have that knowledge and appreciation, so sticking it out when it seems challenging is hard for them. My daughter seems to have inherited my perfectionistic tendencies - she wants to pass all her songs, and if there's one she messes up on too much and doesn't pass, she's likely to break down and refuse to go on, etc. I often give her a "do-over" or two, but often it's clear that she just hasn't practiced it enough. It also took her a while to get used to me being in the room when she played - she said it made her nervous, but I reminded her that if she was performing before an audience, her first shot would be her last, so it's important to learn to play under a little pressure. We've had a lot of talks about the importance of practicing during the week, and that music skills build because music is very mathematical - and if she hasn't mastered one skill and I pass her along to the next song, it will be that much harder to learn because it will require that previous (and unmastered) skill plus a new skill. I also find myself reminding her that in this role I am her teacher - and if she wouldn't throw a tantrum or quit when doing schoolwork in her class at school, then she shouldn't be doing it at home during a piano lesson, either.

The kids are very competitive with each other, too - they check with each other after their lessons about who passed which songs, and we've had to have conversations about supporting each other rather than bragging if they've done better than the other. I try to keep the emphasis on individual accomplishment rather than competition, but siblings will always be rivals, it seems. I am striving to keep them at roughly the same place in their books, partly so one doesn't get too far ahead and make the other feel like a failure, but also so that I don't lose track of where I'm at in teaching them. Time is also easy to lose track of while conducting lessons - setting a timer for thirty minutes has helped me give them more equitable instruction and still have some of my afternoon left when we're finished.

Both of my children love music, and this seems to carry them over the difficulty of the necessity of practice. It is precious to see my son's head bobbing along to the beat as he mentally (and sometimes audibly) counts out how long to hold each note. For a five-year-old who hasn't been formally taught, he is a fairly good reader, so since many of these songs have lyrics, he likes to sing along once he's mastered the tune. Also, since they are just past learning their alphabet and numbers, Helena and James have been excited to learn that notes have letters assigned to them as well, and they like counting out the values of eighth, quarter, half, and whole notes, dotted notes, etc.

Beginning in November, I busted out the Level 1 Christmas book, to many hoorays from both children. Playing songs they actually know has really motivated them and helped them along the way, especially since the later Christmas book songs incorporate skills from further along in the Lesson Book where they haven't gotten to yet, such as sharps, flats, and rests. So I've given them a brief introduction to those as well. They have tried out their performance skills on their grandparents and are happily anticipating playing this coming weekend at our family Christmas party. I haven't set it up as a true recital - I don't want them to feel like trained monkeys. But if they decide they want to play a bit - for a few people or for everyone - it's a great opportunity to learn to keep going even if you mess up a little bit, and to show off all you've learned.

Being your child's teacher is a challenge, as you strive to balance firmness and compassion, to figure out what will keep them motivated yet bring out their best effort. I am finding it rewarding, however, for them and myself. After all, a parent can't really avoid being a teacher - our children are watching our every move all the time and imitating us, flaws and all. At least this is one area where I'm happy if they desire to follow in my footsteps!

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