Teach a piano student to play a song, and they have a song to play. Teach a piano student how to practice, and they can learn to play anything!
Playing vs Practicing
The first thing to know about practicing the piano is that it’s a little different from playing the piano. If your child sits down to the piano, plays a few old songs from start to finish without trying to improve anything about them, then goes off to do something else, that’s playing, not practicing. While you want to encourage this kind of free play at the piano, you need to make sure that thoughtful, focused practicing is happening too. For focused, quality practicing, look for 3 things:
- Goal oriented (“I’m going to play this line 5x with no missed notes.”)
- Improvement oriented (“I’m working on playing this piece with more expression.”)
- Alert and focused mental state (“I’ve got my game face on!”)
What do you do if you need to steer your child toward higher quality practice? I suggest doing it gradually, not all at once. Sit down and try for just five minutes to do some focused practice. Start with a positive comment, like, “Great, you can play this song. Now let’s see if you can do this line with no missed notes.” Or use a phrase like, “I have a challenge for you,” that will catch their interest, and then set a goal for them to improve their playing.
Make the Hard Parts Easy
In every piece it seems there is one “trouble spot”. Kids usually like to gloss over these bumpy places and quickly get back to the easier parts of the song. However, I tell my students to tackle those hard places head on and “make the hard parts easy” through targeted practice. Choose just 1 or 2 measures to focus on and set a challenge to play it 10 times, no missed notes. Or sometimes I ask for 3 times or 5 times IN A ROW no missed notes. You may have to slow waaaay down, you may have to do it hands alone, but I tell my students not to be satisfied until it’s perfect. (To make this kind of goal-oriented practice more fun, try a practice game!) By the way, sometimes you would think I’ve asked a child to swallow a slug when I ask them to start in the middle of a song. They always want to play it only from the beginning. However, it is so important to learn to start anywhere in a song so you can do targeted practice. Targeted practice makes the hard parts easy!
Going to the Next Level
After your child has mastered all the notes of the song, give them a challenge to make their playing more expressive. Ask if they can play the song so soft and peaceful that you might fall asleep, or make it so exciting it could be the soundtrack to their favorite action movie. It may take a couple of years of help from you before children will spontaneously practice effectively on their own. But once they really understand how to practice, they’ll be able to learn any piano piece they set their mind to.