Become Involved with your child's piano training. Discuss with the teacher the kind and degree of your involvement that is best for your child. Should you attend lessons, if so, how often? Should you supervise/coach practice sessions, if so, how should you go about that? Communicate often with your child's teacher to monitor progress and learn what you can do to be helpful to the learning process.
What happens at the lesson is a model for what makes a good practice. The lesson notes are key to communication between the instructor and the parent/student. Refer to them to help your child organize their practice sessions. Ideally, a student’s practice time would include trying out new ideas, playing assignments as specified and having fun experimenting.
At home after the lesson- If students (adults as well as children) did the following after each lesson, they would find their progress really accelerating. After you return home, sit down with your child and play through the lesson assignment one time. This should consume 10 minutes at most. For each part of the assignment, ask your child to describe what he is supposed to do and why and then have him play it for you. This will acquaint you with what you should be hearing and how you should be hearing it, and your child will know that you are aware of precisely what the teacher has requested Should there be questions, call the teacher right away for clarification rather than let the child ignore an element of his assignment all week (or worse: do it incorrectly and later have to un-learn!).
Your child benefits in several ways from this post-lesson review. It is a tangible reminder that you support her efforts and are vitally interested in the content of what she is doing. Another benefit is that the immediate repetition of the assigned material ensures almost 100% retention of what the teacher said at the lesson. If you like, count this session as a day's practice, so your child may have "a day off" another time later in the week.
Some nuts and bolts of practice- Remember that acquisition of a skill grows through daily practice. Let your child know you consider music a serious commitment. Schedule piano practice time just as regularly as you do Little League or soccer practice. Research shows that when learning new material, maximum retention occurs if repetition--that is, practice--takes place within 24 hours or less. The retention rate is approximately 90%. If repetition does not occur until 48 hours later (skip a day of practice), the retention drops off drastically. If practice is skipped for two days, retention is virtually zero.
Your child will be very frustrated with his ability to carry out the lesson assignment at home the longer he waits between practice sessions. Therefore, daily practice will keep frustration to a minimum and increase his sense of satisfaction.
Practice seven days a week is not realistic for every student or every family. The student might like "a day off." If she practices six days a week, her tasks will be well-reinforced and one 48-hour gap will not reduce her retention significantly. (The day after or before the lesson is never a good choice for the free day.)
After assignments are completed, encourage your child to explore. Perhaps he can pick out a tune by ear, play a song he already knows but in a different way, or make up his own song. Playing an old song or two is fun; this is also a good way to reinforce your child's progress and point out that his efforts are bearing fruit: "Do you remember back at Christmas when this song was so hard for you?"
Break up practice time- If it helps, break up the practice into two 15-minute --or even three 10-minute sessions each day. With today's busy families, this often works well, particularly with a young child who is still developing his attention span. Divide the material for variety, too. For example, if there are two songs, two games, and a technique exercise, work at one song the first time and the other song at the second practice time, playing a game each session and working on half the technical material. Listening to CD’s of their lesson music allows him/her to incorporate nuances of rhythm and technique without the pressure of having to play the notes correctly and can be done at varied times throughout the day.
Consistent practice time- Many find it beneficial to practice at the same time every day. Adults find a routine helps them shoehorn in all they must do; children draw security from routine.
I tell my students that schoolwork is first priority. If there is a large assignment that evening, there may be no time for practice because schoolwork is most important. After schoolwork comes piano playing, however. When that is complete, then there's time to play outside, use the telephone, watch TV, or whatever else they'd like to do. It's important that children know that piano study falls right under schoolwork in the day's hierarchy. They should understand that some days their homework load and their piano time may preclude most or all of their playtime. Not every day, surely, but sometimes. They should understand and accept this before beginning piano studies. Of course, children may "unwind" by having a snack or changing clothes, but right after that, it's time to hit the books. No getting sidetracked with a magazine or playing with a friend.
Practice environment - Practice sessions should be as free as possible from distractions. If the piano is in the living room, limit access to that room during your child's allotted practice time. Nor should others be causing a racket elsewhere in the house. Not only is the noise itself distracting, but your child's curiosity will be piqued by the possibility that something interesting is going on elsewhere and he will be distracted and restless. Most families find that practice time for one child is a perfect homework time (or story time) for another.
Encourage often- Praise effort not just accomplishment. Even if your child isn’t learning as fast as another, in the long run, dedication determines the final result. Rewarding effort is the most proven factor in promoting hard work. Express interest in your child’s efforts, even if you are tired of hearing "Chopsticks". Facilitate performance for family and friends in relaxed settings. "Family concerts" after dinner, playing duets with another family member, or participating in the activities the teacher assigns is great fun. Professional musicians feel encouraged when others show appreciation of their music by… listening intently, telling the musician how much they enjoyed what they heard, report that the music motivated them to draw, paint, sing, write a poem, dance, cook… or that the music enabled them to relax, celebrate, process grief, feel happy…. Perhaps family members can let your young musician know that their music, performance or practice, has been appreciated in a similar way.
Avoid negative criticism. Most of us respond better to thoughtful, loving help than to criticism. If your child seems uncooperative, it may mean that they need help, support and encouragement.
Provide cultural enrichment- The experience of listening to music can add greatly to your child's appreciation for music. Go to concerts with your children. Play lesson music or professional performances in your home during meals, in the car, while doing homework, lounging…. Include classical repertoire, and also popular selections that feature the piano from any genre that appeals to you: Jazz, Oldies, Big Band, Hymns, Folk, Contemporary Sacred…
Help with the Lesson Assignment- Young children may want you to be involved directly for the entire practice session at first. Even after some months of study, your help may be needed for most of the practice time. Do not expect your child to carry out his practice entirely by himself until he is about 10 years old. (Yes, piano study is a significant commitment for the family!) Many children like to have a parent keep them company while they practice. Even if the child doesn't need your sustained participation, he may crave your presence because he's lonely in the piano room all by himself. Don't imply by words or body language that you'd rather be (or "should be") somewhere else. Use your "keeping company time" to read for pleasure, catch up on professional reading, balance the checkbook, or simply relax and enjoy your child's accomplishments. Keep suggestions or criticism to yourself. It’s the teacher’s job to work with your child to correct errors. In the future, you will look back on any time you invest in this way and feel that it was more than amply rewarded. Your child will have fond memories, too. And remember that parental involvement and commitment are vital to the child's continued interest.
Reminders- Occasionally you may have to remind your child to practice. No matter what her level of interest in music study, she is only human and some days she will want to do something else first or skip practice altogether. A regular practice time and good practice environment helps, as does an obvious interest and commitment from the parent(s).
If you constantly experience trouble inducing your child to practice (tantrums, tears, shouting), something is wrong. Your child may not have thought out the time and effort necessary for learning to play a musical instrument. Another possibility is that other factors are preventing him from feeling his effort worth his time. Perhaps a sibling is being a pest during practice time or someone is making disparaging remarks about piano study. If your child has not practiced for some reason, do not cancel lessons. If his interest in lessons is waning, discuss the problem with your child's teacher. It is likely that adjustments in practice, supervision and lessons will increase your child’s willingness to participate. If this does not improve the problem, consider changing teachers, changing instruments or looking to an alternative activity (dance, theater, painting, etc.).
Finally- Piano study isn't brain surgery. You’re not working on a patient who will die if you make an error. In fact, you can make as many errors as you like: they are gone instantaneously and you can try it again as many times as you wish. Be gentle with yourself. Piano study is not supposed to cause stress; it's supposed to release it! Don't expect to play perfectly. It very rarely happens, even to concert artists and recording stars who devote their entire lives to the study of piano performance! Even when you know a piece well, you'll drop at least 5% of the notes. Don't sweat it! Do the best you can and enjoy!