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The difficulty with Practice for younger children, and what to do about it
Muswell Hill piano teacher

The difficulty with Practice for children, and what to do about it

Finding time to practise the piano can be difficult. And just because there is theoretically the time to practise doesn't necessarily mean the first thing you'll want to do is to head over to the piano. Practice can be a delicate issue with young children, for whom the intellectual rewards of learning and improving on a new skill may not be immediately apparent or gratifying.

Parental expectation is a common motivational factor, but when children are made by parents to practise, playing the piano takes on the appearance of a chore. Combine that with the initial difficulties specific to keyboard instruments - interpreting varying note values, notes and then finding them on the keyboard almost simultaneously for two lines of music – and the initial excitement of learning the piano can very disappear if not managed properly.

Let's illustrate this in another way. A child, after perhaps three months of learning the piano, is likely to have encountered the following:

Rhythms - semibreve (4 beats), dotted-minim (3 beats), minim (2 beats), crotchet (1 beat), quaver (1/2 beat)

Right-hand notes - middle C up to G (5 notes)

Left-hand notes - middle C down to F (5 notes)

That works out to be twenty-five possible combinations of rhythms and right-hand notes, and another twenty-five possible combinations for the left hand. (Middle C semibreve, middle C dotted minim et cetera all the way down to middle C quaver, and then repeat for the other notes.)

But put hands together - and you have a staggering potential of up to 625 combinations of the above (right hand C, one beat; left hand F, half a beat) at any one time.

And only a fraction of a second to interpret the notated music, to translate from dots on lines, and then locate the notes on the piano and play them.

And repeat, repeat, repeat the process until the very end of the piece of music.

Another way of explaining the difficulty of reading notated music is this. Imagine you have a wall with coloured circles with different numbers. There are five colours, and the numbers 1 to 5. You have a piece of paper that tells you that you have to touch combinations of these numbers on the wall with both hands; perhaps Red 5 in the right, and Blue 3 in the left.

Easy? Perhaps. Now further imagine it's not two numbers together at a time, but in different combinations of timing - sometimes you'll have to hold one hand while the other hand moves. Perhaps your right hand holds Red 5, while the left hand touches Blue 3 then Yellow 2. Then right hand touches Green 1, Blue 3 and Yellow 4 while the left hand holds on Red 2.

Then further imagine that on that very piece of paper, the combinations of colours and numbers are not specifically spelt out as Red 5 or Blue 3, but represented by an animal (e.g Duck means Blue 4 in the right hand, and Cat means Yellow 3 in the left), and you have milliseconds to work the instructions out and execute two different sets of patterns on the wall.

A piece of sheet music may as well look like this:

And your parents tell you to go practise it for fifteen minutes every day, and that it is good for you.

One of the reasons why I opt for an interest-led curriculum, one that caters for the songs students know and like, is so there is more incentive to practise. It mitigates the difficulties that students initially have to deal with. Once these skills are managed fairly competently, piano playing comes more easily and children derive the rewards of music that their parents envisioned for them.

Young students following the graded ABRSM syllabus have a dilemma. The main technical requirements of twenty-four major and minor scales, as well as the additional twenty-four arpeggios are divided up over the first four grades, but at Grade 5, students have to prepare for all forty-eight. This results in an increase in the necessary amount of practice time, which for most occurs at a stage in their lives where school work is also on the rise.

Say the child started learning the piano around the age of 7 or 8. At an average rate of just over a year per exam, he or she might be preparing for grade 5 around about year 9 (13-14 years old), when their academic grades could determine whether they get their chosen GCSE options or not. And this is before the start of year 10, when GCSE exams loom over the horizon and practice time is likely to be further diminished in favour of academic study.

Some students are encouraged by parents to reach Grade 5 as they turn 11, while they are in Year 6, because this is the perceived standard for admission to a secondary school based on preferential Music ability. Unfortunately, going about Grade 5 preparation while doing countless books of SATs practice tests can take its toll on the child's motivation.

Child: "Finished my SATS revision book! Now I can relax."

Parent: "Finished your SATS revision book! Now you can practise your piano."

What can we do about it? One solution is to recognise the need to work smarter and to be more efficient with practice time.

For example, learning twenty-four arpeggios sounds like a lot. But if we look beneath the surface, we will find they are only based on four sets of fingering.

The arpeggios of C, D, E, F, G, A and B minor all have the same form of fingering. We can also add F sharp major and E flat minor to this list.

Most other keys starting with flats have the same fingering (i.e. 2-1-2-4 in the right, and 2-1-4-2 in the left.)

Only B-flat major and B-flat minor remain.

For the time-strapped student, practising one from each group (rather than all twenty-four at a go) may be an alternative.

Similarly, if we look at the scales, we will recognise similar patterns. The major and minor scales of C, D, E, G and A are all based on one set of fingering. Those of B major, D-flat major, F-sharp major all share another. In this situation, while there are variations for key signatures, there are essentially two underlying sets of mechanics at work. If we target these, we will have reduced the time to practise thirteen scales down to two.

More practise is better, of course - if a child has the time to cover all twenty-four, by all means do so.

But for the time-strapped child, through targeting the specifics, we can reduce the time spent on each technical element, and be more efficient with the practice time. We are not talking about finding more time to practice, but using the time we have more wisely.

Runners training to run a marathon don't run 26.2 miles every practice session.

We should look for ways to maximise practice time. A child who can fit in piano practice, school work and still have time for the other things he or she wishes to pursue is likely to be one that stays motivated, derives joy from learning the piano and develop the skills to eventually be a self-directed learner.

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