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FAQs - Questions and Answers for Parents

How to do it right? How to make sure my child enjoy playing and is motivated? How to push enough, but not too much?

Coming from Russia, I was surprised to discover how little information about music education is available for American parents and more so how much wrong information is out there. Our school has created a short brochure for Parents about how to do it right. The Questions and Answers below is a more in depth version of that publication. We have tried to answers many most common questions Parents and Friends asked us about music education. If you have a questions which is not answered here, please feel free to send us an email at:  

Below is the short summary of must dos followed by more detailed questions and answers.

Here are my rules of Thumb:

  1. Listen to the quality music at home, go to concerts with your child.
  2. Find the best teacher you can find. If you have a good teacher you don't need to read this.
  3. Start when your child is six years old.
  4. Watch the lessons and practice with your child at least 15 min a day every day
  5. Make a commitment to do it for 2 years.
  6. See what happens

Following are the most common questions I am asked by parents, with answers which I hope you’ll find helpful.

How do I know if my child has a talent for music and needs to take formal lessons?

It is very difficult for a person who "doesn't know music" to figure out if a young child is especially talented. When I evaluate children I not only take into consideration their age and ability, but also the degree of musical exposure. A five year old child who took two years of music class will be able to do a lot more musically then a child from a family which never listens to music. It is not the same as having talent. Singing on pitch, being able to tap back rhythms, identifying things by ear are all signs of musical talent, but they are also skills which can be taught.   The artistic talent, the depth of imagination and ability to express emotions with music are the signs of true talent, but sometimes they don't surface until teenage years. Basically, if you are curious, get evaluated, but don't get too hung up on it. There are plenty of stories of great musicians whose parents were told that their children had no future in music.

The only sure sign of musical talent is when a child shows interest toward music. If you think your child's facination with music is unusual and unexplainable it is always worth it to let him or her explore it further.

What you have to loose? Let's take the worst case scenario, your child is not musically inclined, so you took one or two years of lessons and stopped. BUT during these years he developed valuable neurological connections, he became smarter, more creative, more coordinated, more focused.  He learned how to work, how to persevere and overcome difficulty.  Now he can apply all these skills to every other aspect of his life.  I call it a gain!


What is a good age to start music education?

You can open the path yourself by exposing your children to music as early as possible.  Listen to music when they are in the womb!  From the moment of birth, listen to quality music a lot.  Clap with the music, dance to the music, sing with your child.  All children love music and it does miracles for their development. You can do it yourself or take a class.

 There are several quality programs offering music classes for children under age five or six. We offer Musik Garten classes at our school. Young children learn by exploring; they enjoy being creative, so it’s not always best to start formal private lessons at the age of three or four years old; research suggests that it may even hamper their creativity. 

You need to be careful about pushing a child much younger then six years old.  Instruments that are too large for little hands can create tension and bad habits, which are hard to fix later.  Some children don’t want to sit still and follow instructions; for these children, save yourself the frustration and start at age six.  My personal experience, confirmed by observation of many students in our school, shows that the children who start at five or six years eventually catch up to the ones who start at age four.  Given the same environment by age nine or ten , both groups will be at the same place.

Of course every child is different and every teacher is different.  Some teachers love working with small children and the things they teach suit little brains and hands very well.  It also depends on the instrument of choice.  Some children are ready by three, as evidenced by their videos on YOUTUBE, but these are the exception rather than the rule.  Find a teacher qualified to assess your child, meet her, ask her to evaluate your child and go with what she says.

I want my child to take lessons, what do I do?

The first thing is to find the TEACHER.  Not the location, not the schedule, not even the price.  If you have a good teacher you don't need this booklet. You have a trustworthy professional by your side who can guide you and your child and help you make good choices.

The next thing is get an INSTRUMENT for your child to practice on at home. Talk to your teacher about it and they will advise you what to do. In most cases you can and should rent the instrument. Violin. cello, guitar and many others come in several sizes. If you are new to it, you need a professional to help you select the right size. Pianos come in several sizes also, but here the purchase will be determined by your budget, not so much the child's age.

I'm not sure music is something we want to pursue seriously.  Is there a way to try it out first without  an instrument and hard core teacher?

This is the most common mistake parents make.  Helping families avoid it made our school have the lowest drop out rate in our field. Let's start with an instrument. When you sign up your child for private lessons, he will most likely have 30-60 min lesson once a week. Think about how much progress a six year old child would make if he had math or Chinese language for 30 min once a week. That's right-not much. When children take music lessons most of their progress happens at home. Taking private lessons without having an instrument is absolute waste of your money.  You can rent an instrument, buy something very cheep or even make a temporary arrangement with your neighbors.

As for the teacher, consider that the first teacher often sets the pace for your child's education. Children associate what they are learning with the person teaching them. For them math is Mrs. Johnes, music is Mrs. Williams and ets. Having a great first experience is very important for your child's love of music. The teacher sets the expectations showing the child and you what to do and what to expect, what is good work and what is not and how to do good work. 

Avoid the temptation of thinking that the easiest option (in terms of cost or distance) will be fine to start with, since the child is just a beginner, with the plan of getting a “serious” teacher later.  We continue to encounter students who come to us after three or four years of lessons unable to do much more than plunk out a tune.  A better teacher, even it if meant an extra 20-30 minutes in the car or $15 more a week might have made a world of difference.  When we take these students, a good bit of time and effort is often required to correct bad habits.  In some cases the students come in so discouraged and tired of wasting there time on it that it is not always possible to turn them around.

How do I find a good teacher?

That is the main job we have as the director's of the school. We find good teachers, we train the new ones and will find the replacement if the teachers leaves. If you can't get to our school here are some tips.

First let's define a good teacher or good school. Kind, good with children, reliable? These are qualification for a good baby sitter.

A Good Teachers is someone whose students play well 

The best way to find one is through referrals.  Ask your friends about their music experiences, call local colleges with music programs. If you are looking for a very ambisose teacher, search youth piano competition and festivals in your area to see which teacher's names come up frekvantly.

You can look teachers up through local Music Teachers Associations; sometimes you can see their bios and pictures on line.  The MTNA (Music Teachers National Association) website could be a great resource; almost every teacher is a member of this national organization.  The best way to judge teachers is to hear their students play, but there are some points to consider in a teacher’s bio:

  • Music degree is strongly recommended, however through the years I did ran into a few excellent teachers who do not have music degrees, but they are exceptions, not the rules
  • Teaching experience
  • Read the teaching philosophy and see if it resonates with your own ideas.
  • Someone offering instruction in one or two instruments; teachers who advertise lessons on several instruments are rarely if ever competent to teach all of them well;
  • Don’t be swayed by the most impressive website; this probably indicates an appreciation of technology and really doesn’t say anything about their teaching
  • Great performance bio. This is a huge plus, BUT CONSIDER the most awesome performers are not always the best teachers. You need to make sure that the teacher you are considering puts a big emphasis on teaching. Some artists do a lot of performing and traveling while teaching a few students on a side. This is not a good situation for a beginner, who needs a lot of attention and consistency. This kind of teacher is better suited for advanced college students who can be fairly independent, but need occasional input from a great artist.

Once you have collected a few names, take your child to meet these teachers.  Something that most parents don’t think of, and which I highly recommend, is to watch them teach, if they allow it.  After a couple of hours you will get a good idea of the rapport they have with students, whether the lessons are pleasant or stressful, how students play and what kind of corrections they are getting.

Visit teachers’ recitals and listen: What kind of music are students playing?  Are they well prepared and confident or barely stumbling through their pieces?  Finally, are the kids making music or just pressing buttons?  There are of course occasional accidents and bad performances, but when you hear a recital where half the kids can’t finish their pieces, run!

That sounds good for the serious students, what are the criteria for a more casual student?

One more myth I have to debunk! Many parents think that only those kids who have no childhood perform without mistakes and with confidence and expression. It’s simply not true! The students of good teachers ALWAYS play well.  A confident performance by memory without mistakes, with correct rhythm and notes is something that your child can do, I promise. Our school has over 250 students.  Of these, some are very committed and motivated and win national and international awards.  Others are what you could call regular kids who are involved in many other activities, but they do the work we all are proud of.

I've never heard student performance and I don't know what to expect. How do I know if I'm hearing good playing, even if my own child is good?

It's a great question.  I'll try to give you some very general guidelines.  If you are hearing a performance at the recital it has to be solid with correct notes and steady beat.  Some incidental mistakes are okay, we are all human, sometimes even well prepared children give a bad performance, they can even freeze and be unable to finish the piece, but it should be an exception, not the rule. In my experience of working with hundreds of children every child can prepare a piece to that level, basically notes and rhythm are non negotiable. Then more suddle things come in, like dynamic contract and  phrasing, style and emotion. Theses are hard to hear for an untrained ear, but the surprising thing is that I can ask parents after they hear 30 children at the recital whom did they like most, without fale they can identify the best performers. It's hard for a non professional to tell if the individual performer is playing well or not, but it becomes pretty obvious once you hear several performers in a row.

How can I know whether my child will like it?

Don’t concern yourself with this question. He will like it or he won’t; you have no control over this.  Direct your efforts toward helping him succeed.  Children normally like things that they are good at.

What can I do to make my child successful?

My suggestion for parents of six year olds is to arrange for a 30-minute lesson with a good teacher every week.  Watch your child’s lesson and work with them at home EVERY DAY!  Thirty minutes of practice daily at home is very good, 15 minutes will do; one hour or more is above average for a American family, so an easy way to stand out.  Choose the same time every day to minimize whining and fights.

Realize that playing an instrument is the hardest thing your child is doing at her age.  Look at her school work: you can do it easily and she can do it independently and successfully with minimum supervision.  But try playing the violin for the first time as an adult.  You will not believe how hard it is!  Imagine trying to grasp it all as a six-year-old child.  Children will almost certainly complain and resist doing it in the beginning, because it is hard.  So don’t push, help.  It will become a very fulfilling and confidence-building experience.  When they get the hang of it and experience success, usually within the first few weeks, then in most cases they begine to like it.

What is my role at practice time, especially if I have never played an instrument?

A good teacher will be teaching the child in such a way that you, the parent, will be learning also. Practicing with a young child does not require music education, it’s mostly common sense. Remember, what you are teaching your child is how to practice.  You need to teach your child not to rush through the piece, but rather to repeat small sections three to five times slowly and to work hands separately before working hands together. Don’t repeat the same mistake, fix it. And remember, always go slowly!

Even though you may not actually play the instrument, your ear is absorbing details in a way that most children are not, so you will be able to help your older child with sophisticated musical concepts even if you never played yourself. The fun part is that one day you will be able to hear things even in the playing of renowned artists.

I am not able to practice with my child, can she practice on her own?

Yes, she can. Some time will be wasted, but she will progress, especially if she is motivated. Children who practice completely on their own make slower progress in the beginning, but by age nine they can usually practice alone effectively. If you cannot practice with your child, I recommend starting lessons at a slightly later age, maybe closer to seven or eight rather than five or six. By that time the child has been in school long enough to be more mature and better at practicing and studying.

I want my child to be independent, when do I stop practicing with her?

The general guideline would be: be responsible for everything for the first year or two. Gradually make your child responsible for more and more things. Maybe tell her: play each measure (very small section) of this piece five times slowly.  Then leave the room, but keep your ears open. Then come back and check what she accomplished.  Most children can be fairly independent by nine to ten years and completely independent by 12. Remember, your main job while working with your child in the beginning is not just to get the job done, but TO TEACH HER HOW TO WORK.  Always keep this in mind and your child will become independent sooner.

Occasionally, an exceptionally talented and motivated child will come along. People assume this means the parent’s job is easier in such a situation, but it is actually more challenging.  If your child is on a professional track or competing at a high level, the more you can help her the better. This is a big sacrifice on your part, and not all parents can make it. The fact is that with you, your child can complete a given task in three hours; without you, in six. In Russia, a friend’s mother noticed her son’s exceptional talent and practiced with him for five hours every day until he was 16.  That’s what we call Russian Tiger Parenting! By 16 he was a very accomplished musician; now many years later he enjoys a successful international performing career. Again, decisions about practicing depend on your child’s personality, your family, and on what your children want to achieve and how much you can and are willing to be involved.

I’m afraid to push my child too hard, what if it makes him hate it later?  And blame me for his ruined life....

I can write a book on that one!  And I will one day, but for now I will repeat myself: Don’t push, help.  Music study does require a lot of work, and your child may need to adjust to this, but give him a chance to see the outcome of his effort.  He will decide himself whether the work is worth the reward, and tell you.  When your children have a rewarding experience, they will thank you later, either in words or in the quality of their relationship with you.

My child just doesn’t like it, should I continue to insist?  At what point do I let him quit?

The main consideration here is whether your child actually doesn’t like it and would rather do something else or is being lazy. An open conversation with your child’s teacher should clarify the situation. Here are a few different scenarios:

Your young child likes music, any kind of music. He likes to perform for other people or family members; when he has a piece learned he plays it over and over. In this case, your child probably likes music, but doesn’t want to work hard at it. I would suggest:

  • Make sure you have a good teacher; if you don’t, find one and switch immediately.
  • Make a daily practice commitment, with the understanding that only productive time counts.  Make sure the child is not hungry or tired when starting practice.
  • Rewards can be useful, short-term and long-term.  Find a reward that works for your child.
  • The phone and other electronics should not be in reach during practice, neither your child’s nor yours if you are working with him or her.
  • Give it six months to a year and see if things improve.

Your child is 12 years old, reasonably good at piano and you have a good teacher.  If in this situation the child is asking to stop, let him, after first checking that there are no other factors that could be addressed (e.g., he hates going to the teacher’s house, or he is feeling intimidated by other better pianists).

If your young child is exceptionally bad at piano, but good at something else and doesn’t particularly like music study, let her stop, so you can direct your efforts towards her strength.

If your child is struggling at school and in piano and is not interested in other things, keep at it for another year or two.  It will develop his brain and teach him to work.  There is no better way to acquire these good work habits.

Once my child has started lessons, how do I know we have a good teacher?

Listen to his or her students play at their regular recitals, especially the older kids.  How well are they developing?  Do you see improvement in your child and other children as well?  Do you like this teacher as a person and want him or her in your child’s life?

Signs of good teacher are:

  • Professional, reliable, committed.  It signals to you that they take their teaching seriously.
  • Your child makes rapid progress and enjoys playing.
  • You observe at recitals and other performances that the level of other students is getting gradually better.
  • You observe your teacher grow as a professional and maintain a successful studio.
  • The teacher has a master plan and is teaching concepts and skills, not just moving from piece to piece.  In the beginning your child is learning to read music, developing a solid technique, and good practice habits.

Red flags are:

  • Inconsistent lessons; the teacher misses a lot without reasonable justification.  You don’t get a lesson every week.
  • Your child makes no progress.
  • No recitals, no events to participate in.
  • You really don’t like the teacher as a person; the child is dreading going to lessons.  Methods are used that are unacceptable to you as a parent.
  • Has no time to discuss your concerns and your child’s progress.

My child is involved in many activities and enjoys a lot of things. I don't want him to be serious. What do you recommend?

You may not want him to be serious, but you want him to be good! That should be your goal in determining what activities to participate in. Talk to your good teacher and agree on the reasonable amount of practice time your child can commit each week. I always tell students that it's better do do 20 min every day then two hours a day before the lesson. Even on the busiest day you can do 10 min and it's better then nothing.  We had two competitive gymnasts in our school. Their practice time was very limited, but these girls really knew how to work and how to make the best of what they had.  They actually progressed better then some of our less busy students. Children in this situation make slower progress and may not get to the advance repertoire, but their experience can still be very rewarding.  

Is competing good for children?

Opinions on that subject vary a lot. It’s probably good to discuss your teacher’s views on this topic. I happen to think that competitions, auditions, recitals and all such events give students great goals to work towards. They make the students and the teacher work harder. The bad dynamics set in when families and teachers become too obsessed with competition success and value it above everything else. I think developing a student as a musician and having a healthy attitude towards success are far more important than victories in competition.

What NOT to do when competing:

  • Work on only two pieces for several years and play them for every competition known to man.  It drains the life out of the music you are playing and stops your progress as a musician.
  • Hate other pianists who are better then you.  This is an unhealthy attitude that deprives you of the joy of music making.  We play for the audience, we are all unique and everyone finds his own place.  My advice is to focus on competing with yourself.  Have you really done your absolute best in preparation and performance?
  • Feel like a loser if you do not receive a prize.  Do something really fun and forget about it.  You can’t win every time.  Focus on playing your best and expressing feelings and ideas.  Get excited when people like your playing, when you make them feel something.  That is why we do it, not to get a trophy.
  • Get too high when you win.  This is not, however, a serious mistake; you’ll lose next time and it will even everything out.

My child is exceptionally talented, but I don’t want him to be a prodigy with no childhood.  What do I do?

First of all, prodigies in any field are much rarer than most people think, so let’s talk about children with exceptional talent.  If your child appears to be unusually talented, the most important thing for you is to provide a strong family structure to support the extra effort that may be required to allow his gifts to blossom.  I encounter parents who do not have a problem with their children watching television three hours a day, but who find the idea of devoting the same amount of time to practicing piano unacceptable.  To these parents I put the question, “Which activity do you think contributes more to a better childhood?”  A motivated nine year old who practices three hours a day is not going to lose his childhood.

It is more likely to be parental ambition, rather than the hours of practice, that contributes to creating children without childhoods.  For the parents of these children, I would strongly suggest continual self-examination to make sure that their motives are absolutely clear of selfish ambition and pride.  Make sure you do all you do entirely for your child’s development and wellbeing and not in order to satisfy your own ambition.

As for the gifted child himself, he needs to learn that music, chess, sports or anything else is what he does, but not who he is.  Becoming a person with strong character, capable of loving and giving, is more important than being successful.  That is the job of every parent and our biggest desire for our children.

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