A Few Truths Parents Must Understand When Their Child Begins Playing a Musical Instrument – By Anthony Mazzocchi

That said, learning an instrument requires skills and traits that children may not have experienced yet — and that parents haven’t thought (or known how) to teach.  That’s the beauty of instrumental music instruction, especially as part of school curricula.  However, it’s important that parents are prepared for that moment when their child plays their first notes … and they don’t sound all that great.

Here are 3 things parents need to be prepared to understand about their child learning a musical instrument:

There will not be as much immediate gratification as your child is used to…and that’s okay.  Our children live in an immediate gratification world.  Everything is at their fingertips — they press a button and something happens immediately.  Although we all have chosen immediate gratification over delayed gratification (and vice versa) at some point our lives, our younger generation is not presented these choices often enough.  If our children pick up an instrument for the first time and can’t make a sound, they are liable to stigmatize themselves as “non-talented” or incapable of becoming successful at music — and want to quit immediately.

But that’s not the truth.

I believe that intelligence is not the primary predictor of success. It is the ability to persevere in hardship, persist and learn after failure, and have a resilient spirit in the face of obstacles. If we can help our children stay focused on creating beautiful sounds on a musical instrument (even when that goal is farther away than they would like it to be), they will develop grit that will serve them well throughout their life.

It’s crucial that we help our children understand the concept of delayed gratification, and musical instrument instruction is perfect for this.  Some musical concepts require weeks of practice before children feel that incredible satisfaction from a successful performance. In a world filled with streaming Internet and fast food, learning an instrument helps “slow life down” a bit — and that’s something that parents should not take for granted.

Practicing will become difficult if it is not part of a daily routine.  If children leave school understanding the importance of having daily routines and how good habits are formed, teachers and parents will have done a great job.  Music practice is something that must be incorporated into a daily routine along with homework and brushing teeth.  Experts say it takes approximately 21 days to create a habit (as long as it happens for 21 days straight), so it’s important for a practice routine to be incorporated into a child’s day immediately upon receiving their instrument.  Creating this routine is one of the reasons why the first two months of being a music parent are so important.  Start with 5 minutes of playing a day and see where it takes your child.

Your child is talented, and all children are capable of becoming musically competent.  Plenty of studies have been done to disprove the theory of inherited talents and innate gifts.  Parents can impact their family’s “gene pool” and change their family tree if they so choose.  There is no evidence that exists to prove that musical talent is inherent, but it is also true that everyone doesn’t always have the resources and tools to become great musicians.  If music is offered in school curricula, and parents help their child practice at home in small ways, all children can have a true opportunity to realize their talents — both musical and other.  It’s unfortunate that studies in neuroscience were not as advanced when we were kids — too many current day parents thought they weren’t “talented” when, in fact, they just needed more time with their craft and some minimal support.

Understanding these truths should be liberating for parents and their children, and take some stress off the first few weeks of learning a musical instrument.   To become skilled at a musical instrument — and to become great at anything — one needs to struggle a little, so allow your child to do just that.  They need to sound bad before they sound good; they need to work on things just beyond what they are capable of in order to get better and smarter, and that means they need to delay gratification a bit and embrace struggle in order to grow as musicians and as human beings.

There will be some hard days, but there will be far more amazing moments and beautiful music making down the road after what may seem like some initial frustration.  Parents should treasure the fact that music is offered through school, and that it offers their children ways of learning that no other subject can.

Parents who make a long-term commitment to music instruction gives children the tools to succeed in music — and therefore in life — and is one of the greatest gifts they can give this year.

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8 Things Top Practicers Do Differently

8 Things Top Practicers Do Differently – Dr. Noa Kageyama


We’ve all heard the phrase “practice smarter, not harder,” but what does that really mean? What does “smarter” practice actually look like? A study of collegiate piano majors suggests that the key lies in how we handle mistakes.

As my kids were (begrudgingly) practicing their Tae Kwon Do patterns not long ago, I caught myself telling my oldest that he had to do his pattern five times before returning to his video game.

My goal, of course, was not for him to simply plod through the motions of his pattern five times like a pouty zombie, but to do it once with good form and commitment. But the parent in me finds it very reassuring to know that a certain number of repetitions has gone into something. Beyond the (erroneous) assumption that this will somehow automagically solidify his skills, it feels like a path to greater discipline, and a way to instill within my kids some sort of work ethic that will serve them well in the future.

It’s true that some degree of time and repetition is necessary to develop and hone our skills, of course. But we also know on some intuitive level that to maximize gains, we ought to practice “smarter, not harder.”

But what does that really mean anyway? What exactly do top practicers do differently?

Pianists learning Shostakovich

A group of researchers led by Robert Duke of The University of Texas at Austin conducted a study several years ago to see if they could tease out the specific practice behaviors that distinguish the best players and most effective learners.

Seventeen piano and piano pedagogy majors agreed to learn a 3-measure passage from Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1. The passage had some tricky elements, making it too difficult to sight read well, but not so challenging that it couldn’t be learned in a single practice session.

The setup

The students were given two minutes to warm up, and then provided with the 3-measure excerpt, a metronome, and a pencil.

Participants were allowed to practice as long as they wanted, and were free to leave whenever they felt they were finished. Practice time varied quite a bit, ranging from 8 1/2 minutes to just under 57 minutes.

To ensure that the next day’s test would be fair, they were specifically told that they may NOT practice this passage, even from memory, in the next 24 hours.

24 hours later…

When participants returned the following day for their test, they were given 2 minutes to warm up, and then asked to perform the complete 3-measure passage in its entirety, 15 times without stopping (but with pauses between attempts, of course).

Each of the pianists’ performances were then evaluated on two levels. Getting the right notes with the right rhythm was the primary criteria, but the researchers also ranked each of the pianists’ performances from best to worst, based on tone, character, and expressiveness.

That led to a few interesting findings:

  1. Practicing longer didn’t lead to higher rankings.
  2. Getting in more repetitions had no impact on their ranking either.
  3. The number of times they played it correctly in practice also had no bearing on their ranking. (wait, what?!)

What did matter was:

  1. How many times they played it incorrectly. The more times they played it incorrectly, the worse their ranking tended to be.
  2. The percentage of correct practice trials did seem to matter. The greater the proportion of correct trials in their practice session, the higher their ranking tended to be.

The top 8 strategies

Three pianists’ performances stood out from the rest, and were described as having “more consistently even tone, greater rhythmic precision, greater musical character (purposeful dynamic and rhythmic inflection), and a more fluid execution.”

Upon taking a closer look at the practice session videos, the researchers identified 8 distinct practice strategies that were common to the top pianists, but occurred less frequently in the practice sessions of the others:

1. Playing was hands-together early in practice.

2. Practice was with inflection early on; the initial conceptualization of the music was with inflection.

3. Practice was thoughtful, as evidenced by silent pauses while looking at the music, singing/humming, making notes on the page, or expressing verbal “ah-ha”s.

4. Errors were preempted by stopping in anticipation of mistakes.

5. Errors were addressed immediately when they appeared.

6. The precise location and source of each error was identified accurately, rehearsed, and corrected.

7. Tempo of individual performance trials was varied systematically; logically understandable changes in tempo occurred between trials (e.g. slowed things down to get tricky sections correct).

8. Target passages were repeated until the error was corrected and the passage was stabilized, as evidenced by the error’s absence in subsequent trials.

The top 3 strategies

Of the eight strategies above, there were three that were used by all three top pianists, but rarely utilized by the others. In fact, only two other pianists (ranked #4 and #6) used more than one:

6. The precise location and source of each error was identified accurately, rehearsed, and corrected.

7. Tempo of individual performance trials was varied systematically; logically understandable changes in tempo occurred between trials (e.g. slowed things down to get tricky sections correct; or speeded things up to test themselves, but not too much).

8. Target passages were repeated until the error was corrected and the passage was stabilized, as evidenced by the error’s absence in subsequent trials.

What’s the common thread that ties these together?

The researchers note that the most striking difference between the top three pianists and the rest, was how they handled mistakes. It’s not that the top pianists made fewer mistakes in the beginning and simply had an easier time learning the passage.

The top pianists made mistakes too, but they managed to correct their errors in such a way that helped them avoid making the same mistakes over and over, leading to a higher proportion of correct trials overall.

And one to rule them all

The top performers utilized a variety of error-correction methods, such as playing with one hand alone, or playing just part of the excerpt, but there was one strategy that seemed to be the most impactful.

Strategically slowing things down.

After making a mistake, the top performers would play the passage again, but slow down or hesitate – without stopping – right before the place where they made a mistake the previous time.

This seemed to allow them to play the challenging section more accurately, and presumably coordinate the correct motor movements at a tempo they could handle, rather than continuing to make mistakes and failing to identify the precise nature of the mistake, the underlying technical problem, and what they ought to do differently in the next trial.

The one-sentence summary

“Success does not consist in never making mistakes but in never making the same one a second time.” -George Bernard Shaw