For parents: When my son was a toddler we went to the tide pools in California and walked on the beautiful rocks. After a half hour of struggling to hold on to my son, my husband, feeling his own tired arms said, "find your own balance." He stayed close with a hand reached out but very quickly we realized our son had, of course, much better balance than we did! We had been interfering with his process of steadying himself.
I think a lot of the work of raising young people is in teaching them to find their own balance. Knowing that they can recover their balance gives them true confidence.
In teaching students to recognize and seek out balance, I find it helpful to frame things in terms of opposites. These opposites serve as guides for the many corrections they need to make internally and in their work. Here are a few of my favorites;
Clear eyes/open heart
Spicy fingers/ floating wrist (this for me is the salt and pepper of playing the piano)
Wandering mind/ focused mind
Thinking fast/thinking slow (there's a great book with this title!)
Big picture work/small detailed work
Independent thinking/openness to instruction
You can sit down with your child and come up with your own list.
I often explain to my students that even with computerized flight, jet-plane pilots make thousands of tiny corrections as they cross the country. They don't just program the destination and sit back.
The challenge of learning music is that this balance is essential. There are many people who naturally enjoy detailed, drilling work, but then have trouble transmitting the emotional connection of the music. There are others who are good at analyzing the language of the music but who don't have the patience to do the nitty-gritty work required to master a piece. There are some who love music so deeply and passionately that they play for pleasure but don't stop to polish. And there are those who love to explore and practice at home but don't have the resilience required for performing. Many get knocked down by perfectionism which robs them of joy in their work no matter how much they love music.
Our work is to help them to build their sense of artistic balance and emotional balance. Problems arise when one becomes 'extremist' and stays too long in one end of the spectrum or the other. The inner health of the artist also suffers when things are not in balance and the joy in learning and playing is a balance that takes daily cultivating.
All of my work with your child will be about helping them to find their own balance with thousands of tiny corrections along the way.
Here are some things you can do to help them at home:
Teach them early on to self-regulate and to organize their own work. Try not to organize their work for them too much but remind them if they are skimming or getting too caught up in one thing. Give them honest feedback in that regard. Try to find your own balance in being positive and honest.
Let them make small mistakes so they learn how to handle frustration early on. Find your own balance in this (an impossibly difficult task, I find, - speaking as a parent myself!). You want them to learn what excellence feels like and sounds like but they need to make mistakes to do this. They need to have disciplined repetitive work but they also need to wander creatively and follow their curiosity. AND they need to grow myelin (read The Talent Code for more of this!) which is the neurological sheathing that makes neurons fire more quickly and efficiently, but which grow only when you make mistakes and correct them.
Help them set up a framework to organize practice sessions but then let them implement them.
Here are a few ideas:
1) Keep a practice journal with goals written at the beginning of each practice.
2) Set a timer to go off every 5 minutes so they can check on their level of focus (give it a number from 1-10) and guard against getting in a rut of mindless repetition.
3) Play the pencil game -- five pencils on the right side of the music stand. Every successful repetition moves one pencil to the left. Every mistake moves it back to the right. The goal is to get all 5 pencils over to the left.
4) Decide on 4 passages to target that day and work on them slow- medium-fast. Go back to the previous tempo if they make a mistake.
5) Target two passages that day to do some metronome work or counting out loud work at in super slow motion.
6) Decide on one piece you want to run-though with fighter-pilot focus, not stopping for anything, and playing as artistically as possible.
7) Choose one page to practice hands separately with the most expensive sound and technique possible.
8) Choose one page to practice separating mind/body by counting backwards out loud from 100 on each measure while playing at the same time.
9) write a sticky note and put it on the piano : write your main technical goal for that day. for example, 'floating wrist', or 'rock the boat', or 'sitting like a king', or 'two inches above' (your kids will know what these mean!)
10) do the penny game: find a tricky passage and use 7 pennies to keep track of your repetitions.
11) or simply tell your child you will step in if you don't hear the Magic 3: small sections, repeating things more than 3 times, and playing things slow/medium/fast.
There are countless more ideas you will come up with but let them organize their work and also let them deal with the consequences (with me in their lessons!) if they don't.
Teaching them to learn in an organized, manageable, joyful way is our greatest responsibility and a large part of this is teaching them how to deal with frustration. Let them practice this now, though, before they are too old to come to you for support! Teach them to be warriors, instead of winners and keep the focus on the work not the talent.
Teach them to recognize what it feels like to be out of balance and if they can learn to self-correct they will have real confidence in tackling anything. You want them to know what focus feels like and the calm that comes from it -- but you don't want them to rely on you to remind them to focus.
This is the work that will arm your child with skills s/he can apply to their whole life and to any career they choose. This is the work that pianist, James Rhodes, says is one of the real treasures gained from learning the piano - it "polishes you on the inside."