Tackling a twelve-year old's slump
Katherine, one of my more talented students, recently gave me this honest description of a typical practice session. She is twelve.
"It takes me forever to get myself to stop what I am doing and go to the piano. When and if I do get there, I usually begin my practice by playing a chromatic scale the entire length of the keyboard— first with my right hand, then with my left. Next I might play the part of my new piece that I already know. Then I would play 'Heart and Soul'—do you know that song? I like to change it up, play different rhythms, play it all over the keyboard. After that I would jazz around and change the already familiar parts of my new piece." Pause. "Then I would get up and leave."
"When would you play the new part of your piece or your technique?"
"Mmmmm. I wouldn't."
"Do you like the music you are studying?"
"Oh yes, I love it! I just can't get myself to practice the new parts of it."
Katherine plays soccer four days a week, is studying for her Bat Mitzvah two days a week, attends Circus Arts school two days a week, and often gets together with her huge network of friends. She learns quickly and plays with musicality and technical precision. Until this year, she had made excellent, steady progress.
Life on the cusp
Nothing new here, you say. So true. Twelve-year olds live life on the cusp. They wobble between childhood, when they have to practice because their parents say so, and emerging adulthood, when they begin to study piano because they want to. They often hit a wall with their piano study for another reason. Group activities become vitally important to their growth and well-being. Many excellent articles have been written about ways to keep tweens interested in music by including more group teaching activities, monster concerts, and so on. These ideas work, but I want to focus on teaching twelve-year olds the art of solitary practice.
Every child brings the pleasures and peculiarities of his or her personality to the task. During Katherine's recitation of her other outside activities she added, "Oh, and I see a doctor every Monday afternoon who helps me with my anxiety disorder." I am happy she is getting help. Three of my fifteen students are receiving therapy for anxiety. Being twelve seems to bring it on in our highly-pressured school district.
Katherine's sharing of her struggle with anxiety did make more sense of her practice habits—particularly her difficulty in getting to the piano and in tackling new material. Katherine is a perfectionist. Playing what she knows soothes her. She likes "changing it up," which allows her to control and master her music. New means scary.
As our conversation continued, I told Katherine, "When I was your age I noodled around on the keyboard a lot. I also liked to dive into 'Heart and Soul,' and I would try and pick out Beatles' tunes. Sometimes I would even pretend to play along with recordings of Rachmaninoff 's Third Piano Concerto."
Katherine's eyes widened. "Really?"
"Yes. I also played only the familiar parts of my music—in my case it was 'Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum' and a Mozart piano concerto— over and over. I particularly hated practicing the transition portions of pieces."
"Oh, yeah! The places where the composer uses the material only one time and it doesn't follow the other patterns in the music. I know. I know."
Katherine pointed to a place in her music that had bedeviled her for two weeks.
I continued the truth of my own twelve-year old day. "One summer at music camp my teacher threw up her hands when I came in for the third lesson in a row without learning just such a transition. It was only four measures long, but I couldn't face it and kept faking it."
By now Katherine was intensely interested. "How did you get over this problem?"
"It took me longer than it needed to. I have good news for you, though. Because I know about this practice problem, I have some suggestions for solving it."
A new assignment
Now that I had her complete attention, I shared with her my former Rocky Ridge Music Center colleague Jim McWhorter's tried and true assignment to his talented junior high cello students. Like Katherine, they had trouble getting themselves to practice, even when they wanted to.
"My friend, Jim, tells his cello students that all he wants them to do for the first two days of the practice week is get out their cellos, set up their music stands, tune their instruments, and place their music on their stands. Then he wants them to put everything away.
"I want you to do the same thing. Come to the piano, open the keyboard, put up the lid, adjust the bench, and get out your music. Then put everything away and leave. Try doing this two times each day."
"Hmmmm. Will this help me stop what I am doing and go to the piano without feeling like I have to stay there?"
"Yes, it will."
"What about the other days?"
"Do the same thing on day three, but add playing 'Heart and Soul' to the routine." We began to write this assignment in her notebook. I continued, "On day four do all of the above but add four of the eight new measures of your new piece. Day five, do it all again, but add the chromatic scale and all eight measures of your new piece. Then play the parts of the piece you already know, including 'jazzing it up.' On day six play the chromatic scale first, followed by your new scales and chords, then the new measures in your piece. Next play the old portion of your piece connected to the new part and then play 'Heart and Soul' as long as you want."
"What about day seven?"
"Take the day off from practice!"
"Well, if I already know more of my new piece, I will probably want to go to the piano and play it."
When I returned the next week, Katherine was at the door waiting for me. "It worked!"
She ran to the piano and played both the old and new sections of her new piece and her new scales and chords.We celebrated with a duet of "Heart and Soul" and made plans for the next week.
Will this tactic, which requires weekly micro-assignments, work over time? We will see. I have successfully used it with other junior- high students, although I design each solution to fit each child's temperament. For example, different approaches are required for the student who practices a lot but learns slowly or the one who gets a lot wrong and never fixes problems.
In every instance, adding activities that the students are already doing, such as playing "Heart and Soul" or "jazzing up the piece I already know" tells them that you value their input, that they are getting old enough to bring some ideas of their own to the table.
Admitting the truth of my own twelve-year old practice habits always gets my students' attention. I loved the moment when Katherine said, "How did you get over this problem?" In that moment she admitted her practice habits were a problem and that she was ready to hear about possible solutions.
Children this age still need lots of guidance. Once they know you value their wishes and ideas, they are ready to hear yours. Helping them to tackle new material by breaking it down into small doses, for example, shows them a way to begin learning how to organize their practice themselves, which is the ultimate goal.
Because we are some of the only teachers in students' lives who see them one-on-one for several years, we can help tweens through this risky time. With some creativity and patience from both teacher and student, piano practice can teach students how to work on their own, a skill they can apply to all their learning. In addition, music can become a solitary oasis in their otherwise multitasking, high-tech, peer-pressured lives.
Remember, too, to enjoy twelve-year old passion. Katherine said to me recently, "When I play 'Snowfall' the light wakes up in my soul."