Keeping Your Teen at the Piano: Commitment, Environment, Repertoire and Communication

This article originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Twinkling the Ivories.

The period of grades six through nine represent the time of greatest risk to your child’s musical education. This is the most common time for young people to drop out and stop their piano lessons. My experience, however, is that all students who keep going through junior high and high school will be playing piano for the rest of their lives.

When I see former students or their parents, I hear about the new pieces they are learning. I always smile when the “whatever / I dunno” teen who was reluctant to talk to me in grade 8 becomes a friendly, communicative young adult in grade 9 or 10. The teens that keep going have many choices in terms of repertoire, because of their large bank of skills, and I have been amazed many times at the pieces they have learned on their own. “I found this piece by Chopin, and finished it all.” For those of you struggling through pieces with your children, please keep this vision in mind.

I realize that the pressures of college or university lead many students to stop lessons at that point, since the students are so incredibly busy. Maybe your teen will study music! But if not, I have heard many times how the university students really appreciate being able to play the piano as a way to relax.

Teens get to start making significant choices (which junior high, electives, etc.), but a lot of choices are not allowed to young people until they are eighteen. Quitting an instrument after years of investing time and money is a very significant decision. When parents demonstrate commitment to piano, this is a huge factor in continuing. Suzuki said we are children of our environment; parental commitment is perhaps the biggest factor in a supportive environment.

The overall approach is significant. Parents do not ask their children, “Would you like to continue school next year?” Some things are not a matter of choice. So why ask, “Would you like to continue piano?” If you are truly committed, and love music, it need not be a matter of discussion. “In our family, we do piano.” It is normal for teenagers to want to exert independence; you may decide to let them be independent about something else.

Some young people are very influenced by their peers, and may feel that “because so-and-so is quitting, I should be able to quit too,” and so it is important to take note of all those who indeed are continuing their lessons.

A positive and flexible approach will help prevent many issues. Families do need a strategy to stay at the piano.

You may find that your teen resists practicing. Most professional pianists have challenges in practicing! Most students will have already faced a period of less interest in piano in the past. This is normal; it is the same with other activities that continue over many years, such as school itself. So if your teen is practicing less, this is not the end of piano. Talk with your teacher about this: students must practice enough to keep going forward, but it might be appropriate to cut them some slack. There is a big difference between going slower and stopping altogether. But obviously, playing more brings more progress, more enjoyment, and more motivation.

If teens are too busy with other activities; that could be a problem and you may need to figure out a time management plan to get in more practicing. Be as patient as you can, and expect that there will be less productive times, but keep your eyes on the goal — that they will keep going.

Parents can have the title of Cheerleader and Motivator Extraordinaire. Celebrate your child’s achievements at the concerts and graduations. Make sure you attend these, along with group class, the Fall Institute, the Spring Festival, etc. Active participation in the Suzuki program demonstrates your commitment. Having piano friends can make a huge difference; this is one of the reasons for groups; teens need time with their peers.

Notice all the good things they do at the piano, and make them aware of their progress. Take an interest in what they are learning, yet let them be as independent as possible. Know their pieces, and ask for your favourite piece among the ones they are learning.
Going to concerts can be very motivating; the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra regularly features pianists, as does the Edmonton Recital Society, the music departments of the U of A and MacEwan, and the Yardbird Suite. Other motivators: playing jazz piano in high school bands, going to our many music festivals, learning repertoire from your cultural background, and making a recording for grandparents, or YouTube.

Bring good music into your home: Use the ESPS lending library, and the Edmonton Public Library. In a recent newsletter I had names of pianists on YouTube. Go shopping at a music store, or online. The library has thousands of music books and CDs to use.

Make a special request to your teen for him or her to learn a favourite piece of yours. It is important that they see your own passion for music.

Make sure you have a good piano; remember that pianos generally do not lose their value, and last for many decades. A good instrument is a sign of your commitment.

Beyond your commitment and a supportive and stimulating environment, there are two key factors: repertoire and communication. Teens are advanced enough in the Suzuki repertoire to be able to add in additional music. The Suzuki books are designed for a broad musical education but they are not the last word in repertoire. To continue over the long term, the teen must find his or her own voice in terms of interests and musical interpretation. Maybe they would want to learn music their friends like, experiment in a band, or compose their own music.

It is helpful when students communicate such things as likes and dislikes about extra repertoire choices with the teacher. We need, as a student-parent-teacher team, to find the repertoire that compels the student to the piano. The joy of the music itself is a worthwhile and satisfying goal.

Keeping the lines of communication open is crucial. Make sure that both parents read this article. When teens are in the “I dunno” stage, teachers need to hear even more from parents. If there are challenges at home about piano, we need to know!

You as the parent need your own motivation: concerts and good CDs will inspire you too.

I have never met an adult who said, “I’m sure glad my parents let me quit piano.” On the contrary, I have often heard from adults, “My parents let me quit as a teenager, and I sure wish they hadn’t!

So, yes, you can keep your teen moving forward:
• Be supportive, patient and flexible
• Find compelling repertoire
• Provide a social aspect to piano
• Be a cheerleader
• Go to concerts
• Participate in the Suzuki program
• Listen to good music
• Communicate with the teacher

Tim Eckert

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