Your Child's Progress - A "Note" to Music Parents

One of my teaching colleagues, Shelagh McKibbon of Brockville, ON, shared this little gem on an online piano pedagogy discussion group. She gives this to her piano parents part way through the year - when parents start to ask how quickly their child should be progressing. A lot of what she says can apply to whatever conservatory of beginners' series a student is using. I asked her if I could publish it on my blog and she kindly granted me permission to do so. Many thanks to Shelagh for allowing me to share this with more music families. Here it is:

YOUR CHILD'S PROGRESS - A "Note" by Shelagh McKibbon

As a piano teacher for almost 30 years, I strive to achieve a high quality of teaching standards, covering written work, appropriate repertoire and proper musicality. I want your child to develop an appreciation of music, to be able to understand the music that he/she is playing, and to enjoy their time at the piano. Each child will progress at his/her own pace. In your initial Registration Package, you were asked to indicate how you wanted me to view your child's progress; whether you wanted me to:

  • "push" our child to progress to the best of their ability.
  • "encourage" our child to do their best, without pushing them too much.
  • allow our child to "work at their own speed".

In order to understand more about "progress", I have compiled the following information: Is piano the only extra-curricular activity that your child is involved in? If it is not the only extra-curricular activity, what priority is given to practicing? As a parent, I know the desire to let your child experience as many fun and exciting extra-curricular activities as possible. If your child is involved in many activities besides piano, please do not expect that their progress will be as quick as that of a child who is only in one or two extra-curricular activities.

Do you have a regular practice time established in your child's routine? If your child is younger, do you sit down with them at their first practice time to help organize their music books for practicing? Do you open their books on the piano and go over the notes in their Dictation Book? The number of times your child practices each week has a definite effect on their progress. Helping your child to select his/her piano practice time will give your child some ownership of their practicing. Be realistic - some weeks are better then others when it comes to fitting in practice times. At the Beginner/Pre-Grade One Stage, on average:

  • if your child practices once a week, expect very slow progress
  • if your child practices 2 times a week, expect fairly slow progress
  • if your child practices 3 times a week, expect fairly good progress
  • if your child practices 4+ times a week, expect good progress

How many songs does your child like to practice each week? As I base my teaching on the needs of the child, I will frequently ask how many songs the child feels that he/she can practice each week. I will often assign "if time" material - an extra song or two that the child can practice if he/she has time. At the Beginner/Pre-Grade One Stage, if your child typically asks for:

  • 1 or 2 songs a week, expect very slow progress, with lots of review of old and new material being done at the lesson
  • 2 or 3 songs a week, expect slow but steady progress, with review of new material happening at the lesson
  • 3 or 4 songs a week, expect good progress, with some review of new material happening at the lesson
  • 4 to 6 songs a week, expect great progress, with minimal review of new material happening at the lesson

Is your child practicing properly? Children must refer to their Dictation Book when they are practicing! All items to be practiced will be listed in this book. Their written work (theory) pages will also be listed in the Dictation Book. Parents can help by checking the student's Dictation Book and ensuring that all work (practical and written) is completed each week. At the Beginner/Pre-Grade One Stage, I will usually write the practice instructions for each song at the top of each page. This usually involves "practicing" the song 4 times:

  • Count aloud and clap the rhythm
  • Play and say the finger numbers or the letter names
  • Play and count (at least once)
  • Play and sing

Practicing at the Beginner stage does not involve sitting at the piano for a certain number of minutes. It involves completing each of the practice instructions properly. I encourage students to do their "speaking" work aloud (and not "in their head") as it does help the child learn when they hear themselves saying the letter names or the counting. Music should be played steadily at an appropriate speed. For young students, it helps with their reading coordination if the parent uses a pencil and points to the music on the page as the child is playing it. Encourage your child to keep his/her eyes on the music and not on their fingers. Once they have begun playing the song, they should not be looking at their fingers (or at the keys) unless they are moving to a different hand position. As your child enters the Royal Conservatory of Music Program, their practicing time and commitment will also increase. Students are encouraged to read their Dictation Book daily and to follow all practicing instructions written in that book, as well as those instructions written in their music.

Is your child practicing on a piano? The best instrument to learn how to play the piano on is an actual piano. Nonetheless, for many people, having a piano is not realistic. However, the type of instrument that your child is practicing on will affect their progress and the quality of their musicality. If you cannot afford a piano, then a full-size digital piano is the next best thing. A 41 to 60 key Keyboard is barely adequate for the first year or so of lessons only. Once the child has completed the Prep A or Piano Adventures Primer Books, they need to be practicing on a keyboard that allows for touch sensitivity (dynamics - louds and softs). If you have a 61 - 72 key Touch Sensitive Keyboard, it usually can be used up until the child has completed Prep B, Alfred's Level 1A or Piano Adventures Level 1. Anything smaller than a 61 Key Keyboard is not appropriate. Once a child is beginning Prep C, Piano Adventures 2A or the Introductory Album of the Royal Conservatory of Music, you really must look at upgrading to a Piano or a Digital Piano. If your child is not practicing on a Piano or a Digital Piano, expect problems in musicality, dynamics, phrasing, legato touch, etc. Another thing to note is the height of your child's piano bench. They should be sitting so that the keyboard is approximately at the same height as their belly button, and their knees should just be under the keyboard. Have your child extend their arms - if their fists can just touch the back of the keyboard or the music rack, your child should be sitting at an appropriate distance. For smaller children, have a small stool under the piano for their feet. This will help to keep their body balanced.

Is your child prepared for each lesson? It is very important for your child to bring all of his/her books to each lesson. It is also important for all theory (written) work to be completed as assigned each week. Following all instructions (clapping, playing and writing) in the Theory books is very important. Does your child have access to a sharp pencil and eraser when completing their theory? Does your child have a "Book Bag" that she/he can keep all their music books in? A special Music Book Bag also makes bringing books to the lesson much easier.

How long are your child's nails? Long nails are not conducive to proper hand positioning when practicing. Nails must be kept trimmed.

When is a child ready for the Royal Conservatory of Music? A child may spend anywhere from 2 to 5 years studying piano before they begin the Royal Conservatory of Music material. Usually I add the Introductory Royal Conservatory when a child nears the end of Prep C, Level 1B or the beginning of Piano Adventures Level 2A. Students may spend anywhere from 6 months to 2 years at the Introductory RCM Level. Again, each child's progress is unique to their own abilities. Experience (and feedback from many other teachers) has shown that the more firm a child's foundation is, the longer they will continue with their Piano Lessons and the further they will progress.

How old should a child be when they start Piano Lessons? Playing the piano is an inter-play of left and right brain activity, therefore some basic language and math skills are very helpful. Children do not have to know how to read, but should be able to recognize the alphabet (A to G) and recognize numbers (1 to 5). If a child cannot read, a parent must make the commitment to help the child practice. Thus, piano lessons can begin when a child is 4 or 5 years of age.

How often does a student participate in Practical Examinations through the Royal Conservatory of Music? Students are encouraged to participate in RCM Practical Examinations beginning at the Grade 1 Level. (Students do not have to participate in Examinations, however I have found that Examinations are an excellent motivational tool and that students actually enjoy receiving this feedback.) If your child is studying RCM Material, in the front of their Technique (Scales & Triads) Book, I will have taped a list of the examination requirements for their grade.

RCM Exams are in January, June and August. Usually a student will spend one year in each of Grades 1 - 5, and will prepare an examination at the end of each of those grades. Grades 6 and 7 often require a minimum of a year & a half of study, and students will usually spend 2 years in Grades 8 and 9 before participating in an Examination.

If your child is studying RCM Practical Material, they are also doing RCM Theory work, in preparation for the Preliminary Theory Examination (usually written when in Grade 3 - 5 Piano), the Grade One Rudiments Examination (usually written when in Grade 5 - 6 Piano) or the Grade Two Rudiments Examination (usually written when in Grade 7 - 8 Piano). Theory Exams are in May, August and December. The final marks from the Grade 7 RCM Piano Examination and the Grade 1 Theory Examination are averaged and count as a Grade 11 High School Music Credit. The Grade 8 RCM Piano Examination and Grade 2 Theory Examination averaged marks count as a Grade 12 High School Music Credit. If the Student wishes to enter into music studies at the Post-Secondary School Level, they will require a minimum of Grade 6 Piano and Grade 2 Theory.

(c) Shelagh McKibbon, Brockville, ON. Reprinted with permission.