In his ad lib this issue, Bruce Berr quotes from an
interview he did with a Chinese mother from his studio in the
Winter 2004 issue of Keyboard Companion magazine (now
called Clavier Companion.) Many thanks to Pete Jutras at
Clavier Companion for giving AMT permission to
reprint the text of the interview in its entirety from the 2004
There are also several audio clips of parts of this interview
available at Clavier Companion’s website: www.claviercompanion.com. Click on “Past
Website Issues,” then choose “Winter 2004.” Then scroll down to
“Multimedia Articles” and select the first one.
From the Winter 2004 issue ofKeyboard
©Clavier Companion. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
The Magic Triangle: Teacher/Student/Parent
Barbara Kreader, Editor
What special qualities do parents of children who
succeed at the piano share? Part Two.
By Barbara Kreader
For this issue, teacher and composer Bruce Berr continues this
column’s three-part overview of the qualities parents of successful
piano students share.
By Bruce Berr
Isabella recently turned six, and she has been studying piano
for one year. She has come to every lesson fully prepared, so her
progress has been impressive and non-stop. Her mother, Ms. “W,”
observes every lesson and practices with Isabella at home. Each
week as they arrive at my studio exactly a few minutes before their
scheduled time, Ms. W, a quiet and unassuming person, greets me
with an enthusiastic and friendly, “Hello, Dr. Berr!” Without fail,
Isabella has all of her materials ready, and is ready to learn. She
stays engaged in the lesson activities during the entire 40
minutes, and she occasionally radiates a big, big smile after she
plays something she likes a lot. Ms. W watches the lesson from
across the room, never interfering. When the session is over, she
gives Isabella a big smile and takes her hand as they leave.
Below is an edited interview which I conducted with Ms. W in her
home during the summer of 2004. Our discussion provided some
valuable clues to those factors which have contributed greatly to
Isabella's success as a piano student during her first year of
lessons. We began by discussing the importance of preparing
students ahead of time for new things.
The importance of advanced preparation for new
BB: You have done an absolutely splendid job this year
with Isabella. I know this doesn't happen by itself —- it takes
much work on your part. Could you please share some of what has
gone into your planning?
Ms. W:I think you have to prepare children for
a long timebeforethe piano lessons actually start because then they
know what to expect. We had been advised to wait until Isabella was
five to start piano lessons. So I tried to get her mentally
prepared for the lessons for the whole year before we actually
began. I would remind her frequently when lessons were going to
start and what they might be like. Also, when a pianist was playing
on our PBS station, we would encourage her to watch and enjoy the
music with us. By the time the lessons started, the whole family
was ready to enjoy the experience.
I do everything like that. Whenever Isabella might be doing
something new — school, ice skating, karate — I try to prepare her
for it ahead of time. With ice skating, I let her watch the
competitions on television. I pointed out to her, “See — they are
doing an excellent job, and they skate beautifully, but they also
fall sometimes. So when you do it, you will fall, but you will get
up and keep learning.”
Also, many of our neighbors’ kids are in the band at school. So
I started to tell Isabella that later on, she too could be in the
band. When we go to their houses, if another child is playing a
flute or a drum, I will say, “Isabella, look at this — isn't it
pretty?” And when we see a band marching in a parade, I ask her,
“Which band instrument do you thinkyouwould like to play?” I want
her to join the school band when she’s older. She would make
friends while doing music with other people. This would help her be
an even happier person and make her life full of joy!
Parents learning how to teach along the way
BB: You have watched every lesson Isabella has taken,
and you have practiced with her each day. You are her teacher
during the week, and you’ve done a terrific job. What has this been
like for you, because you are not a teacher by
Ms. W: This year was a learning experience for
me, and I went through different stages. In the beginning, it was
new for both Isabella and myself. When we first began lessons,
everything was easy for her — she mastered her pieces right away.
As they became more advanced, she started to learn them slower, and
I had a problem with that at first. I started not to handle the
practice sessions well — I was impatient. Even the first day after
the lesson, I once became upset with her because she wasn’t playing
everything well and up to speed right away as she had done during
the first few months of lessons. I even yelled at her! After that,
my husband reminded me, "This was only the first day after the
lesson – what do you expect? You’re pushing her too much."
BB: Did she act like she was being pushed too
Ms. W: Yes. She would sit very quietly, doing
nothing. I felt upset; she felt upset! I realized my husband was
right — I had also made the same mistake when I started to teach
her how to read after she began kindergarten. No one had told me
that I needed to be patient, but I gradually learned this. So I
started to change my method. I came upon a much better plan. I
figured she has six days each practice week, so instead of
expecting so much so soon, I decided to spread out her learning
during the week.
Her practice plan
The first few days of each practice week, I just made sure she
was playing the notes reasonably well. I wasn’t concerned with
expression or playing up to speed. Like you do at the lessons, I
encouraged her for what she did each step along the way. Then on
the third and fourth days, she would get things exactly right and a
little faster. On the fifth and sixth days, she would try to
express and perform the pieces very well.
The parent teaching herself to play the piano along the way
BB: I believe you didn’t study piano as a child, so how
have you been able to compensate for that lack of playing
Ms. W: When Isabella and I first got started, I
was learning how to play the piano along with her so I could help
her practice. Everything was easy for herandfor me because I was
able to learn the music along with her during her practice
sessions. As the music increased in difficulty, it became harder
for me. I needed to practice by myself first. After each of her
lessons, I practiced her material that evening to make sureIknew
how to play it. One advantage of being an adult — it takes me only
10 or 15 minutes to learn her new material. Having done this made
it easier for me to help her. It also gave me an idea of how easy
or difficult a piece was so I knew what to expect when Isabella
worked on it.
To hear Ms. W’s success at this, go
to the Clavier Companion website at
and listen to a three-way round
played by Isabella, her mother and their teacher.
The need for parents to be actively involved with their
BB: Let’s say you hadnotbeen this involved with her.
What if you had just said, “Isabella, go into the living room and
Ms. W: I don’t think that would work. I think
for kids of this age, the direct involvement of parents is very,
very important — for everything. Take learning to read. When
Isabella started kindergarten, she didn’t know how to read. During
an orientation visit to Isabella’s school, the teachers and
principal told us the goal for the end of kindergarten was that she
should know how to read. We asked ourselves, “How can we get her to
read?” So we went to the public library and found some appropriate
books with the help of the librarian there.
BB: You did thisbeforeshe entered kindergarten. So
again, youpreparedher for the learning she would be doing in a more
Ms. W: Yes. We prepared and actually taught
her. We started to read out loud to her even more. We also helped
her learn to read from some of the simplest early readers.
BB: A moment ago, you said you went through different
stages in learning how to help Isabella. What seems significant to
me is that you werewillingto go through different stages —- you
werewillingto be involved in whatever ways were needed. And so you
learned how to be a better manager, and a more patient mother. You
were willing to be a student yourself
Ms. W: Maybe that is because years ago I
thought, “After I have kids, I will grow up with them again!” I
didn’t have a lot of extras when I was a child in China. We had
music in school, but I couldn’t study an instrument at home. We
just played outside all day long! So after becoming a parent, I
knew what I wanted for my children.
I think 99 percent of people end up like my husband and me: you
work, you earn your living. I want my children to be happy. How can
they be happy? They have toknow moreso when they have spare time,
they can go to a concert, and they can enjoy it. The most important
thing I learned is that I need to preparemyselfbefore I can prepare
them. At some point, I say, “I’m ready!” Then I start to get them
ready for it. Now, everybody is ready.
Learning about patience has also been important to me. Now, when
other parents ask me about how I’ve helped Isabella with piano, I
always say, “Don’t push them, be patient.” Of course, this has
worked both ways. I also learn from parents who have older kids, so
when my kids reach that age, I can have some idea of what to
The need for scheduling
BB: You are a very busy person! You have two young
daughters; you work twenty hours a week as an accountant; I think
you told me once you also do all the cooking and run the household.
How do you handle all of that, and yet stay so involved with your
children’s education—musical and otherwise?
Ms. W: I schedule everything! ( She pauses,
then laughs.) You also might laugh if I told you all the details!
For instance, on Sundays, I plan the menus foreverythingI’m going
to cook all week, and for all the housework. It takes me only ten
minutes to do it, but then during the week, I don’t have to give
any more thought to it.
BB: So you plan the predictable and recurring things. Do
you find that helps you be more flexible with whatever Isabella
Ms. W: Yes. When Isabella was in school and my younger one was
sleeping, I would look at my schedule, and I would know exactly
what I needed to do, and I would try to fit in the housework during
that time. Then later I could find more time for my kids.
BB: Do you still have time for your own life — to be
with your husband, your friends?
Ms. W: Yes, after the kids go to bed. Also, we
schedule nothing on Saturday afternoons so the family has time
together then, and we all go to church on Sundays.
BB: What would you do if you were working40hours a week,
and you had, say,fourkids —- might you handle all of this
differently? Could you supervise four children as closely as you’re
doing two now?
Ms. W: I think if I wanted to, I could. I would
plan more closely, and try to manage. Itisvery hard. Even now, when
I started doing all of this with my kids, at the end of the day I
looked back and saw all the things I hadn’t planned. Then I sat
down to think — how could I make more time for everybody?
When you think about what Isabella does each day — piano,
reading, school work — right now, it takes only about 60 minutes a
day at the most. If she wakes up at 8:30 in the morning, and goes
to bed at 9:30 at night, she has plenty of time to do everything!
I’ve pointed this out to Isabella many times, so now she is used to
this idea, and the schedule has become part of her daily life.
The importance of consistent attendance at
BB: I believe you had perfect attendance this year.
Isabella didn’t miss a single lesson, right?
Ms. W: Yes, and she didn’t miss a single class
in school either. I think establishing habits is very important. As
long as kids get used to doing something, they continue to do
I’ve learned one important thing: if I relax one percent, the
child will relax 100 percent! One day, I watched television instead
of helping Isabella practice. She spent more time at the piano than
she normally does, but she got little accomplished. Yet when I’m
with her and helping, she can get everything done well in a short
time. So I have told myself, I can’t let up. I have talked to a lot
of other parents, and they have made the same observation: Parents
have to set an example; if parents step back on one thing, kids
tend to step back on everything.
BB: Children become ill, and that’s unavoidable. A few
families, who used to be in my studio, cancelled many lessons for
what seemed to me to be casual reasons. Or when they did come to
lessons, they went to great lengths to explain why their children
weren't prepared (yet again). They said this in front of the
Ms. W: That’s very bad. When I was young, my
mom never let me miss anything. Take school, for example. My mom
would say, “You have to go!” So I learned, that’s my life, my
responsibility. I have to do that.
If a child has difficulty learning the material at some point,
and you let them give up, that's also bad. Instead, they have to
learn that when you start something, you may have difficulty with
it at times, but you stay with it. Then later, if you really don’t
like it, dropping it can be discussed again.
Even now, I tell Isabella that every semester, she has to
dedicate herself to school and piano — those are ongoing things.
She’s also interested in dance and singing, so I may enroll her in
special summer programs in one of those activities at some time in
the future. Whenever she asks about starting a new activity during
the school year, I let her know that if she starts it, she can’t
quit until she has given it a fair chance. I would let her choose
onlyonenew activity a semester such as ice skating, dancing,
swimming, painting, drawing, crafts — so she can do it well.
I tell her: “With whatever you are doing, even if it feels
difficult, you can do it. As long as we try together, how hard
could it be?
On priorities and helping children manage their homework
and other activities
BB: Some families seem to have difficulty keeping
everyday events from getting in the way of piano lessons and home
preparation. How is it that you’ve been able to fight off all of
Ms. W: I plan!(she laughs)
BB: But we can't plan for everything. Unexpected things
Ms. W: Yes, but I have priorities. I list
everything Isabella needs to do each day. I started doing this with
her when she started school because I wanted her to be used to
this. Right now, she needs to play piano 10-15 minutes a day —
that’s not that much. She needs to read in one of her books each
day for a while. She needs to do her homework — that’s only about
ten minutes a day. So I made a calendar that went up on the kitchen
wall and after Isabella completed her work, she checked it off.
After a few months of this, she got used to it, and we didn’t need
it anymore, because she knew herself what she was to do each
BB: Some children might not enjoy an activity if they
knew it was something theyhadto do, and they were just checking
things off a list. Yet, Isabella seems to really enjoy playing the
piano. How have you made this pleasurable at the same
Ms. W: I think a parent has to be involved with
the child so they can do ittogether. That seems to make a big
difference. Maybe when she’s eight or nine, I won’t need to spend
that much time in this same way, but I’ll still need to supervise
BB: Do you think that by that age, she’ll be doing many
of these things herself — managing her own time?
Ms. W: I would think so. That’s why I'm working
on these habits now.
BB: Would you agree that a young child is working at a
disadvantage if a parent is not willing or able to get this
Ms. W: Yes, unless the kid is a genius!
Otherwise, it's the parents’ job to set the standard for the
BB: Some families seem to also have difficulty juggling
sporting events with piano lessons and home preparation. You
haven’t. How have you dealt with this?
Ms. W: Again, Iplan. For instance, when we
realized last spring that we wanted to put Isabella into T-Ball in
the Fall, I looked into the schedule ahead of time. To avoid a
conflict with piano, I asked you to change her lesson time for the
BB: What if I had not been able to accommodate your
schedule change request, and there had been no way to avoid the
Ms. W: Then I would have postponed her getting
involved in the sporting event. I would have told her, “We can’t do
T-Ball this year.” I think the T-Ball can wait, but piano can’t.
Once you have started piano lessons, you shouldn’t stop them — they
need to be continuous. It’s difficult to get kids used to a regular
work schedule. Once they do, if you change it, it’s even more
difficult to get them into it again.
Also, I think your studio has an excellent schedule: the weeks
that school is in session, you have lessons; when school is not in
session, you don't have regular lessons. This helps a lot. The
children are in their work mode much of the time, but they also
look forward to and appreciate their breaks.
BB: It sounds like when other things come up, you
prioritize. Since I’m a piano teacher, I naturally agree with this!
But why doyouthink that studying piano deserves such a high
Ms. W: I think kids should have school, music,
and sports. These three things are very important for them. You
have to balance everything. You already know how you would like
your kids to be in the future. Everything I do is based on this
I want their life to be very colorful for them: to know music,
to enjoy sports, and to be good students. I don’t need to push them
really hard to do this, but I feel I have to prepare them.
BB: What would you do if Isabelladidn’tenjoy
Ms. W: I don't know. (pauses a while) I think
the most important thing for a parent is to know that this activity
is a good thing for the children. You want them to be involved in
it, so you take the lead. I have music on in the house all day
long. We listen to a lot of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, but we also
have music like the Eagles’ greatest hits, Celine Dion, Chinese
music — traditional and folk music. Sometimes we also let the kids
watch television programs that show other children playing music
The importance of involvement of both family and
BB: Whatever Isabella is doing, you help her see that
she’s not doing it by herself — that the activity is something many
people do, and that the involvement is a good thing for her. In
addition, she sees you and your family enjoying the activity as
Ms. W: Yes. I think family involvement is very
important. Also important is the involvement of her friends. For
instance, when she got together with classmates at play dates, she
discovered that all five of her friends also play piano! So they
played piano for each other! So now she’s starting to think,
“Taking piano is not extra for me — everyone is doing it.” That
helps a lot. And it was just lucky that it turned out this way.
We all enjoy Isabella’s piano playing. What better way can you
spend your spare time? You cannot watch television all day long!
(laughs) If you did not give children an opportunity to do these
other activities, they would probably just sit and watch
BB: And video games. Do you let her play video
(before I even finished my question!)
Ms. W: No!! I just tell her, “No, that’s not good for
you.I don’t play video games.”
BB: Thank you very much for taking the time to do this
Ms. W: My pleasure. I like to share my
experiences with others, because I didn’t know anything about this
before, and I had nothing to read ahead of time. I have learned how
to do this through my own experience and talking with others.
Isabella is six now, and I have learned so many things in the past
Please go to Clavier
Companion’s website at
to hear some recordings of Isabella
playing, and some audio clips from this interview
Ms. W is obviously a very special parent!
Bruce Berr is an associate editor of Keyboard Companion