April/May 2011 Bonus Bytes

April 1, 2011

ad lib

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 issue.

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 Companion
©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 Interview

The importance of advanced preparation for new things

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 profession?

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 much?

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 experience yourself?

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 children’s education

BB: Let’s say you hadnotbeen this involved with her. What if you had just said, “Isabella, go into the living room and practice now”?

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 formal setting?

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 expect.

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 needs?

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 lessons

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 it.

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 children.

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 these things?

Ms. W: I plan!(she laughs)

BB: But we can't plan for everything. Unexpected things happen, right?

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 day.

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 time?

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 her.

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 involved?

Ms. W: Yes, unless the kid is a genius! Otherwise, it's the parents’ job to set the standard for the child.

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 Fall.

BB: What if I had not been able to accommodate your schedule change request, and there had been no way to avoid the conflict?

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 priority?

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 vision.

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 piano?

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 and singing.

The importance of involvement of both family and friends

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 well.

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 television!

BB: And video games. Do you let her play video games?

(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 interview.

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 six years.

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 Magazine.