When I had just turned 5, my mom gave me a jump rope. I attempted to actually JUMP ROPE with it, but could not quite master the art of skillfully whipping the rope around at the exact time needed to jump over it without tripping on it. The way she tells the story, I gave it a few tries, became frustrated, and threw a tantrum because I couldn’t do it.
Then my mom signed me up for piano lessons.
Yes, these two events are related. You see, I was a kiddo who was a perfectionist. My mom wanted me to learn that there are things in life that will challenge me, and that I needed to work through those challenges to master certain skills. There’s not exactly instant gratification when it comes to learning a musical instrument.
Since I began piano lessons at such a young age, I don’t remember what it looked or felt like to work through those frustrations. But now I have a daughter who is very much like me.
Call it karma, but my daughter, too, is a perfectionist who is used to many academic things coming quickly to her. I recognized how easily frustrated she became if she wasn’t instantly THE BEST at something. I saw the benefits in starting her with piano lessons at a young age, just as I had.
While I may not remember my earliest piano lessons and practices, I remember my daughter’s. And not fondly! It was not unusual for her to throw herself onto the piano bench in a dramatic display of despair at being asked to play a 3-note song. If she couldn’t play Mary Had a Little Lamb perfectly the first time through, the tears would flow. It was SO TEMPTING to just say, “Okay, we’re done!”
Fast forward 3 years, and our piano practices are worlds different. She has been at it long enough to know that things will come in time. She is confident in her ability to work through mistakes and she actually enjoys playing and rarely complains when it’s time to practice. It’s not ALWAYS easy. There are still occasional tears or resistance to practicing when she’s working on a particularly difficult piece of music. However, she has come a loooong way and learned a lifelong lesson about working through challenges.
Members of my online courses who are part of my private Facebook group recently discussed practicing struggles on a thread with me. I learned that many parents are working through the challenges that come with having a child who is a perfectionist or becomes easily frustrated. If this describes your kiddo, you aren’t alone!
I want to share with you some of the things that helped my own daughter immensely, and also wisdom and ideas that I’ve gathered from other parents whose children have taken lessons from me through the years.
I hope our collective experiences will help preserve your sanity.
I’m a big fan of practicing in very small sections – especially if a child is really struggling to master a certain concept or taking on a longer piece. There’s absolutely NO REASON to try to play the entire piece at your very first practice. It can take forever, be discouraging and result in frustrations.
Instead, I encourage you to divide the piece up to four sections (give or take a few, depending on the length of the piece). Take on one section per day. My daughters’ music tends to be 2-3 pages long, so we typically work on 2-3 lines per practice. She might play them hands separate a few times, and then together a few times. Because we’re working on such a small section, it doesn’t take a huge amount of time to work through. She doesn’t get overwhelmed and makes noticeable progress. She then feels as though she’s accomplished something (and she has!).
Keep things light by taking a practice or two away from the piano.
Work on the rhythm of a piece using drums or tambourines. Sing the melody of the piece together using solfege or making up silly words. (Click here to read 4 ways to practice piano without a piano.)
Throw some “easy” pieces into the mix.
It can be discouraging to work on all new things and feel as though you are really tripping over all the notes and not making music! Allowing your child to occasionally work through something below the level she is currently working at can boost her confidence. She might then feel motivated again when she remembers how fun it is to play something well!
Give specific praise.
If my daughter really stumbles her way through a scale and I say, “Good job!”, I am usually met with a skeptical side-eye. Why should she believe me if she is clearly struggling and I am giving her vague compliments? Finding something she did really well gives her something encouraging to grasp onto. “Good job using correct fingering!” or “Your round fingers look beautiful!” or “I love how you’re keeping your eyes on the music.”
When it comes to learning a musical instrument, perfectionism can actually be an asset. Once your child learns not to let that perfectionism keep her from working through mistakes and celebrating small victories, perseverance is developed . Success begets success. When you support her through the learning process and she begins to see actual progress being made, she’ll feel the sense of accomplishment, confidence and pride that come with the ability to make music.