I am a single parent and I’m trying to teach my son to play the piano. The problem is that he just won’t practice. My own music teacher was a very angry woman, and I’m trying not to lose my temper with my son, but it’s getting difficult. He’s seven years old and he’s musical, that’s clear, but although he’s good at other subjects at school, when it comes to piano he just refuses to work at it. I’ve tried rewards, punishments, bribes, praise – nothing seems to work. How can I get him to do it? It’s only quarter of an hour a day.
I tried to help my son learn the piano when he was small, with dire results. I got angry, he dug his heels in, and we got absolutely nowhere. And with the benefit of hindsight, I think you’re asking too much of yourself, trying to be a mother and father and now teacher to your son as well.
Anyway, children want their parents to be parents, not teachers. And it’s extremely difficult, if you’re in that parental relationship, not to let the emotional stresses of your home life overflow into the teaching relationship. There’s a gender element here, too. Were you your son’s father I think it would be easier, because – though I know this is a huge generalisation – fathers tend to be associated with risk-taking and danger. Dad will often let a child climb a tree higher than a mother – and so even piano-playing, if it’s taught by a father to a son, can be seen as a pursuit more blokeish that something peddled by Mum.
The piano isn’t something you can be punished or cajoled to enjoy. And most talented young musicians find they’re drawn to it naturally. Once my son discovered the ukulele, I had practically to drag it out of his hands of a night-time, rather than compel him to work at it for a prescribed time every day.
Remember, too, that the piano can be an incredibly difficult instrument to learn, and it may be that your son just can’t really cope with it at the moment. Of course at pinch he could be forced to learn but will he ever enjoy it in the future? Not if he associates it with dread and boredom. And having, as a child, been taught by a monstrous musical maestro and reached Grade Six, I myself rarely can bear go near a piano now.
I’d develop your son’s musical sensibilities by taking him to a variety of musical events – and not just classical ones. Drop in on performances anywhere, from folk to flamenco, jazz to musicals. And if he does pick an instrument that suits him, find him a teacher who doesn’t believe in reading music at first. Music can often best be taught as a series of chords and sounds, with their own logic, not limited by staves and semi-quavers.
Incidentally, having eschewed the piano (to my disappointment) my own son did finally end up as a full-time musician. But no thanks, I’m afraid, to my crass and bumbling efforts to push him.
Don’t force him
When I was six I adamantly refused to practise violin. Yet now at the age of 19 I’m studying at Trinity Laban on the jazz course. Why not simply foster his musicality sans instrument. Take him to concerts, introduce him to different genres, allow him to develop his own taste. By encouraging a passion for music, his actual will to play and practise it will become apparent. There’s no point in pressuring him (too much). That’s unnecessary stress for yourself and him.
George Winstone, London
Give him time
More than 30 years ago my son of seven was introduced to the piano and soon was doing quite well. But after two years begged to give it up. Although disappointed, we let him and a year after that he came home from school one day begging to learn the oboe. Within two years he had passed Grade 7 with a distinction. He is now a professional woodwind teacher. Let your son give up the piano if he’s not enjoying it. The musicality will find a more pleasurable outlet.
Joe Daggers, By email
Next week’s dilemma
My 67-year-old father, a widower, is besotted with a 25-year-old Chinese girl. He’s lent her a lot of money, and is talking of marrying her. My brother and I don’t trust her and we looked her up on the internet and found she’s been in prison for fraud. But when we told my father he said he knew about that but she’d promised she’d turned over a new leaf. Is there anything we can do? My brother has a special-needs child and is worried that when my dad dies, his money – which is considerable – will go to this scheming girl and not to us.
What would you advise Jane to do?
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