So your child has decided he/she wants to take up an instrument. Awesome! Like most parents you want to see your child do well and develop new skills. But what happens if you aren’t “musical” yourself?
Our teachers here often have had parents approach them, concerned that they would be unable to assist their child with music homework, because they don’t understand enough of what’s involved. This is perfectly valid concern, but not one that is impossible to overcome, if you’re willing to do a bit of learning yourself!
Often, when hearing the instrument being played at home, this is enough for most to assume your child is practising. Any good teacher will tell you it’s more than going through the motions that contributes to effective practise, and that, in particular, is a skill that really needs to be encouraged in children and young people – an objective self awareness that does not normally develop until young adulthood, and in some cases beyond.
Because practical performance is such a “present” art (in that, as a performer, you are giving something of yourself that you must be present for throughout, and the finished product is received live without the opportunity to correct mistakes) it is especially nerve racking for the learner. Commonly, children are scared or worried about being “wrong”. This can become consuming in the moment, to the point where mistakes are in fact more likely to be made, which in turn creates stress in the mind, and the whole practising and learning process becomes fraught and cyclically inefficient. One way this can be overcome is by creating a supportive learning environment. Simply by focussing on and encouraging more of the positive, and keeping criticism to the constructive kind can work wonders for the confidence. Most importantly, it is vital to reiterate and reinforce that mistakes are acceptable! Obviously I don’t mean “please learn your repertoire full of holes and inaccuracies”, but you cannot expect to run before you can walk. Part of the learning process is finding out what to avoid, and sometimes the only way to do that is to make the mistakes. Practise is NOT performance. It is the safe space in which you hone your skill. Just because somebody may be around to hear it does not mean you have to present your best work. If you can encourage this as early in the learning process as possible, you will hopefully have a happy and relaxed child who can focus on moving forwards instead of being held back by the idea that their errors are insurmountable.
As for music theory, this is often where most “non-musical” parents feel the most at a loss. If you don’t have any theoretical background, written music looks exactly as you would expect: A bunch of meaningless dots and squiggles on funny lined paper. That’s fair. If you want to get really involved, you could take theory lessons yourself alongside your child (it may even encourage you to take up that instrument!). Alternatively, try to verse yourself with at least the basics. There are a couple of resources you could use that I will link to at the end of this article. Yet another alternative is ask your child’s teacher what the crux of their homework is. Most would be happy to explain it as clearly as possible for you in order for their student to receive a good level of support outside of lesson times.
As already mentioned, the most important thing to do to help your child is foster an environment that is a safe space for them to practise. Speaking from personal experience (both as a child and as a teacher), whilst it might be tempting to poke a little good natured fun at some of those dodgy notes – even if your kid has an awesome sense of humour, I would strongly advise against it, especially at the early stages of learning , as it draws unnecessary attention to errors and reinforces the idea that they must be dwelled upon.
You don’t need to be “musical” in order to provide all of the things mentioned here – support and encouragement are all that’s needed.
The AB Guide to Music Theory (parts I and II), is the ABRSM’s textbook for theory. If it’s something you’re willing to do, the book can be a little dry, but has all the information, concisely laid out, but is perhaps better for the older learner.
Flash Cards are a great way to get your child’s brain working! Sometimes we learn best by repetition as well as understanding, so these are a wonderful way to physically have something you can use at home. Click here for a selection of available flash cards.
This website uses mostly American terms, but is a great free resource you can brush up on either for yourself or with your child. There are lessons and exercises, in notes, rhythms and chords amongst other things – check it out here: www.musictheory.net