My son practiced piano for almost 3 years so far. For him and for me that's over 130 hours of weekly lessons and over 500 hours of daily practice. It's quite a commitment. I sit with him for every lesson and every practice session. I never had any piano lessons growing up, so I put in extra effort to follow the instruction. When we initially started, I put in my fair share of time to keep up with the music theory and the practice. Now, I can't keep up the practice, but I still follow the music theory closely.
The big question is why? What's so special about piano that this level of dedication and effort is warranted? Why not something else? What do I hope my son will gain with all these effort, and what do I gain? These are not easy questions, I struggle with these question every time my son complains about piano. I see him struggle with some difficult pieces and we both feel like giving up.
Here are some rational and irrational explanation why I think piano is important. Of course, since I am musically illiterate, these are just my opinion and hopes, with only limited experience and no research to back up any of these reasoning. As a parent, we often impose irrational or semi-rational beliefs on our children, I'm no different. But, I'm trying to write down my reasons publicly.
First, music is another language, and it's a core language of the human mind that crosses time, cultural, political, ethnic, social, and economic boundaries. Everyone listens to music. If possible, everyone should be able to talk, read, and write music. Piano is an easy way for kids to start learning to read, write, and talk the language of music.
Second, piano playing teaches coordination and concentration. Reading lines of music, playing with different timing on right and left hand is incredibly difficult. It really requires tremendous amount of focus and practice to do this well.
Third, piano playing, at children's level, is purely an individual effort. Parents and teachers can help guide but only one person plays the keys. There are no team member to hinder or help cover the mistakes. The results is completely dependent on ones focus and practice. No one else to blame or share the credit.
Forth, piano practice is time for honest self evaluation. Everyone has innate ability to appreciate good melody and rhythm, even little children. There is a simple and natural feedback loop during practice, children knows if they are play good music or not. I always asks my son, he what he thought of his playing. This process of self evaluation is critical for personal growth. Only through the process of self-evaluation can one stretch one's abilities.
Fifth, the piano playing result closely reflects the effort. Each music piece starts out really rough, one can barely pick out the melody. But as the practice progress, we can clearly make out the melody, then tempo of the music takes shape. Next, comes chords, adding their richness to the piece. Something really magical happens, when the child comprehends the mood of the piece. The playing becomes a song, not just a series of mechanical keys strokes, but a real wonderful and beautiful experience for the player and listener. Not every piece has this effect, but all the best song has this emotional connection with the player and it can only happen through practice.
Sixth, piano practice will teach perseverance. Piano practice is like a multi-level video game. Each song represents a level with its own unique fingers and technique. With a good teacher and good lesson plan, each piece builds on the prior techniques. Then the recitals are the mega-monster at the end of each series of levels. I wish piano is as addictive to kids as videos games, but I think some of the elements are the same. The perseverance is the ability to see the big picture, believing in oneself, through a series of small and baby steps, and make the big picture come true. There is NO way to learn perseverance through books or talking about it. Only by acting out the process of perseverance can a kid really learn it. So this is my job as a parent, to guide them through this process, let them see the end result of our combined effort. Hopefully, they will be able to apply this process to their passions in other areas.
Seventh, I wished I learned piano when I was a kid. My parents didn't believe that I had any musical talent that is worth investing. And it was never important enough compared to other subjects. I feel some regret and bitterness about that lack of opportunity even though I don't know if music lesson would have any much impact in my adult life. So i'm going to try to do something different for my children.
Eighth, music creates beauty and piano is easier to play compared to other instruments. I don't think I can handle violin in an inexperienced hand. The wrong pitch sounds would drive me crazy at home.
How is piano different from any other individual activities such as swimming, or golf? All these activities develops character and confidence through coordination, practice and perseverance. I think the key difference is self-evaluation. I believe music appreciation and expression is innate. Learning piano and music is a formal way to harness and advance this natural human ability. Swimming might be innate but golf is certainly a cultural activity. Because music appreciation is innate, there is a simple, natural, and positive feedback loop to enable growth of children's musical ability.
The big pictures is that I don't expect or even want my children to become concert pianist, become famous, and tour the world. I imagine that would be a very hard life. It's the process of learning music and piano that I hope will teach many valuable lessons: individual effort, honest self-evaluation, practice, and perseverance. I hope these lessons will build confidence and ability to apply this process to achieve self-confidence in other arena of their lives. I mean, honestly, I'm proud of myself that I survived 2 years of college math. I can't do integral, differential equation, or linear algebra to save my live now, but I know that I could do it again. I think college is like that. I can't remember most of the things that I supposedly learned in college, but I know it was a lot of reading, studying, and hard work. Mostly, what I learned is that I can do it again even better the second time if I wanted to. It's a kind of self-confidence.
So I need to consistently remind myself, whenever I feel disappointed that my son didn't do as well as I hoped in piano or anything else for that matter. Piano is only one of many medium that I use to teach these larger life lessons. I can't get distracted by the short term goals of the piano lessons to lose sight of the big picture of character and confidence building through individual effort, honest self-evaluation, practice, and perseverance. I must always be try to set high standards and still be positive and encouraging.