We Are All Learning

(This post also appears in our SCDSB 194 Days of Learning Blog!)

About eight months ago, I blogged about the challenges of supervising my daughters’ daily piano practice. The post described how we were all learning something from this shared experience, particularly about grit and perseverance.

The last week has brought about an interesting development in our family piano journey. I have agreed to take on the role of piano accompanist for a community choir I belong to. Our previous accompanist had moved on, and although I didn’t volunteer immediately and enthusiastically (I have lots on my plate!) I knew that I could fill the position if they needed me to. 

It has been several years (read: more than 10) since I did any work as an accompanist, and I do not practise piano regularly (read: almost never). The challenge of jumping back into this type of role was attractive to me; an opportunity to shake off the cobwebs and see what I’m capable of. 

Now I find a little bit of time each day to practise piano. I am acutely aware that I can teach my girls about ‘piano grit’ by modelling that grittiness in a very real way. So, I repeat the same three bars of music 10 times if I have to. I get out the metronome and slow down when I encounter challenging rhythms. I write down a list of things I need to work on so that I can use my time efficiently. I stop or take a break if I get frustrated.

Kids learn by example. As parents and teachers it is important that the young people in our lives see us taking on real challenges. Sometimes there is discomfort associated with a teacher learning along with (or in front of) students, but I can’t think of a better way to model learning strategies and growth mindset.

Growth Mindset at the Piano

I have been reflecting lately about the parallels between monitoring my daughters’ piano practice and working with students in the classroom. I consider my time at the piano with my girls every day my own personal ‘growth mindset’ bootcamp. (Any teacher-parents in my reading audience will almost certainly identify with my experience.)

The Thursday Problem

Piano lessons are on Wednesday for my girls. Faced with new pieces of music the next day (Thursday) my older daughter (age 8) is usually fairly calm, entering the situation with reasonable expectations of success. My younger daughter (age 6) can be a handful on Thursdays. She is a perfectionist and meets every mistake with a groan (moan?) of frustration. She knows that her performance will improve each day and that she will master each piece eventually but this does not help her handle these moments gracefully.

The support my kids need from me on the first day of practice is very different than subsequent days. New notes or symbols on the page can be difficult to understand and create feelings of helplessness. (Chemistry class, anyone?) On the first day of piano practice I help them tackle new skills or concepts by:
  • guiding them through problem solving: “You’re not sure what this note is, but I think you know the one that comes before it. Does that help you figure it out?”
  • suggesting useful strategies: “Sometimes it can help to slow down. Why not start from the beginning and take it a bit slower?” “Let’s tap the rhythm before you try to play this piece again.”
  • teaching mindfulness: “Where are your fingertips/wrists/arms doing right now?” “Listen while you play. Which note sounds louder?”


Grit (mine and theirs)

Teaching your own kids is not the same as teaching other peoples’ kids. Some mornings at the piano are more challenging than others. The following phrases have been heard at my piano more than a few times:
“I can’t do it.”
“It’s too hard.”
“I don’t WANT to play it again.”
I must admit that it took me a couple of months to build up enough ‘mother grit’ to deal with these episodes appropriately on a consistent basis. More than once I walked away from the piano when the whining and complaining persisted. I chose to walk away rather than get angry even though I know walking away wasn’t teaching my kids anything about grit.

Choosing to stay at the piano during rough patches forces me to focus on helping my kids through their own urges to quit. I am becoming a better listener, and with patience I am able to get them to elaborate on “I can’t do it” so we can identify the real issue and move forward. It took time to change our ‘family piano dynamic,’ but now my girls know that I don’t give up on them. My perseverance has helped them persevere, and episodes of giving up are becoming much less frequent.


I studied piano when I was young and understand the importance of regular practice. My kids know that daily practice is expected and some days this is viewed as nothing but another task that needs to be crossed off the list of things to do before school – a list that includes things like brushing teeth and washing hands. Despite our regular practice regimen some of the best learning happens at other times of the day. 

I have learned to embrace the cacophony that sometimes fills the house as my girls casually experiment by playing their pieces higher/lower/louder/softer than they do during practice. Even the wince-worthy sound of them incompletely transposing their pieces has become music to my ears, because they know the music sounds wrong and are always exploring ways to make it sound better. On their own, my girls have made connections between piano theory and the songs they sing in our community choir. They are wonderful at identifying rhythmic and melodic patterns. I am often surprised by the high level of their questions and wonderings, and happy that I have enough music knowledge to push their learning forward. I always answer their questions honestly and completely, and will pull out books or play a tune to help them understand.  

I don’t want anyone to thing I am experiencing ‘piano practice utopia’ at my house. We still have difficult mornings and there are times that I ask my kids to ‘please STOP banging on the piano right now.’ Some mornings we are in more of a rush than others and I am not as patient or mindful as I would like to be. One thing I am certain of is that we are all getting a little better at our respective piano roles every day, and that’s enough to make me happy.