Getting your child ready to play for family and friends

The holidays are here and in the next few weeks, you will be with many family members and friends. Of course, from the adult point of view, that’s a good time for kids to entertain with their Christmas pieces. However, there are some considerations about the child’s point of view:

  • In our training model, we teach your children to know when they are ready, and to know when they’re not ready, to play. That is really important, since in standard music teaching, the student does not get to choose; the adults around him choose. By doing that, the student loses his or her own ability to know himself / herself, and when that happens, people will go up and play when not ready & have a bad experience. It is rampant in the music world. Your children have been taught to know when they are ready to play so when they decline it is for good reason. We teach it to them by the way we interact with them and through multiple playing experiences in the group classes (performance practice).
  • Children may still decline even when they know they are ready for other reasons. They may feel overwhelmed, tired, overstimulated, etc and I can tell you, as a musician, that musical performance is not just something that has an on/off switch. The child may be using his own appraisal of the situation to decline, and you won’t see it from her point of view. Often, it will just sound like the child is being “whiny” when they say, “Ohhh…do I have to? I don’t want to!” This happens because they are unable to express this in words things such as, “Even though I know this piece, I’m feeling a bit uneasy about playing for these folks and because I don’t feel right, it will negatively impact my playing.”  There not complaining, so on this one, respect what they say.
  • Children may decline even if you make a deal with them up front, earlier in the day. The child may agree in the morning, but turn you down when the event arrives. Same reasons apply here–the situation has chit doesn’t feel right, so the child is declining.

In the music field it is common for people to place intense social pressure on musicians to play when they don’t want to. People who do this don’t understand the factors involved in changing mental states and environmental influences on memory recall and learning. All preparation aside, playing piano is a very complex skill that is easily impacted by our negative feelings, unfamiliar environmental context, past experiences, fluctuations in arousal, attentional levels of duration and intensity. Pressuring your child to play for guests while all these things are happening is very unhelpful and places your child at risk for damage to their self efficacy levels in piano. It doesn’t matter what the guest says afterward, if your child feels badly about how they played, it will negatively impact her feelings of competency. The complete mismatch between how they felt and what they are told (eg. “That was WONDERFUL!”) will only add insult to the matter. You cannot talk them out of it. We urge you to observe the following:

  • If your child declines initially, let it go at first, then come back to the child a half hour later and ask again. The child may feel differently after they have acclimated to the new situation.
  • Try making a deal up front, before the guests arrive at your house. However, be ready for the situation to overwhelm your child. Children cannot imagine what it will be like, and will react in the moment.
  • If your child has declined twice, let it go. Don’t talk about it, just drop the subject. Do not mention it again. Make sure everyone connected with the child is aware of what to do.
  • Do not reassure your child that he or she “can do it.” Belief in the self is not the problem. The child is appraising the situation, and something is overwhelming the child. The child is using that emotional information to appraise the situation and make the judgments she is making. When he is older, we’ll work with those judgments, but for now, listen to it.
  • If the child changes his mind and says she wants to play, don’t comment on it. Do not condescend. Stay real with the child. Just make it easy to get to the piano, and ask the crowd to be quiet while they hear the piece.
  • Some really small children (age 5 and younger) may believe they know a piece when they do not. This is simply their Developmental Level–problems in ascertaining the difference between fantasy and reality.  If your child is this age and wants to play, be sure and ask which piece she will play. If the child doesn’t know the piece, say something like, “lets play (another piece) that you know better. I really love hearing you play (the piece).” That usually does it.

Happy Holidays!

About Mark Zinn

Mark received his Artist Diploma and Master of Music degree in piano performance at Northern Illinois University, studying with Donald Walker. Mark also worked with Daniel Pollack in pursuit of his Bachelor of Music in Piano Performance at the University of Southern California. In addition to his studies in piano, Mark went on to pursue coursework in psychology and he underwent Doctoral level training and research at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Mark's research interests include using Low Resolution Brain Electromagnetic Tomography (LORETA) to investigate cognitive function in tasks involved in music making and skilled movement. Mark is also currently part of a research team at Stanford University Medical Center, which focuses on cognitive functional impairment as a result of chronic infectious diseases. Today, Mark owns and operates the Attainment Center for Neuroeducation, which uses applied neuroscience in specialized programs for the enhancement of learning and cognition in young children.


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