Beyond the Three R's- Homeschooling Music
Hey all you homeschooling parents, it's December now! That time of year when our public schooling friends are looking forward to Christmas vacation, followed by that time when "Mom and Dad can hardly wait for school to start again". That time of year when we are revamping our homeschooling day with new years resolutions. When our holiday shopping funnels into the homeschooling pot. With the three R's in check, perhaps it's time to examine the extra-curricular activities. What about homeschooling music, art, and physical education?
As a homeschooler, I approach the holidays a little differently. It's a time that rivals September in school planning. Sure, we'll stock up on notebooks and crayons during the back-to-school sales, but this is the time when I try to breath new life into our homeschooling day. That the February slump is around the corner. I have been to at least two dozen educational sites during the black Friday through cyber Monday sales, trying to stretch our homeschooling dollar. Most deals I had to turn down, but I'm very good at searching! I want to funnel as much Christmas money as possible towards educational toys, puzzles, and DVDs.
I also want to slow down our homeschooling day in order to spend more quality time with the children doing crafts and making meaningful homemade gifts. January is a time for new years resolutions, and December is the time to reflect on what is working, what isn't, and how next year can be better. Because after the holidays, it's time for the rubber to meet the road again, and we want to be ready.
Only 15 minutes a day?
As a homeschool mom and musician who obviously thinks homeschooling music is important, you know, given that I've built an entire website dedicated to that purpose, it may surprise you to hear that I only require my children to practice the piano 15 minutes a day. I've played with different times and requirements and this is the schedule that has realistically worked for us, and I'll tell you why.
I'm actually very happy with what we have accomplished in our music time. I focus on quality, not quantity. And in addition to their 15 minutes at the piano, we have an additional 10-20 minute group music class where we play music games, watch educational music videos, and solidify basic music concepts. And there you have it, approximately 30 minutes of daily music education, which is probably about right.
The balancing act
While I do treasure music education, I also treasure a variety of other subjects. I simply made a music site because it's what I'm good at and I saw a need for more homeschooling music education sites. It seems the internet already had a good selection for the three R's, history, foreign language, etc, but sites dedicated to homeschooling music education where few and far between, and this is my passion. So here it is. But it's my hobby, and I try not to let my bias towards music interfere too much with giving my own children a balanced education.
The truth is, I've got several kids and only one piano. Furthermore, I'm the one teaching them piano and they are going to learn to play whether they like it or not. It's not optional, just like math, reading, and writing, I think it's important that they learn to play and that they become musically literate. However, I don't want to push them into a musical carrier. While I'd love to have a musical prodigy, I haven't really made it a priority. I'm sorry if you were expecting more, but the truth is, there isn't more to see here. But you can do an awful lot in 15 minutes, so let's talk about that.
Yes, 15 minutes. Here's why.
I have six children, four of whom are taking piano lessons from yours truly. If I were to require them all to practice 30+ minutes a day, that's a full two hours I would need to be focused on listening to them. Leaving the dishes to tell them not to pound on the keys and try to do it right. Bear in mind that my oldest is only 9, and that I reserve the right to require more of them when my children are older, but for now, they are learning about self-discipline and while they learn the basics they have short attention spans. Especially if I simply tell them, "Okay, time to practice the piano now. Go!"
I also recognize that 30 minutes is the kind of goal that has been mutually placed by parents and piano teachers when a child is taking piano lessons. There is a lot of time and money involved, and it is important to make the most of that investment. Some kids really thrive in this environment, and that hard work pays off big time. They really love piano, they work hard, and they soon start practicing even more. They have tasted success and want more of it.
But some kids, well, they don't thrive. Getting them to practice for so long is a combination of boring and hard work all rolled into one. They hate that 30 minute timer and they fight it. In turn the parents hate being the bad guy, and all too often that child ends up quitting piano altogether. There are many families who have one or two children who are "talented", that practice the piano those 30+ minutes and they don't complain. Then the other children don't do piano at all, and while they are glad that they won the battle of not having to sit through the daily drudge of practicing, as they grow older they wish that they could have stuck it out.
My homeschooling music goals are centered on giving ALL of my kids basic literacy skills. I can do it with by consistently applying myself to their daily practice only if my goals are realistic.
Making the most of your time.
My children have lots of free time, and they are more than welcome to play the piano any time it's available. The best part is that they often do! However, 15 minutes is all I require, BUT! I do require it of all of them. Furthermore, until they are a little older and are more independent, I actually sit with them while they practice. I can do that for an hour a day broken into 15 minute chunks, but I can't do it for two hours without sacrificing other school subjects.
I sit with them while they practice. I'll help them keep their place on the song. If they play the wrong note, I'll sing the correct one. I'll let them play through the song then point out what could be improved. In short, I treat those 15 minutes almost like a piano lesson. They can count on it. But then they also know that they can play around on the piano without me interrupting them any other time of the day, although I'm happy to help them out if they ask for it. Because they know piano time with me is short, they are more happy to work during that time. Even my children who don't gravitate towards music can do that.
Having a separate "music time" gives their time on the bench more meaning.
The other thing that helps that actually-at-the-piano-bench time be more effective is a mini-homeschooling-music class I do with all of the children. We will play music board games, run through flashcards, watch educational video clips on this site, YouTube, or Preschool Prodigies. Sometimes we'll learn a new song. I'll asses their weak points and address them. Then, when we sit at the piano, they don't need to review theory since we do that as a family. It's all business. Time to practice their technique and applying what they have learned to instrument.
This helps them put the "play" back in "playing the piano" when the official homeschooling music time is separated from knowing they get to play the piano for themselves and their own enjoyment.
The 10,000 hour rule
Consider the "10,000 hour rule" made famous in Malcom's book, "Outliers". The basic premise is that if you practice a skill for 10,000 hours, not only will you master that skill, you will become phenomenally successful. That experts study approximately 8,000 hours, and that final 2,000 hours is what separates the experts from the masters. It follows that 80-20 rule. While there some misunderstandings about this principal, and many reject it outright, it is a good rule of thumb to consider if one wants to master any skill. The point is- it takes a LOT of work! 10,000 hours for ten years, is 1,000 hours a year, or approximately 3 hours a day for 11 months. A real commitment.
But that's if you want to be a master. While I would love to see my children master piano, what I really want is to give them a broad and balanced education, and with so many kids, I need a good compromise.
The "OK Plateau"
15 minutes really isn't a lot of time. However, done consistently, that time does add up.
In Maria Popova's article "Debunkingthe Myth of the 10,000-Hours Rule: What it Actually takes to reach Genius-Level Excellence", she emphasizes the importance of deliberate practice. She talks about how deliberate learning is a "top-down" experience, where you are consciously working on improving. On the other hand, "bottom-up" practice is what happens when you reach a state they call the "ok plateau". After about 50 hours of top-down learning, people will typically reach a point where they are comfortable with a new skill and no longer have to concentrate so hard on the task. They can run on auto-pilot while allowing their mind to wander. This applies to learning to drive, skiing, and of course, learning to play an instrument.
In 15 minutes a day of DELIBERATE practice, 200 days a year (a little more than the 180 school days), one will have practiced 50 hours. That's enough to have a solid, basic understanding of any skill set. If I, as an adult with a foundational knowledge of music, were to pick up the guitar and learn to play, I would probably be fairly proficient after 50 hours. Good enough to accompany myself while singing a few folk songs in public. Good enough. But certainly not enough to make me be outstanding. But better than average. If I reach that point and only play for fun afterwards, I won't ever really become any better. I need to consciously work towards "top-down" learning if I want to improve.
It all adds up.
But 50 hours served a grand purpose, and I would be so much better off committing even just that much to the skill. What if a high-schooler, unsure of what future career interests them, were to devote 15 minutes a day to several different pursuits? They could become a jack-of-all-trades, although a master of none. But that's okay- they would be getting a chance to test the waters before committing themselves to the mastery of a skill that will give them the skills to pay the bills.
And that's just in one year. My young children, practicing 15 minutes of dedicated, deliberate practice on the piano, plus another 15-ish minutes in family music time, are practicing enough to give them music literacy. Literacy is my ultimate homeschooling music goal, for ALL of my children. Those who show a keen interest will have my enthusiastic support to improve. Over the course of several years, that habit of conscious learning will give them the skills to study efficiently in become life learners without burnout.
Homeschooling Music with Realistic Commitments
Best of all, I can commit to that kind of teaching, even with a big family, without burning myself out. I can commit to dedicated teaching in 15 minute spurts, even with my own short attention span. Because let's face it- homeschooling can be tedious for adults too. We've got diapers to change, meals to prepare, laundry to do, and walls to keep crayon free. I would rather succeed at small goals and keep them, than make larger ones that aren't realistic for me and my family situation. Sometimes those bigger roles have to take the back seat. Sometimes we have to say "No, I can't do this", and it's okay. But what I can do, I do do, and this is what works for me.