With lots of screaming and tears, I was close to stopping El’s piano lessons after one year. There were some spikes in interest, but most of the time, his interest was low, especially if you compare to his extremely strong interest in art.
I knew that he did not like playing the piano because he was experiencing failure. Learning everything else such as dinosaurs, animals, countries, capitals and flags was extremely easy to him. Whenever he could not play the next note correctly, he would get extremely frustrated and throw tantrums.
With the frequent meltdowns, people around me felt I was pushing him too hard. It was easy to let him give up, but I thought that he needed to know that it was alright to make mistakes, and that with practice, he should be able to overcome challenges and become more resilient. By not letting him learn how to fail, I would be doing him a disservice, as Dr Gail Post mentioned in her blogpost about failure as a life lesson. Dr Martha Beth Lewis also talks about reactions to failure by gifted children on piano playing.
Suddenly, an idea came to me. Instead of forcing him to play the piano, I should make him like piano. Instead of using the stick approach, I should dangle the carrot instead. I told him that as long as he earned fifty stickers, he would be able to go to River Safari, where he could see gharials, beavers and pandas. It was a place he wanted to visit again, but I had been too busy to bring him to.
Almost immediately, his attitude changed. He was willing to practise just one time, to get a sticker. Initially, I started with a sticker for each time he practise a song. Slowly, I was able to stretch it to a sticker for one song. He could choose leaves or marine creatures, or even lions and cheetahs. He started filling up his book. For each day of practice, he was able to get between three to five stickers.
With practice, he was able to play better during his piano lesson, and it became more enjoyable. When we had reached around 35 stickers, his playing became much better. His teacher actually recorded him playing the piano without any errors, and sent a video to me. I was definitely extremely happy about that.
Despite this initial success, I knew that playing the piano was just another activity to him, and it was not something fun yet. According to Therese Haberman’s article about gifted children and play activities, she mentioned that getting children to practise the piano or other instruments would qualify as skill development instead of play. El was playing the piano because I made him do so.
On one occasion, I started dancing to the music he was playing, when we discovered one instrument on the keyboard produced multiple notes when played. He laughed, and I played for him to dance. This was what piano should be about – fun, expressive and free.
He had been drawing a lot recently, and then suddenly, he started composing his own songs, just when we were reaching fifty stickers. He drew different beats and wrote his own lyrics. There were some spelling errors but I decided that it should not overshadow his newfound interest.
He included drawings too to decorate the page. He also played on the piano for me. These were just simple tunes, but the fact was he did all these on his own accord. He even asked for the keyboard to be switched on, when I usually had to ask him whether he wanted more stickers to go to the River Safari before he would walk to the piano.
I asked whether he needed a music manuscript book. He declined. When he played the songs to me, he realised that he needed the staff so that he would know what notes they were. Like what Haberman said, when a child writes a poem spontaneously or composes music on his own, that can be seen as play and relaxation. I am so glad he has found another artistic outlet.