This might conjure up images of my first-born child expertly executing martial arts moves – perhaps warding off an overly-keen piano teacher from assigning excessive amounts of theory. Or perhaps you’re inclined to envision Elissa diligently hunched over the keyboard, relentlessly practising her preludes and sonatas with a tireless discipline remniscent of a gifted young prodigy living somewhere in Asia.
Both perspectives are quite erroneous. Allow me to explain…
Last fall, Elissa began taking weekly piano lessons from a private instructor. While she was really excited at the prospect of studying music, the act of regularly practising her assigned songs was downright painful. It just never seemed to be “the right time” for her to practise; it was as though she was waiting for the perfect mood and moment to strike before sitting down in front of the ivories.
Of course, that moment never came; there was always something else to distract her. “Just let me watch one more cartoon…” or “I only have a couple of chapters left in this book…” or “I’m hungry – can’t I have a snack first?” where just a smattering of the dismissive responses I would get when suggesting a practise session.
Now although I’m blessed to have two kids who will eat pretty much any vegetable as part of their meal, I don’t think veggies pull all that much weight when it comes to motivating kids. And you can’t really blame them, can you? I mean, think of yourself; would you want to do something moderately difficult and be rewarded with a crunchy carrot? How about a bowlful of broccoli?
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as they say. Personally, I can motivate myself to push through a few extra kilometres during a training run knowing that my running buddy and I will end up at a pub afterwards, cooling down with a refreshing draft beer (if we’ve gone in excess of 10K, I might even add a burger or some natchos to my order – though I am likely negating all positive benefits from my run!). The point is, it has to be something you really want – a treat.
For Elissa, this typically means a cookie or some other type of sweet treat. I realized that if I gave her small, bite-sized goals and rewarded her with a real bite – things went a lot more smoothly. She was eager, anticipating her reward. But she also began trying harder, too; for I was not just asking for her to go through the motions, but to play that piece one more time – really putting her best into it.
If you’ve seen the movie Kung Fu Panda, you’ll know that the main character is exactly the same; on the surface, he appears to be a bumbling fool completely lacking in motivation. But put a sweet or savoury treat in his sight and suddenly he’s transformed into a focused, driven competitor – destined for greatness.
I have to say that Elissa’s attitude towards piano practise and lessons has done a complete 180-degree turn over the past few months. These days, she puts a good effort into learning the instrument and demonstrates some real talent.
My quiet hope, however, is that years from now – as she sits down to begin a solo performance at Carnegie Hall – she doesn’t need to keep a bag of chocolate-chip cookie balanced on the edge of the gleaming, grand piano.