Project-based Homeschooling in the Later Years

Recently I gave a Zoom presentation on project-based homeschooling (you can sign up here for the next one), and a question I received made me think about how I have never stopped using project-based homeschooling (PBH) techniques, but PBH looks very different in our home than it did ten years ago. I don’t think about the techniques anymore. My sons each have a project that has become more of a life goal, and my role is to support them on a higher level. In other words, our lives revolve around these activities. My own projects have evolved over the years, overlapping with the boys’ activities, so we learn and grow alongside each other.

Here are the current state of our projects:

My eldest son is a classical pianist, and at 16, it’s clear that he has his heart set on a career in music. I’m not sure what that will look like yet, but we’re sacrificing a lot to help him. As we do more research, we know what we can offer him may not be enough to catapult him to the place he dreams of, but he works hard, and I have no doubt he’ll carve out a life full of music making. Besides taking the time he needs to practice and work on his technique, he has started a Patreon account where he will share short, weekly practice videos, and I’ll help him chronicle our research into his next steps, including college applications, scholarship applications, auditions and more. I hope someone will show their support for him there. 🙏

He got to hold his favorite bird!

My younger son has been interested in birds since he was four-years-old, and it’s interesting for me to look back at how this interest has always been there, though there have been long periods when he hasn’t done much with it. Now that he’s 13, this is changing, and that’s largely because he’s old enough to join certain classes related to birds on Outschool and get something out of them. He also has an active YouTube channel where he shares his videos of birds. Recently he also got to visit a bird banding station in a program run by Georgia Audubon for teens. Now that he’s getting a chance to meet people with similar interests, I hope it’ll introduce him to many possible paths that will most likely include birds.

As for me, I’m thinking about what I can do to support the boys in these later years, yet I also know they are going to go by fast. So I’m wondering what life has in store for me when they don’t need me as a teacher/facilitator/coordinator anymore. With that in mind, I’m slowly building a store and some other opportunities for families to connect with me in video chats so that I can share more of what I’ve learned. (Watch this space for updates on that.) I don’t know how much interest I can stir up, but if nothing happens, I’ll lose nothing….except a little pride, maybe. 😉

If there is one thing about project-based homeschooling, it’s that the learning never stops, the creating never stops, and the striving never stops. It’s a life-long endeavor. You have to find joy in the journey. Ultimately, the big project is creating a life that is worth living that also puts some good into the world. With the proper support, you can’t go wrong with that.

Three Years of Piano

This is my third year writing about my son’s main interest—classical piano. In fact, I think we can stop calling it a project now. This is his chosen vocation, which, yes, I believe a child his age can have because I’ve seen it over and over again in my husband, myself, and in the biographies of people I admire.

My son may have many vocations over what I hope will be a long life, but being a musician is definitely one of them.

There’s not much more I can add to what I have already written except to say that he’s still working hard and making good progress. My husband and I continue to provide him with the time and tools he needs, and we all enjoy attending classical concerts at the nearby university. He has been entering local and state-wide competitions and doing very well in them.

We decided to take the plunge and create a YouTube channel for him. He is excited about it and hopes he’ll get a lot of subscribers. You can follow his progress over the coming years, if you care to. I feel some trepidation about putting him out there into the world, but I also know that sometimes you have to take risks in life. I hope you will check it out and subscribe.

I will write about important piano events in my monthly updates, but this will be my last project-based post because as I mentioned above, this has gone beyond a homeschool project. Many thanks to everyone who has supported my son’s endeavor.

Our 4th Grade Piano Adventures

At the end of May, my 10-year-old marked a full two years of taking piano lessons. In less than two years, he advanced to playing late intermediate/early advanced repertoire. This is quite remarkable, and for me, it finally sunk in just how remarkable this is over the past year. Of course, my husband recognized it right away, and I give him full credit for his swift and fierce support!

My son has some natural talent, and I think it’s safe to say that becoming a classical pianist has become a serious goal for him. But I can’t underscore enough how hard he works at this goal. It’s been inspiring to watch, and my husband and I are so proud of him. Not only does he practice a lot, he loves listening to classical music and learning about composers. His knowledge about music, music history, and modern pianists is remarkable in itself. And we don’t have to make him do any of this or fuss at him to practice. Not at all! My husband is always right there with him, encouraging him and sometimes advising him (he’s not a musician; he just loves doing research), but if my son didn’t want to do this, none of this would be happening.

I’m calling this post our “piano adventures” because it’s been an adventure for all of us. My husband and I have learned so much about classical music right along with our son, and we love it! Just like with all my sons’ interests, I have loved getting a real education and exploring and discovering things that I didn’t know about before. Not only do I love listening to classical music now, I love learning about the world of classical music and how pianists learn and grow. On this adventure we’ve also met various teachers and learned how they work too. This year we found a new teacher for our 10-year-old, and our younger son began lessons in October with another teacher. The 7-year-old is not as passionate about playing the piano as his older brother, but so far, he likes it. He is certainly benefitting from having such a talented older brother and everything we’ve learned about on this journey.

During this past year, our 10-year-old entered his first competition, which was the state competition. He placed in the top ten, which for two years of piano lessons, is wonderful (in my biased opinion).

But my son has a long and challenging journey ahead of him. There are many talented, young pianists out there, and he’ll have to work very hard, if he wants to compete. If he continues to want to pursue this goal, we’ll give him all the support that we can. If not, that’s okay too. I have no idea what to expect, but I hope it continues to be a positive experience for him.

If you have a child who wants to pursue classical music, please e-mail me! It would be great to meet other families who are on a similar journey.

Project-based Homeschooling: Piano

If you told me a year ago that my son would be taking piano lessons now, and not only that, but he would be showing talent, dedication and a deep interest in classical music, you could have knocked me over with a feather. This has been the most surprising development in our homeschool for me, and I am not sure when I’ll ever get used to it. As I wrote on the home/school/life blog, I thought music would be one of those gaps in our boys’ education.

(Note: After writing this post, I remembered this post: Music Appreciation with Beethoven. How could I have forgotten the year and a half he was obsessed with Beethoven’s 9th symphony?! I suppose music has always been with him, but it remained quiet for a while.)

I have to hand it to my husband when it comes to fostering my son’s love of music and encouraging him to continue. While my husband doesn’t play an instrument, he loves listening to all kinds of music and has much more knowledge about it than I do.

A while back, I wrote a post titled The Power of Time and Materials, which is my plea to parents that in order to mentor your children and find their deep interests, you must first provide them with the time and the proper tools. I referred to a good space to work in that’s located in the heart of your home, good materials such as quality art supplies, a good stash of recyclables, and time spent creating with these items. I would, of course, extend this to other areas of learning, if it were in the family’s budget.

Little did I know that my husband would naturally go with this line of thinking when it came to my son’s piano practice. When my son expressed interest in taking piano lessons, my husband spent time researching what kind of keyboard my son would need to practice on. (Granted, “research” is my historian-husband’s middle name!) At that point, we bought a digital keyboard with weighted keys, and we found a piano teacher nearby to begin lessons. We told each other that we’d be happy if our son kept taking lessons for a full year because we both agreed that music education is a part of a well-rounded education.

But our son loved taking lessons, and he loved practicing. He also seemed to have a natural talent for knowing where to place his fingers….I mean, I would have to spend a year memorizing the notes, the letters, and where to put each finger! I have never been musically inclined. But my son seemed to get the piano easily, much like my mother did, though she didn’t play piano seriously. I guess the talent skipped a generation!

Meanwhile, my husband continued reading about the piano industry, proper piano playing technique, and what you need to do, if you’re a serious piano student. One of the best resources he has found are the videos created by Robert Estrin on YouTube.

(I should note that in project-based homeschooling, it’s more proper to let the child do the research, if they want to. If they are motivated, then they will continue to learn about what interests them, and they’ll do it at a pace and level appropriate to them. We don’t always go along with this line of thinking. To be a classical pianist, you have to start early and do it the right way, and there is no way that at nine-years-old, our son would even think about these things. In his other projects, it didn’t matter so much, but in this case, we need to be pro-active and guide him. We still, however, give him the option to stop playing piano, if he changes his mind about it. I would never push my child to do something unless he seemed pretty motivated to do it. There is a big difference, in my opinion, about pushing a child through a temporary lag and pushing a child who isn’t interested at all!)

As time went on, my son showed us that he could advance quickly through the material. His teacher told me that in her 20+ years of teaching piano, she never had a student move as quickly as my son.

I’m not saying he’s a genius at piano. Far from it. It doesn’t all come easy to him (of course). There are times when he’s tired and would rather not practice. As with anything a person pursues, there are ups and downs. But he continues to say he wants to play piano, and he’s striving to play the hard stuff. We realize he has the potential to take this very far, if he wants to, so we feel we need to give him the right tools and opportunities.

I think what also motivates him is our support. My husband or I (and many times both) sit with him while he practices twice a day. Each practice has been anywhere from 45 minutes to 1 hour (and now getting longer), so it’s a huge commitment on our part. We love doing it, but it takes a huge chunk of our day. We also help him find music to listen to online, listen with him, read about composers, etc. (Again, I credit my husband with doing most of this.) Basically, we’re as excited about music as he is. 

And not only that, but because he progressed much quicker than expected, we advanced to an upright piano, and it wasn’t long after that that we traded it in for a grand piano. When we were shopping for the grand piano, we also met a teacher whose knowledge and focus were in line with the goals my son has, and when this teacher offered to teach our son, we felt we couldn’t pass up the offer. I’m sure plenty of people think we’re crazy, but they don’t know our son like we do.

I told my son that DISCIPLINE is when you have a goal and you work to get that goal even when you don’t feel like it. I told him he has discipline, and I’m very proud of him for that!

Through my husband’s research, we’ve learned that if our son ever decides to pursue a career in music, it’s essential that he starts very young and does it right. He’ll be competing against the best pianists that started playing at much earlier ages. Some of them are already well ahead of him. So, we encourage him to keep going because we see a talent and potential, and because of that, we know he might pick this as his career when he gets older and more mature. We don’t want to think that we didn’t do everything we could to help him, if he does.

Of course, we’re fine if he doesn’t pick music as a career. After all, music is a difficult career path, and most musicians make little money. But there are many ways to use music in one’s life, and there are other careers that a musical training can lead to. If nothing else, it will enrich his life and connect him to other people. This makes me happy.

A big part of project-based homeschooling is observing your child to see where he puts his energy. This is because sometimes actions speak louder than words. So with this in mind, here are some other ways we know music has become a deep interest to our son:

  • He loves watching classical music on television. He’s watched countless classical music videos on YouTube. With his father, he is slowly watching the entire 2015 Tchaikovsky piano competition This is at his request.
  • He doesn’t seem to mind hearing about the tidbits his father learns in his research on music and piano playing. (Which is quite remarkable, if you ask me!)
  • Most of all, in the last few months, my husband and I have started taking turns taking him to the free classical concerts at two nearby universities. He’s been to 10 this year! Faculty and student recitals are always free and open to the public, and some of the other concerts put on by the university are very inexpensive. Watching my son’s eyes sparkle with excitement whenever we go to a concert is such a joy, and a great testament to his love of this music. I mean, how many kids would be patient enough to sit through classical concerts?!
A selfie we took at a concert.

This has been a long post, so thank you if you’ve taken the time to read the whole thing! I am always so happy to hear your thoughts and learn about the activities your children are doing. Please leave a comment, if you have a moment.

Piano Lessons

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on July 15, 2015.

My friends were all surprised when I told them that my eight-year-old wanted to take piano lessons. I had never talked about music with them before, and my son had never mentioned it when we were on a play date. That’s because music is my husband’s domain. He’s not a musician, and he has never played an instrument, but listening to music – all kinds of music – is one of his favorite pastimes. It’s how he relaxes.

My husband’s playlists on his iPod are well organized while I don’t feel like I have time to fiddle with a MP3 player. Rides in the car with me are mostly music-less. I love music, but listening to my boy’s chatter all day makes me savor any silence I can get. Riding with my husband is fun, though, because he’s got music for every mood.

But my son’s interest in music started much earlier. We have a funny story about how Beethoven’s 9th symphony, or at least, Ode to Joy, became his favorite piece of music. There was about a year or more when my son was four and five when he wanted to listen to this symphony constantly, and we obliged him by listening to it in the car. He had heard it on an episode of Little Einsteins, and despite hearing many pieces of music on that show, he had latched on to that one.

I will always wonder if it had something to do with the fact that when I was pregnant with him, my husband and I attended a free concert at the University of Georgia to hear Beethoven’s 9th. It’s during that concert that I felt the unmistakable movements of my baby inside my womb for the very first time. I’ll never know for sure, but we always tell our son that that’s why he loves Beethoven’s 9th symphony so much.

Also when he was five and six, we attended a church that had a fantastic piano player. My son wanted to sit right up in the first pew in front of the piano and watch that guy play. He played lots of classical music. Our son was so fascinated with the piano that we asked him if he wanted to take piano lessons. At that time, he gave an unequivocal no, so we forgot about it.

Fast forward to a few months ago, and one night, my husband found my son pretending to play piano on our cheap, digital keyboard. My husband, expecting to hear “no” again, asked my son if he’d like to take piano lessons. We were both taken aback when our son said yes.

At first, we said no. We were wondering how we could afford the lessons and buy the proper equipment, but after two or three months more, my husband started to feel guilty about that and said he wanted our son to have the lessons, if he really wanted them. And he did.

So now he’s been taking lessons for a few weeks. Through a local homeschooling group, I found a great teacher whose rates we can afford, and better yet, she lives in nearby Statham. Through some research, my husband discovered that you actually could buy a full digital piano with weighted keys at a reasonable price. They are good for beginners, at least.

Our son seems to enjoy the lessons, and he’s practicing everyday, though we don’t force him. This is his thing, and we’ll be happy for as long as it lasts. He knows, however, that we won’t continue paying for lessons, if he isn’t going to practice.

I am thrilled because music is one subject I knew I couldn’t teach, and I was afraid we would have a gap in the boys’ education because of that. Though if nothing else, my husband gives the boys lessons in music appreciation. He shows them YouTube videos of everything from classical music to hard rock. Now that the eight-year-old is taking piano lessons, they are spending time exploring different kinds of composers and watching symphonies online. Of course, they started off with Beethoven’s 9th.

As I’ve said before, my son is not me, and I’m so glad about that. When I was young, I wanted to play the flute, but did I ever practice? No. Somehow this kid inherited the genes of discipline, and I can’t wait to see where this takes him.