I’m pleased to share this article from guest blogger Alexandra Westcott about the right level of support from piano parents. Alexandra has been a successful private piano teacher in North London for 30 years. She loves sharing her passion for the piano with her students and sharing what she has learnt about teaching with other teachers. She plays primarily for herself, but occasionally provides background music for events or performs on keys with a jazz group in the Herts region. When not playing, she is usually gardening or dabbling with painting (pictures, not walls!). You can get more insights from Alexandra on her website, along with a guide she has written for her own piano parents. Enjoy! 😊 –Nicola
Parental help and support is not just beneficial to a piano student’s progress, but paramount. Without it many young students will fall at the first post.
But how much support? How often? How do you get them on board and, on the other hand, discourage them if they want to take over?
Being creative in how we attract the right parental support as we nurture their offspring can be a rewarding and valuable process for teachers, but it’s not without its frustrations.
In this post, I’ll share:
- How parents can (and should!) support their children’s piano studies
- Tips for getting that support
- What to do when parents are absent
- Ways to manage overly-involved, pushy parents
Getting Support From Piano Parents
Have a conversation about a parent’s involvement when they come for the initial interview to make it clear that their support is needed. This lets parents know what to expect even before they register for lessons, so hopefully they will be receptive to your guidance down the road about what you need from them.
But, exactly what do we need from our piano parents, and how do we get it?
Involving the Parent in Practice
Unless you offer beginning students multiple lessons per week, most of our students’ time at the piano is without us. We can instruct during the lesson, but habits are being built at home.
How much parental involvement is needed will depend on the child.
With slightly older beginners, sometimes a quick check in once or twice a week is all that it takes to make sure their homework is being done.
With very small children, more engagement is needed. Not only do parents need to help their children schedule the time, but they also need to sit in on part of the practice time to ensure the assignments are being done – and being done correctly.
In all cases, however, you should consider asking a parent to be on hand at home when their child is practising. Parents can notice signs of concentration lapse, and they can suggest a break, either from the practice session completely or from that particular activity. Children won’t usually be able to monitor themselves on this level, but parents can.
It is perfectly valid to have the parent come in at the end of the lesson so you can show them what you have done, making clear how you would like their support during the week.
I like to go through both the musical and technical elements we covered during the lesson – demonstrating where necessary – and make very clear what my practice requirements are and why they are important. When parents see how we are building something that needs a firm foundation, they are keen to help.
Soliciting Parental Feedback
Ask parents how things are going at home, or for feedback from their practice sessions. This will let you know if there’s something your student is finding particularly hard or especially fun.
Encourage parents to let you know if there have been extenuating circumstances making practice time shorter than usual (or non-existent!) If you are forewarned, you can plan your lesson differently.
Occasionally the pupil we see is not the same as the pupil the parents see, and asking for feedback can prompt a turnaround.
Let me share a story with you to illustrate my meaning.
When I was fairly new to teaching, I had a student who said very little in the lesson, seemed to do very little practice and just didn’t seem the slightest bit interested. I pride myself on my relationships with my students, but I couldn’t get through to her. I’m VERY patient, so it wasn’t until some months later (or possibly even a year!) that I broached the subject with her and her Mum together.
I explained exactly how I experienced the lessons, and that I didn’t think I should teach her anymore as I didn’t seem to be inspiring her, and she didn’t seem to be enjoying it.
Later that day, I had a phone call from her mother to say she was flabbergasted as the child I was describing was not the one she was used to walking home with. She experienced her daughter as enthusiastic and excited about what we had done in the lesson. Her daughter would tell her ‘we did this…and this…’ Which in turn astonished me!
After a long chat, we identified her daughter’s weaknesses so that I could help her work on them. From that day on, the student and I had a great relationship, and she went on to do really well.
So really, don’t be afraid to be honest with parents and students about how you are experiencing the lessons. You cannot be an effective teacher if you are constantly and permanently frustrated and angry. You have a right, along with everyone else, to be content in your job.
And sometimes, one open and honest conversation might be all that it takes.
If there are issues with the student not wanting to practice, parents can be a useful ally. Maybe, they can have a sticker system at home, or a chart whereby once completed they get a reward.
(I have no problem with rewards in the early stages. Later on you’d hope that playing the piano would be its own reward, but that’s another topic entirely!)
I once had a pupil who transferred to me from another teacher. I learnt that there had been one point when she wanted to quit piano lessons, so her mother learnt right alongside her, and they kept going together. By the time the student came to me, she was pretty good and was definitely relieved that she didn’t quit.
Parent Support Away From the Piano
On top of piano practice itself, there are things outside the music room which a parent can do to support their child’s musical life. For example, they might:
- Play a wide variety of music around the house
- Attend live performances together (in many areas, there are even concerts aimed specifically at children where they can play the instruments, etc.)
- Check out the internet for interesting bits of information about composers they are studying
- Listen to fragments of other pieces by composers they’re studying
Any musical activity will bring music into a child’s life in a holistic way, giving them a well-rounded musical experience into which their playing will sit.
(By the way, if you need more help working with your piano parents, there are several helpful articles in the “parents” section of Nicola’s Piano Studio Business page.)
Re-balancing the Parent Support Scales
As mentioned above, if you set the stage correctly from the very first interview, parents usually take their cue from you in stride. But sometimes, parental support can lean too far one way or the other.
When that happens, how do we re-balance the parent support scales without turning off the parents entirely?
Not Enough Parental Support
If a student isn’t practising and the parents aren’t helping at home, you’ll eventually have to have a conversation with the parents. Let them know that if their child doesn’t do any work outside of the studio, then lessons are a waste of their money and everyone’s time.
Trying to teach a pupil who really isn’t interested or who wants to learn but won’t practice (some of them admit to this!) is demoralising, disheartening, depressing and many other ‘de’ words! It can also make you tense and disappointed, which will inevitably leech out to your other students.
I am extremely patient and will try everything to keep a student on board. I’ll try a myriad of tactics (more challenge/less challenge/different music/further parental conversations) before suggesting that a student should discontinue lessons.
But if there is still no progress (and this can be after a year or so – I don’t give up easily!) I will terminate lessons while emphasizing that if this clarifies a student’s desire to learn, then of course I would welcome them back.
Too Much Parental Support
What happens if a parent is too involved…?
If you make their role clear during your initial conversation, this hopefully won’t happen very often. Parents will usually trust your experience and accept your guidance graciously.
But occasionally you might get a parent who pushes for an exam when their child doesn’t want to take it, or if they’re not ready for it. An overly-involved parent might want their kid to play a piece above their standard, or explore a genre the child hates.
Explain Your Overall Goals
The best thing to do with a pushy parent is explain, gently, that your care for their child is your prime concern – that you are hoping to instill skills and a love of music which will last for life, and that you do not want to colour that with negative experiences (which would undoubtedly be the result of a failed exam or an unfinished piece.)
It would be hard for a parent to dismiss that as a worthy goal!
Stress how essential building blocks will get missed if things are rushed, which will lead to problems later on.
Parents Who Push for Specific Music
On one or two occasions I have let an overly-involved parent dictate that their child learns a specific difficult piece. Each time it resulted in an I-told-you-so moment (without me actually having to say it.)
I have, on one occasion, let a father dictate some of the music for his son as they have an excellent relationship with each other (and with me.) However, the pieces were so long that the son ran out of steam and didn’t finish them.
Fortunately, because I am on good terms with the father, I made it clear how unhelpful I thought it was. He took it on board, so the situation resolved itself.
Parents Who Push for Exams
With regards parents pushing for grades – either too early or to the exclusion of everything else – you can stress how you want to build a well-rounded musician. Explain that exams can be rather linear for the period leading up to them.
Grades definitely have their place, but left to our own devices, we’ll cover the exam material in a holistic way rather than cramming it in for the sake of a grade. This intense, concentrated focus on exam material can actually hold up a student’s progress (unless it is in the wider context of musical development.)
(Side note: I don’t know if you have noticed this in your own teaching, but quite often my students have come round to the idea of exams by themselves either because they want the challenge or because they want an idea of what standard they’re at. This is another way to counter grade-hungry parents.)
Keep the Focus Where it Belongs
My belief is that the most important relationship in our lessons is between us and our pupil, and I’m not afraid to let a parent know this. Our students need our trust and friendship if they are to allow themselves to be vulnerable in an art that is not only hard to learn, but also deeply expressive.
Your relationship with the parents needs to be good enough to support this, and indeed, you may well-become friendly with your students’ parents. But keep the primary objective in mind: You are the prime curator and advocate of your student’s musical life.
Keep communications open with both the child and the parent, but be on the child’s side. It is their journey you are nourishing.