Domestic Situations for Students
Mark M., New York
Having had a hunch about something for a while, I took a look at the history of my student body and discovered some things.
Of all my discontinued students who were children, 9 out of 20 had parents who were divorced or separated. Some were divorced before starting lessons. For others, the split and the discontinuation of lessons occurred during roughly the same period. During most or all of their time as students with me, almost all of them lacked a two-parent household.
My most recent discontinued child was one of the 9 above. His piano had taken a turn for the worse over the second half of last year, and they discontinued right at New Year. Only after that did his mother tell me that she and his father had split last summer, making the timing of the piano downturn clearly no coincidence.
With that student having discontinued, of all my remaining current students who are children (a larger pool than the 20 discontinued kids noted above), there isn’t one that I’m aware of having divorced/separated parents or even remarried parents.
Now, of course, this doesn’t mean all my current kids will stay forever. 11 of the 20 discontinued kids were not involved in divorced/separated households to my knowledge. It’s possible that some of them may have been without my knowledge. It also doesn’t mean divorce/separation is the only reason students may end up not doing well and discontinuing. However, when I think back on my “worst” students, those who had most trouble and/or who were least diligent in their practice routines, most of the 9 are in that list, and a much smaller percentage of students from more stable households would be on that list.
It seems clear to me that divorce/separation is a serious risk factor for piano performance. Separate households can mean spending large amounts of time with a parent who doesn’t attend lessons. It can mean challenges in carting materials back and forth. Single-parent households, with or without separate households, naturally mean more stress on the single parent to do everything in life, making it harder to find time and energy to support piano.
Does anyone ever talk to students/families about this, either before enrollment, or during lessons when performance seems to be suffering? It would seem an intrusion into personal affairs, but yet it also seems rather relevant.
Mark S., Tennessee
Man. I love your questions and ponderings — thought provoking and insightful! I will be noticing and observing more specifically, while trying not to skew my observations with any preconceived notions…
I have a few divorced couples who seem to be on good terms with each other; the logistic back & forth are challenging.
The couples or adult individual students who are having trouble – emotional, relational, financial, career – do sometimes tend to quit piano lessons to conserve their emotional and financial expenditures during the stressed time. I “pick up on” and can feel the stresses from them myself, but I try to have the piano lesson be their time of spiritual replenishing, joy, relief and therapy, which music and art can easily be. I find it so gratifying to assertively intend love and healing to folks in these circumstances.
Karen D., USA
Definitely interesting insights. I had a somewhat similar insight myself yesterday and had planned on posting to the Forum – maybe others have thoughts on this:
I have (or have had) some adult students with spouses who “make fun of” or “tease” them for taking piano lessons, even telling them that they sound bad on the piano and also that they are “wasting their money”. These adult students tend to be more nervous when playing (even in front of me!) or also tend to just not practice (and so have ultimately left my studio). Any thoughts on how to deal with this? I have one such student right now – when she mentioned her husband’s negativity, I suggested she ask him to not be so negative right now, especially while she is in a practicing valley. Of course, I do not want to be negative toward the spouse in any way either!
Has anyone else seen this in adult students? These are mostly my 50-70 year old student body, although I do have an adult student in her early 20s who is “made fun of” by her colleagues for learning piano. Fortunately, she is eager to learn and seems to have a supportive partner too.
Thank you both for these loving and insightful reflections…
I agree that music is such a powerful tool for healing- reflecting on my music therapy background and some of the things you’ve mentioned, it is such a gift we can give (however short-term) during lessons in these kinds of times for our families, as Mark S so eloquently said: a time of spiritual replenishing, joy and relief…. It is especially profound that our students can have such a healthy outlet for expressing whatever they are going through (PAS stormy symphony, anyone?) as well as a unique and intimate opportunity for a deeper connection 1:1 with their parent(s). Even if those parents are able to be engaged only for a brief 30 minute lesson, there is the potential within a time of improv and playing together (and many other aspects of the lesson) to create a new bit of song between them, that can be a fresh life-giving breath in the hard seasons of their lives.
Mark M., New York
I can’t recall being in that situation before, but I can give some advice based on general principle rather than direct experience with this kind of student situation.
How about asking them what they think about people making fun and how worthwhile the opinion is of someone who’d stoop so low as to do that?
Get students to realize that at best such opinions are just not worth valuing and that at worst those people may be secretly jealous of the opportunity to develop new skills. Either way, seriously, I can hardly imagine a situation in which any piano student should take at all seriously the fun-making of themselves by others.
If a student is seriously bothered by people making fun of their piano lessons, then they’ve likely got bigger problems that you probably can’t help them deal with — like why they put so much stock in the opinions of others, like why they are willing to remain engaged with such unsupportive people, etc.
Georgia H., Australia
You could try introducing your student to each other and encouraging them to get together themselves during the week to practice and share their love of music and learning together. You could also try putting some together into the same group to teach. Meeting like-minded people could really shift things for them and switch off to the negative comments from others.
On the thread of split parents, where a student has come to me after split the relationship seems to have very little effect and students and parents seem in a better space.
I have 2 families just now who are going through breakups /separations. One of these I have (temporarily) lost the students (2 out of 3) because the mother is struggling with things, particularly financially – one of the children is in a group situation and is continuing for the time being.
However, I have another family who is continuing for which I am pleased but apparently the father was having complex issues, one being that he thought there was something going on between me and the mother (which there certainly is not). It’s just awkward knowing my name has been spoken about obviously in their discussions – I believe the child is unaware. Not sure if there’s an issue but it’s one of those grey areas that feels awkward.
Shelly W., California
That is an interesting thought. You got me very curious, so I looked at my studio records. I never noticed, but out of 41 students, only 2 are in a divorced family (and those 2 are sisters). So only 1 family out of the 35 in my studio is divorced. However, out of 28 discontinued students, only 5 were from single parent/divorced homes. Although there are obvious reasons, as you mentioned, why divorce would make lessons more difficult, my sense is that there are too many variables to say that divorce is a major risk factor of a student not continuing in piano.
I know this is only one example, but here’s why I would say that divorce doesn’t necessarily lead to eventual piano termination. Something worth considering: The two sisters from the divorced family I mentioned (ages 6 and 9) are two of my most diligent and successful students. Why? Was this an
amicable divorce? No! In fact the divorce is so tumultuous and bitter, due to an extra-marital affair, that unbeknownst to the children there is a nasty custody battle going on between both parents who are each fighting for full custody. It’s one of the ugliest divorce situations I’ve ever encountered.
But the mother has made piano such a high priority for her children (perhaps because both her parents are professional musicians) that she gladly pays for the lessons herself, and brings them every week. The father wants nothing to do with the lessons, refuses to get a piano or even a keyboard at his house for the children to play on, and has never acknowledged me in any way (even though he is a father at my children’s school).
This was their situation when they first came to me, so that was the reality I had to deal with. They are half time at their mom’s house, and half time at their dad’s house. When the mom first described the living situation, and the absence of a piano at dad’s house, I realized that for this to work, I simply had to shift my expectations. I always know that some songs may take twice as long to learn because they only have a piano to practice on every other week. The mom is very good about communicating to me at lessons if this will be a week with a piano or without one.
They go straight to their dad’s house from the lessons every other week, so I must say it’s a strange feeling to teach them something, and to know they won’t be touching a piano for an entire week after they walk out my door. So I don’t expect them to remember, and when they do (which happens
surprisingly often) I really acknowledge them for having held that in their memory (and of course it continually validates the whole Simply Music approach for me!)
I know that when they will have a piano, I can teach them a little bit more than I normally would, because the mom has so much integrity, she helps them practice every day. When they’ll be at their dad’s house, I lighten the load a little. These girls are very musical, so maybe that’s why it comes so easily to them, but as I said, they are two of my most diligent students, with half the practice time each month.
My own parents divorced when I was 9-years-old, and this was when I first became aware of the piano as my loyal companion.
So what I would say regarding children of divorced families having success in piano, is that we as teachers need to be realistic and communicative — because music is such a cherished companion in rocky times of adjusting to a divorce. Having an honest conversation with the parents (or parent, if only
one is involved) to see if and how the home situation will effect practice time, enables us as teachers to change our frame of reference, and have flexibility around how piano will look for this particular student.
Obviously this may mean the student has to be in an individual lesson so they can go at their own pace. But there are definitely ways to work around divorce. It seems to me that how we manage it as teachers is an important part of the equation that can help prevent the new family dynamic from causing the child to get a divorce from the piano.
I would like to add a little more to this message string.
As a SM teacher who is also a separated and sole parent, I thought you may be interested in a different perspective. My first impression on reading these posts were that perhaps you hadn’t considered that many of the teachers you are addressing may have been in, or are in, this kind of situation. Separated/divorced people are not a breed apart! We just have interesting, complex, messy lives – like everyone else!
As a separated parent I’ve noticed that I attract a HUGE number of students who are also living amongst 2 households, (as my own kids do), or living predominantly with one parent. When I first started I also seemed to have a large number of adult students whose marriages had just ended, or who were ending. Sometimes I think this is one of the roles I have – to coach and mentor students in these particular circumstances.
I guess I’d like to advocate on behalf of these students, but also their parents – who are just as committed as parents, just as devoted to their kids, just as much wanting their kids to succeed as anyone else who is in a more (so-called) conventional family unit. My experience is that yes, the parents lives are complicated occasionally, and that yes, their kids practice will be often more erratic from household to household (just as my own kids practice has been) – but that this doesn’t sound as a death knoll or success – either in music or in other areas of their lives.
Many of the kids I know (and again, this is probably over 50% of my student base) have developed amazing strategies for success born OUT of the experiences they’ve had: they are hugely flexible, adaptable, organized, know how to get on with a vast array of adults, get a deeper understanding of the complexities of human emotional experiences, and are often very articulate about their own emotional lives. I see a generation of young people who are developing skills that will stand them in good stead for
That doesn’t mean that their journey has been easy, or will look like any other child’s but I really believe that the stresses of their situation are not that much greater than the stresses a family goes through when there is an illness in the family, or a financial crisis, or a school change, or even when kids hit adolescence! I think ‘normalizing’ the situation by talking openly about how to manage the reality of their lives should be the approach, and allowing their journey – even if it messy and unpredictable – to be considered okay and yes, ‘normal’ (whatever that means!) is the best approach.
Some kids will always quit at things, some will always work hard and succeed, some reach their potential, some don’t. Our job as teachers is to work with what IS, and to validate each person on their way. If they learn to play the piano well, that is fantastic, but if they don’t…? The experience of having a non-judgmental, supportive and enthusiastic teacher in their lives will ALWAYS be a positive thing.
Laurie Richards, Nebraska
I would liken this question to the relationship conversation. Pick one from each category to fit the situation for any student:
1. Parents’ marital status – Married, Divorced, Separated, Never Married
2. With whom they live – both parents all the time, mostly with one parent, 50% with each
3. Parental involvement – Dedicated, sporadic, minimal
There can be any combination of the elements in the 3 categories. IMHO, the main predictor of success is #3, regardless of where they fall in the first 2 categories.