How Much Parental Support Is Really Needed?
The following is a series of responses to a question that, in one way or another, comes up for us all. I have included some different perspectives, all from different teachers, so that you can get a sense of how challenging it can be to weigh up all of the factors and balance them out with what approach is most likely to support a successful long-term outcome. Notice how there are numerous layers to the situation and how more becomes apparent as the various responses unfold.
What is contained here is not necessarily my point of view, but I do believe that this issue needs deep consideration, direct experience and much thought over an extended period of time.
The first post contains an explanation of the situation. Subsequent to that are the various teachers’ responses.
(It is important to note that all of the following, from original question to final outcome, occurs within a period of five days!)
Question No. 1
I have a 9-yr.-old student who enjoys her lessons & playing the piano. Also loves the idea of composing her own music. She’s fairly regular in her practice after school without having to be reminded. Her parents are both attorneys (the dad is a politician) & very busy, although they both work at home offices.
My student has been doing fairly well, but hasn’t been following the assignments as noted in her book, hasn’t been watching the video, and has begun slacking on her Playlist as well. I’ve addressed all of these issues with her and her dad who attends the lessons, but it has become apparent that neither parent is involved in her practice, and her dad told me last week that she will need to be independent in her practice as neither parent has the time to listen to her or even to watch the video with her. There were no “ifs, ands or buts”.
At any rate, I called the mom and just got off the phone with her after a half-hour chat about parental expectations. She fully supports her husband in what he said. I suggested we compromise with the following plan:
1. One of the parents reviews her notes with her prior to her first practice, making sure her Playlist is up to date, and remind her of what she needs to watch on the video or listen to audio recordings. Her lesson is on Wed., so that would most likely be on Thurs. after the lesson.
2. On the weekend, a parent checks her Playlist, asks if she watched the video, and listens to her new pieces if possible. (The mom said they already support her in this way.)
3. The day before her lesson, a parent checks her Playlist, asking her questions to ensure she’s ready for her lesson.
I told the mom that this involvement was minimal, but if their daughter thrives with this level of support, then not a problem. The important thing being that the daughter recognize that her practice is important enough for her parents to oversee how she’s doing during the week.
In our conversation the mom said that music isn’t a high priority in their home, but they just want their daughter to have exposure to a lot of different things (how often have I heard that?). I pointed out that if the practice isn’t effective, it does have an adverse effect on a child’s self-confidence, and that this is about more than learning to play the piano – reiterating the relationship issues, learning self-discipline, etc.
I fully expect to lose this family once the school term is over. My question is, however, how much involvement should I expect of families at home? I have some parents who sit right down with their child and monitor the practice time. Some are just nearby. Some (maybe 2 or 3 out of 16) are actually learning the pieces with their child. I believe this is the only family who has been almost completely uninvolved in their child’s practice, expecting her to follow through on her own. I pointed out to the mom that all I’m asking is that they parent her in her practice as they would her homework, and help her learn good practice habits so she can be independently accountable in her practice.
Response No. 1
I have been in similar situations – and always the student fails at some point, because by Level 3 if the Playlist isn’t being maintained, the parents aren’t fully involved, and the student hasn’t good video skills, they just can’t keep up.
I used to think that maybe Neil was being too, well, too “Neil” in insisting that the student listen to the audio recordings, maintain an accurate Playlist, write the assignment in all capital letters in black, make no extra notes, etc., etc. Big mistake! I’m now totally committed to getting everything in place and in practice just as Neil teaches us IN LEVEL 1 – and that includes a commitment, in both word and deed, from the parent that these piano lessons are important and warrant much more attention/involvement from them than what they may have come to expect from their past experience with traditional piano lessons.
I’m not really very interested in teaching anymore students whose parents aren’t fully involved – because so far it hasn’t worked.
Response No. 2
Even if a student gets to Level 3 and does not continue due to not following best learning pattern, hasn’t it still been a wonderful learning experience for them and well worth our time and effort as teachers?
Response No. 3
(With regard to Response No. 2)
I don’t think so. I’m not interested in giving a person a year of fun learning experience that cannot be maintained because only half the coaching staff is involved. Either a student and his parents want Simply Music lessons, or they don’t. Either my goal is to provide a person with music at the piano as a lifelong companion or it’s not. When I started teaching Simply Music, it was primarily because I was a failure in my own eyes as a piano teacher in the traditional methods. I was failing because my students were failing. I don’t ever want to go back to that in any measure. I had lots of fun with most of my traditional students, and almost none of them are still playing the piano today.
Response No. 4
(With regard to Response No. 2)
In all due respect, no. Getting to L3 and not continuing due to parental mismanagement is not a wonderful learning experience. It may well be a very negative one that lasts a lifetime. Being taken out of piano lessons because the parents do not want to be the life coach in the way that is needed, will cause the child to feel like it was their own fault 100 times out of 100. The child will perceive that they are not good enough to continue, that they were not able to learn it right, that they did not do things right at home, that they were not loved enough by the parents to have them bother to help the child – that sort of thing. It creates pain and resentment, not memories of a wonderful learning experience.
A child is uniquely self-centered in their thinking, meaning that when anything goes bad in the family, the child will feel guilty whether they are or not.
I would much rather have the parents be very clear of how much I will be expecting them to be involved from the very first Foundation Session. We go over this right down to what time will Johnny be practicing, and what will the parent be doing during this time. What will happen when it doesn’t feel like so much fun anymore, and how to give real hands-on help at the piano.
That way if they want to quit, they can do so before the child begins, so to speak. It’s still a huge disappointment for the child, but he doesn’t feel like it was his fault. He’s just mad because his parents won’t do something he wants to do. It’s much easier to recover from that than it is to recover from a year of lessons that falls in on itself and cannot continue.
I’m certainly not trying to step on anyone’s toes here, but just trying to explain how important it is that we make sure a student succeeds once we take him on. Childhood piano lessons have a direct impact on adult self-esteem.
Response No. 5
I feel I must respectfully disagree with many of the statements above. I too believe that for whatever length of time a student is with us, what we can teach them makes it worth the time and effort we put into it.
Perhaps my disagreement comes because I look at things from a different perspective… I don’t assume if a parent isn’t following the program to the letter it is due to mismanagement (which to me, has a very negative connotation…), in fact, in my experience, if there is less parental support than I would like to see it is often because life gets in the way. (Alternatively, in many homeschool families, there is a desire to stress self-directed learning and the parents choose to be less hands on, unless there is a problem). I speak from experience not only as a teacher, but also as a parent… I have been teaching my 9 year old son on and off for a couple of years now… sometimes due to life circumstances out of my control (i.e. working 3 jobs while homeschooling, having to take care of a very sick parent, etc.) I just couldn’t squeeze in the direct and constant supervision called for when going by the book, to the letter… At times my son’s Playlist slipped.. but when circumstances changed, he was able to get it back in place without too much difficulty. Has he ever felt it was his fault? No. Has it created pain and resentment… not at all. Has he ever felt he wasn’t good enough to continue… again, no. Then again, I made sure I wasn’t giving him the message that it was his fault, or that he wasn’t good enough, etc.
Do I deal with him any differently than I deal with my other students? No… There are times when ‘life happens’ to all of my students. I realize that, and I expect that. It is at those times when I need to step up to the plate and help both the child AND the parent manage things. And for many, this is a continual thing… I have students who are in school all day, and then come home with 3 – 5 hours of homework. It’s not remedial, these are GOOD students… Do I tell the parent skip the homework, piano is more important? Of course not… in part, because I realize each parent, each family has to make the determination for themselves as to what is important to them… and how important it is. Other families are involved with other activities besides piano… would I like to see them spend more time on their piano, of course, but that is not my choice to make for them.
Would it make my life easier if everyone followed the program to the letter and I just had to teach the lesson? Yes… but… aside from that not being the reality I live in, I see my job as helping parents become better parents as well as helping people learn to play piano. And for the parents I deal with, this whole ‘life coach’ idea is relatively new… it takes time and practice for them to get good at it. All of the parents I work with are trying hard to do a good job parenting… and they are also being pulled in too many directions at once. I certainly don’t want to make them feel like they are a bad parent because they can’t always follow the program to the letter (what about the negative impact we might be having on them?). I do, however, make sure they are aware of the consequences of their choice. (i.e. that progress will be a little slower, that the child’s playing may not be as polished, etc.)
I would much rather work with a family that wasn’t able to commit 100% than send them on their way. If I turn them away, what are their alternatives? Well, either they will find a traditional teacher (and the chances of success with traditional are far less than with SM, even without strict adherence to the program) or the child will get the message that he or she just isn’t good enough to be able to play piano… they aren’t even good enough to have a teacher try to teach them. I don’t EVER want to send that message!
I’m in my 4th year of teaching SM. As much as I would like to be able to say otherwise, all my families do not follow the program to the letter (some are closer to ‘perfection’ than others)… but ALL are learning to play piano, ALL are having fun… ALL have nothing but wonderful things to say about the program and are very loyal to the program and to me. My retention rate is quite high… probably 90%+ and… even for those who don’t have ‘perfect’ Playlists, they are eagerly going through the reading program… and they are succeeding… I make sure of that!
I do have standards… I do make sure they maintain their Playlists.. I am constantly encouraging them to try to do a little better the following week. Occasionally we need to put new projects on hold to get the Playlist back in better shape… but rather than making the kids (and parents) feel bad about it, I try to motivate them to keep things going so that they don’t find themselves in that position again. Rarely, in life (at least in my experience) do we manage to do things perfectly all the time. I see this as no different.
All the kids I work with are happy and eager to come to lessons each week… whether their Playlist is ‘perfect’ or not… I really try to stress the process, not the performance. And I believe if kids feel we see the value in what they do, whether it is perfect or not, they will have a good experience and no matter how far they go, it will be a positive experience for them.
Should I be more strict? tougher in my expectations? Perhaps… but that’s contrary to my nature, contrary to how I deal with people. I have always managed through humor and by encouragement… I truly believe this program has something to offer everyone.
Response No. 6
After having read the correspondence on the subject, I have only one more idea: might this child be perfect for Shared Lessons? They might give her an extra bit of support. And if she does quit, perhaps there is a “let down” conversation – kind of a reverse Set Up – so that you can help her understand the progress she made as well as commend her on her ability to work independently. It may be only a drop in the ocean compared to parental “vacant-ness” but every drop helps.
Response No. 7
This really is a great question. I have been teaching this method since it’s inception. Without exception, the students with the least parental support have the most problems overall, and have stopped lessons the earliest. Once I learned this (the hard way) and started having better conversations on the FIRST lesson about what I expect from the parents and students, as well as getting the promise from them on ALL aspects of the program – video responsibilities and practice etc., – I have had a lot more success, and a lot less stress. I will occasionally still get parents who, for whatever reason, are not willing to follow through with what I am asking. IF I decide to still take this student on, I am going to have the conversation of what my experience has been thus far, and let the parent know this more than likely this will result in a short term relationship, and I just do my best from there.
Sometimes I eventually get the parents’ support, but more often than not it is a shorter term relationship than I would like, and is a lot more work for me. I am sure you will learn from this situation (all of us have, or will have to, eventually as new and seasoned teachers) and the next time this situation comes up you will have the experience to relay the consequences to the new students and parents, and decide if this student is worth taking on for you.
Question No. 2
Further to my original question (Question 1.) what do you now suggest I do in light of the minimal requirements I’ve requested from the parents? I don’t want to devastate the student, but obviously my first mistake was not asking the parents what they’d be doing during their child’s practice time. Do I see how things go, and if the student continues to spin her wheels, tell the parents we’ll have to call it quits until their lifestyle will accommodate her practice in a way to insure her success & to call me then?
I have to treat this situation with “kid gloves” in the sense that it’s one family out of eight families from the same neighborhood who are taking lessons from me. The moms talk, and if I alienate one family, I could alienate the whole neighborhood. That alone doesn’t bother me, it’s the fact that I live in a relatively small town. The parents I’m talking about are movers and shakers in the community and could really damage, not just my enrollment, but the other SM teachers here in town.
Response No. 8
(With regard to Response No. 5)
I don’t believe that what we’ve been talking about has anything to do with the parents like yourself who are doing their very best and have impossible and inevitable periods in life where the Playlist and the regular practice gets pushed aside.
We started this conversation by talking about parents who came out and said that music had a low priority in their home – they just want their daughter to try out a lot of different things, they weren’t about to watch the video with their child, and she was going to have to do it essentially on her own (i.e. independently). Those are the parents who aren’t committed, aren’t involved, and are in my experience setting their children up for failure.
Response No. 9
I’m glad to see a more positive approach to this ‘problem’.
The IDEAL is a wonderful scenario but as one teacher said, ‘life’ intervenes all the time. My approach is to firmly encourage parental involvement and accept what they can bring to the situation. I take the view that mostly parents are well-intentioned and do what they can. I also point out that the ‘magic’ is what happens at home and impacts on progress, so parents are very important to SM.
As was also stated on one email, this coaching thing is very new for most parents anyway, and I might add it will come in many shapes and forms.
Samali’s ideas about involving parents are great:
- Parents improvising on white/black notes
- And one I particularly like – instead of telling the child to practice, have the parents ask her/him to play for them while they have sit and have a coffee or whatever.
- Singing/playing along with accompaniments.
They don’t need to want/not want to learn at any point but just be there for their child – yes they might enjoy themselves too. Quality time!
One of my mothers got her daughter to play blues by convincing her that it was her (the mother’s) favorite music (it wasn’t), but by some standards would be seen as too ‘hands off’. Changing the attitudes of human beings takes (a long!) time and is effectively achieved only when people feel valued and their efforts appreciated – authentically.
It worries me that Simply Music teachers might finish up being seen as the parenting police. I don’t think that is our role and suspect that this is not what Neil had in mind – we need to work together with the parents not set hoops so high for them to jump through that they won’t even bother. Simply Music itself will be the loser in the long run not to mention potential students.
Response No. 10
(With regard to Question 2)
Obviously every situation needs to be analyzed individually – there’s no way any of us can make blanket statements, especially about someone else’s situation! I don’t see that you really need to ‘do’ anything with this family.
One teacher mentioned that this child might be a candidate for group – is that possible or would it even work? I had a situation where I had a young teen (without parental support) in a group and she just couldn’t keep up – she loved lessons, she loved me, she loved to play the piano – but she never gained any video or Playlist skills because let’s face it, those aren’t necessarily interesting or fun. She got bogged down in Level 3 and couldn’t get any of the new songs, having to be re-taught every week since she wasn’t watching the video. I got to the point where I told her Dad that she either needed to move to the more expensive Private Lessons or quit, and tried to explain why, though I don’t think he believed that I knew what I was talking about. So I “fired” them. I know it sounds awful, and this impacted other people in my studio since I taught her cousin (with Mom) and the children of her church’s secretary (with Mom). They were all quite offended by my action but not enough to quit lessons, as they were all doing as I asked and seeing a lot of success.
Now, when I get myself in similar situations (and despite my best efforts, it does keep happening, though less often as I mature as a Simply Music teacher), I make the best of it. I still refuse to compromise – when a student or parent continues to claim my territory, I patiently and kindly continue to take it back – never give up!! I suspect that at some point this family you are talking about will either shape up or ship out, simply because they’ll get tired of you saying the same things over and over to them.
At the risk of sounding like an opinionated know-it-all, I’ll add one more thing – I’m learning how to be persistent without criticism, insistent without anger, and patient without compromise. Every student and parent has every right to choose how they want to live their lives, and whether or not they want to follow my instructions. I can’t get angry or judgmental if a parent refuses my instruction. But… I have the right to teach the way I want to teach in my studio, which happens to be the Simply Music way or bust! If there’s no meeting between the two rights, there has to be a kind and peaceful parting, or one of the parties involved will feel put upon and resentful – either me or the student and parent.
Response No. 11
(With regard to Response No. 6)
Interesting point. I once lost a student due to the Mom constantly asking him if he wanted to quit or go on. Unbeknownst to me, they were having this conversation at the end of each level. This boy was a gifted student, age 12, on the honor roll and in advanced classes at school. He was among the top two in my studio. But if you do this to a child, the child will eventually come to believe there must be some reasons why he would want to quit. It’s a short step from there, to quitting. If nothing else, it would get his Mom off his back from constantly asking him if he wants to quit. She even put him through the torture of telling me himself, at a lesson, of “his” decision. He couldn’t hardly get the words out! He clearly did not want to quit, but felt caught in the trap of his mother’s misguided manipulations.
This is a clear case of it not being the child’s fault (although I personally believe it is never the child’s fault). So I wrote the boy a short note, telling him how much I enjoyed teaching him and wishing him all the best in his pursuits. I told him that if he ever wants to continue piano, I would be glad to take him back. I told him he was an excellent and gifted musician. I think this note was motivated by what you are talking about, a “let down” conversation. I think a note was good in this instance, rather than a face-to-face conversation, because I believe the child will treasure it for a long time, as a trophy and affirmation.
Response No. 12
Are we seeing the difference that is emerging here in the Forums in regards to parental involvement? (and teacher involvement)
Having a student quit in L3 due to lack of effort on the part of the parents, or lack of effort on the part of the teacher in the area of managing the parents, is much different than having a student quit in L3 due to life circumstances.
If due to life circumstances, then yes – the time we did have with them can be seen as an enjoyable learning experience. Life did not cooperate in some way and the child had to quit, even though the parents were working at it. That child will not have the same negative effects as the child who had to quit because the parents did not cooperate on their behalf. That’s the way children learn those life lessons – by how it feels to them at the time.
Response No. 13
It is a fact that students can be a testimony to our program, whether it is positive or negative. But what I have found is that we should not consider WHO they are, whether they are the Dean of the local music college, Warren Buffet (the Oracle of Omaha, owner of Berkshire-Hathaway – had to put a plug in for Omaha!) or the President of the USA – hold them to the same high standards. This really will get easier with time (as Kevin said), as you will have lived the experience of not holding everyone, from the beginning, to the expectations.
This week in my studio I have been using Neil’s analogy of the new car and SM lessons. How we are infatuated with our new car, love the smell, how it handles, the color, how we look in this new car, etc, but if we neglect oil changes, routine maintenance, rotating tires, insurance, car washes, etc. it will affect the longevity of the car. It is the same with SM lessons. If the families aren’t watching the video, (my requirement now is the same day of lessons) marking their play lists, (which I call “their passport to piano lessons”) practicing the same time Monday through Friday, listening to the CD, parents attending lessons, reading my newsletter, etc. it will affect the longevity of their piano lessons. As someone said earlier, if those requirements are not rock-solid, by Level 3 you will start to see the rust spots and by Levels 4 and 5 the lessons may be junked.
Be encouraged though, you are asking the right questions to the right people. We all have to go through these growing pains. Remember how many times you skinned your knees and elbows while trying to learn to ride a bike?
This too shall pass…
Response No. 14
(With regard to Response No. 8)
I understand the original question concerned parents who had set ideas about what they would and wouldn’t do. But I think, basically, I would work with them the same way… if they are not willing to make a big change overnight, I would do what I could to weekly nudge them in the direction I wanted them to go.
Perhaps, over time, they would see the value of music and the value of what I was asking them to do. And even if they didn’t, I would do what I could to help the child develop, take on even more responsibility. Granted it wouldn’t have the same effect as daily assistance at home, but at least it would be something… and in my experience, it doesn’t failure doesn’t have to be an inevitable consequence.
Response No. 15
[Final entry from the teacher who posed the original question. Please remember that only five days have elapsed since this entire Forum discussion began.]
Sad to say, I just received an email from the father saying they’ve decided to give their daughter “a break” from piano. I have mixed feelings, as this child is delightful to work with, but I really don’t want to put her on a course toward failure. He was very gracious (he is a politician after all), and I hope I’ve been as gracious.
I did have the feeling that he and his wife wanted no responsibility in this other than that of paying for and attending lessons. The father even indicated that he’d rather not be present at the lessons. And one thing the mother told me when we talked on Friday was that she’d be happy if her daughter just had a good time in her lessons and didn’t practice at all during the week. I was taken aback by that remark, and obviously wasn’t effective in my response. (I can’t even remember now what I said. All I remember thinking is how ridiculous that kind of reasoning is.)
Well, I’m disappointed to lose this wonderful child, yet relieved not to have to deal with such a lack of parental commitment. The one question I didn’t ask in the Foundation Session, that I will from now on, is “What will you be doing & where will you be during your child’s practice time?”
This has been a hard lesson to learn.
Thanks for your support. The discussion on the Forum has been enlightening, as well, and so very helpful.
Helpful Links: The Foundation Session