Category Archives: Parental involvement

Grousing

My biggest gripe with piano teaching is not what you’d expect – students who don’t practice.

It is the parents.  For the most part, I have wonderful parents: they are involved, interested, supportive, good communicators.  But there are a few bad apples and they really sap my energy.  I have been saying for a long time that I can handle pretty much any student, supposedly difficult or untalented or otherwise not ideal, as long as I get along with the parents, as long as we’re on the same page and they support what I do.

I have a few students who move slowly because they don’t practice as much as they could and should, but they do progress, and the parents and I are on the same page, content with how things work.

In our lessons, my goal is always to give honest and supportive feedback to the student and make sure none of my students leave the lesson until they have understood what it is they are to practice, and how.  I even make the younger ones read my hand-written assignment out loud to make sure they can read my handwriting and understand all abbreviations – much of the assignment often reads like some secret code, “LH 3 mf” for instance.   (And there are students of whom I ask not only “what does LH stand for?” but also to show me their left hand …)

I praise them pretty much every chance I get, but I also let them know when they are not doing well.  I don’t think I have any students who do not want to do well.  So, when they don’t do well it’s usually because they don’t understand a concept or because they are tired or distracted.  To the surprise of many parents, I don’t chide them for being tired or distracted, but I draw their attention to it, put it in words, and then say that we have a choice:  either say, yes I am tired and I need to take a break, or, yes I am tired but I’ll try again anyway.

And I make sure they understand that one is not better than the other.  I wish more people developed some sense and understanding of their state of mind, and their limits.  Somehow, perhaps because of the liberty of being able (allowed?) to say “I am tired/distracted” most students choose to try again and often play better than before.  To students who would benefit from it, I offer strategies for coping with the challenge of playing / listening / thinking while being tired.

While I try to be honest and supportive and praise my students for doing a good job thinking or listening or having patience (when they do), I do NOT comment on their being “talented” or “future pianists” or any such thing.  And parents who gush at their children (in front of me), telling them how talented they are because they understood a difficult concept  immediately lose points with me.   I similarly cringe when I hear parents say things like, “Ms. Kuder wouldn’t be teaching you if you weren’t so talented!”   So very much NOT true.  “Talent” is a promise, nothing more.  I have had “talented” students who were not interested in learning – how’s that good for anything?

Then there are parents who answer the questions I directed at the child, for the child.  When I ask a question, I get so much more out of the answer than just the answer.  Many of my questions are leading questions and I am interested in the student’s chain of thoughts to get to the answer, convoluted as some of those chains of thoughts can be at times.   Some parents interrupt the child if they think that the answer will be incorrect, but even an incorrect answer tells me what I need to know, namely that there is something that hasn’t been understood 100% = something I need to teach.  Or sometimes, students realize as they speak that they are headed in the wrong direction and correct themselves.  So much more valuable than having mom or dad present the right answer!  To me, piano lessons are about learning, and learning doesn’t do straight lines.

Most of my students learn quickly that there is no wrong answer to my question, “What do you think needs more work in this piece/section?” except “I don’t know.”  (Most of them have also learned that “dynamics” is a pretty sure-fire answer as it is such an elusive concept and one that always seems to benefit from more attention.)

Once I observe the student-parent interaction, I find that most students who prefer the “I don’t know” answer do so because their parents don’t encourage them to think, or, worse, jump in every chance they get and correct their child.  No wonder “I don’t know” seems like the safest thing to say …

Addendum:  There are two different ways students tell me “I don’t know” – the one I referred to, above, is not the one where a student honestly doesn’t know and sometimes even has trouble admitting so.  This kind of “I don’t know” actually is more of an “I don’t know and I don’t like that I don’t know!”  The one I was referring to, above, is the one that sounds like “I don’t know and I don’t care and will you get off my back already!”

(Originally posted May 17, 2010)

Edited to add: one way to keep parents from interfering with the lesson would of course be to simply not allow parents at the lesson. But that would only mask the problem because at home the parent *is* there, and interfering. Having a parent at the lesson and seeing the interaction between parent and child helps me understand how things go at home and gives me an opportunity to educate the parent how to help in a more productive way. – Although, I have on occasion realized that there was no educating the parent, that there was too big a discrepancy between how they viewed their role and what I would have needed from them.

Planning and growth

Many, many years ago, when I was still in the first ten years of my teaching career, I was successful. I was able to attract good students, where good meant talented and dedicated, with supportive parents.

So it was quite a shock when the mother of a younger (3rd grade?) transfer student after about one semester decided to quit lessons with me. She explained that her daughter still missed the previous teacher’s daughter with whom she had been good friends, so “piano lessons” had always meant a play date as well.

But also, and more importantly, the mother explained, I just didn’t have a plan. There was no plan in my teaching, she said, no logical progression, no first this then that, nothing to look forward to, because nobody knew what was coming up.

This was a slap in the face. I had been so proud of being more creative than other teachers who used a cookie cutter approach to teaching: same method for every student, same materials, same pieces on every recital.

I easily dismissed her criticism, and explained it away as the uneducated opinion of someone who simply did not know how to appreciate my creative approach. After all, if this had been a real problem then other parents would have said the same thing, right?

Wrong, of course.

I now know – but don’t remember how I came to learn – that she was absolutely correct of course. I now value having a plan, thinking ahead, designing individual assignment sheets for my students (printed out ahead of the lesson). I try to balance having a plan and at the same time being creative in the implementation of the plan, and I always try to pay attention and make changes as necessary. I appreciate being able to spend the time to do a lot of thinking about my students, where we want to go, and how we will get there. I still don’t have an answer to a parent’s question, “How long before she’s going to play the Moonlight Sonata?” but I can lay out the (kinds of) books and materials I anticipate using, and in what order.

Different but related: eleven weeks ago I got braces. Because the first appointment with the woman who took care of the financial aspect and offered to explain everything was somewhat unhelpful – every question I had was answered with an enthusiastic and just-barely-not-condescending “Oh – it’ll be so easy!” – I made an appointment with the orthodontist, about six weeks into this adventure, asking if he would share the treatment plan: what are the issues he is seeing, and how will he address them, what are his goals, and how will we get there.

It was a most frustrating experience. He seemed genuinely stumped at these questions. “Well – we’re gonna put braces on your teeth …”  He didn’t mention any specific issues, and when I brought up one of them (that I was aware of), he still would not explain what he planned to do about it but spent a good five minutes explaining why we had to address the issue, and how my teeth got to where they are – something he had already explained in detail at the first consultation.

He emphasized how very individual every patient and therefore the treatment is, using the example of two different kinds of trucks: a Ford, and a Toyota – both are trucks, but very different vehicles. I played along and said, “Tell me about my Ford, then.” Again, he spent most of the time explaining why we had to address issues and how my teeth got to be where they are, but no real answers to my very specific questions.

Afterward I thought, either he doesn’t have a plan (not likely), or he is not used to being asked to explain, or he sucks majorly at explaining. Or maybe he misunderstood my questions as concerns and worries that he felt compelled to make me feel better about. The problem is that I didn’t have concerns or worries, I wasn’t looking for consolation, I was looking for information, something I thought was clear from my questions.

Fortunately, my dentist is very good at explaining, clearly and concisely, so he has on occasion filled in when I had questions.

I guess the orthodontist is where I was twenty or twenty-five years ago: toward the beginning of his career, with enough experience to do his job, but with plenty of room to grow.

 

Standards and Expectations

Many parents, after looking at my website or after the initial meeting where we discuss piano lesson details and the student plays for me, comment that they like that I seem to have high standards and expectations for my students.

They seem to appreciate that their child will be challenged, and seem confident that I know how to work toward pianistic success, taking into account each student’s personality, learning style, individual strengths and areas in need of improvement.

They understand that this is a triangle: teacher-student-parent, and everyone has a part to play. I as the teacher have the training and experience, and desire, to help the student succeed, the student is motivated and enthusiastic about learning, and parents understand their commitment to making sure that their child is well-prepared and has the necessary materials, including a good piano, bench, and so on, to practice at home.

It makes me incredibly sad then when a parent does not see any problem with expecting their child to make do with an inferior instrument and or bench. They seem to think, “Well, of course our instrument is not as fancy as the teacher’s!” but don’t understand that there is a certain minimum standard below which things simply do not work.

The thinking seems to be that as long as the child learns a new song every once in a while, things must be going well.

From the very first meeting, I emphasize the importance of a healthy technique – where technique has nothing to do with plowing through fast and furious etudes, but everything with figuring out how to move at the piano: how to move fingers, wrists, arms, shoulders, how to sit well-balanced, etc and so on. It also has to do with developing an ear for sound, and a feel for touch – what sound do I want? and, what do I do to produce that sound?

All of this requires the kind of instrument and bench, plus footstool for short students, that allow them to work on these things, to be able to experiment at home, and work on issues we covered at the lesson. An out of tune piano is actually not as bad as one that does not respond to the student’s touch, or where the keys respond unequally, because it forces the student to compensate in unhealthy ways.

At the lesson, I explain and demonstrate to the parents and students frequently why it is so very important to sit at a good height and distance from the piano. I also use my digital piano to explain and demonstrate – allow the student to experience – the differences between an acoustic instrument and a digital one. I also emphasize that a good digital piano is always better than a not-good acoustic piano.

Once students are at an intermediate level and have developed a good technique, it is not the end of the world when they occasionally practice on a piano that is less responsive. But in the beginning, a good, responsive, instrument is really crucial because we are laying the foundation for a lifetime of success and love for playing the piano.

It is so disappointing when a student struggles with technique – despite seeming to understand and being able to demonstrate that understanding at the lesson – and I suspect that their piano at home may be contributing to their struggle.

A few months ago I asked the parent of a second-year student who played with a lot of tension, especially raised shoulders, whether the bench at home could possibly be too low as that can cause the student to try to compensate by raising their shoulders. The parent thought about it for a minute and then thoughtfully said, “No … I don’t think so.”  –  Fast forward to last week when, after asking the parents if it would be ok for me to look at their piano to see if the piano could perhaps explain the children’s continued struggle with technique, and overall unusually slow progress – and being invited to do so and thanked ahead of time for my time and effort -, when I discover that the stool the children were using was so low that when sitting, the younger child’s shoulders were at the same height as the keys, forcing her to play with straight, out-stretched arms. Even the older child was still sitting much too low, having to reach up to the keys.

The piano was out of tune and not very responsive, keys responding unequally, some of the key tops missing. They had never had it tuned, and from looking inside I could tell that it would take major work, and probably a lot of money, to get the piano to a point where the children would be able to practice the things we are working on at the lessons with any kind of success.

This is a family who had, before starting lessons, met with another teacher who made them “even more determined” to study with me, presumably because of my high standards and expectations.

There is such a disconnect between wanting their children challenged, but at the same time being unwilling to supply the children with what it takes to meet that challenge.

For me, the important issue here is that the instrument and bench are doing actual damage, physical damage. It’s not just that the children are unable to practice at home what we work on during the lesson – that would be annoying, was disappointing -, but that the piano and bench are setting them up for injury and pain. It would actually be better if they didn’t practice at home.

I explained to the parents that their current piano is detrimental to the children’s development, in an email so they could read and re-read and think and discuss, and after they repeated that a new instrument is simply not in the budget, I suggested to put lessons on hold for, say, ten months, and use the money they save on lessons toward a new piano because I cannot in good conscience continue to contribute to this unhealthy situation.

I knew that my thinking here might come across as haughty, arrogant, privileged. I didn’t know how else to say it.

The parents made the decision to discontinue piano lessons.

Contrasting experience: I have recently started to teach two new (transfer) students, unrelated, both of whom had only an electric piano at home, with what they described as unweighted keys. But both of them had somehow been able to develop an adequate technique. The first student hit a wall after a few weeks, with no more progress possible on the current instrument, so I said, Let’s put lessons on hold until they have a good instrument which they said they were planning to get but for now was too expensive. Two weeks later they had bought a new piano, and things are progressing marvelously now. The other student’s family cannot afford a new instrument at the moment but the parent found a grand piano in the university’s Student Union where they go every so often to practice now, in addition to continued work on the electric piano at home, and, again, very satisfying progress is happening.

I suppose it is a matter of what one values. Learning to play the piano is challenging enough without hampering a student with an instrument that is simply not suited to the task. I strongly believe in the benefits of challenging my students but we have to give them the tools to meet that challenge. An Against-All-Odds attitude can be carried too far.

Tigers, Helicopters, Elephants

As a piano teacher I meet all kinds of students, families, parents.

Fortunately, I have mostly a lot of simply normal parents in the studio: parents who are supportive, who are realistic when it comes to their children’s potential – they want the best for their children and? but? realize that it takes quite a bit of hard work to realize that potential. They know that lessons can’t always be fun; they are understanding when I have a less-than-glorious day, they keep me updated on what’s going on in their children’s lives because they know that it may affect the children at the lesson, they share with me their parenting challenges and triumphs, etc.

Every once in a while though, a different kind of mom waltzes into the studio: I call her “the delusional mom”. This kind if mother is exuberantly and loudly cheerful, so much so that it seems like there is no cheer left for her child who comes across as somewhere between completely bland and just very quiet, withdrawn. These children do not thrive in my studio, they kind of put up with the fact that they have to be here, but there is no enthusiasm, no desire to learn or improve, regardless of how enthusiastic (or not) *I* am. They don’t argue with me and my requests but are quietly defiant, passive-aggressive. There’s hardly any communication from the child to me; my questions or suggestions are answered with as few mono-syllabic words as they can get away with. Everything – body language, lack of desire to communicate, lack of effort at the piano – everything screams avoidance and “I am here because mom makes me.”

And that’s where the “delusional” comes in: mom is in complete denial that her child is not enjoying the lessons – it is truly stunning. Mom gushes how wonderful everything is, how much her child likes the lessons, all while the child slumps, or rolls their eyes, or otherwise, without words, says, “You’re kidding, right?!”

During the lessons she’ll give an enthusiastic thumbs-up to her child for even the most dreadfully half-hearted attempt at playing a song, and she’ll exclaim, “You are doing sooo GREAT!”

I’ll be the first to praise a student for trying – anything. I praise profusely for giving it your best effort, even if the result is not perfect (yet), maybe especially when the result is not perfect yet. But I am also very specific with what I ask a student to do: for instance, focus on fluency (ignore everything else), or find a tempo slow enough where you can play every note correctly (but ignore dynamics, fluency, beautiful tone, etc.) – and then I praise the student for trying to focus on that one thing at the expense of everything else. When they complain that they didn’t play everything correctly, I say, “Of course not, but that wasn’t the goal, was it. You focused on dynamics, and your dynamics were beautiful. Play it again, and this time see if you can keep the dynamics as beautiful, AND keep a steady tempo!” – or whatever else is on the list.

Maybe I am the delusional one because I *thought* I had educated the parents on how I teach and how we work at the lesson. These moms seem perfectly content – and act over the moon – when their child kind of plays most of the right notes for the fourth lesson in a row, without any regard for details – details we’ve been working on for the last three lessons. They don’t listen when we work on healthy technique, or fluency, or dynamics, or anything else that would elevate the child’s playing above the bare minimum of kind of trying to hit the right notes.

Maybe these moms think that they *have* to be overly and outspokenly enthusiastic, loudly cheering, to lift the child out of their unenthusiastic hole. Except it doesn’t work. The children do NOT become more enthusiastic, involved, motivated, over time.

I guess one of the things that bother me so much about the delusional mom is how low she sets the bar. If I were the child, I’d feel insulted when mom gushingly praises me for shit. I just can’t believe that anyone – and these are educated women – would think that their child is capable of so little. ?

I wish I knew how to deal with this kind of family. When I mention the child’s lack of enthusiasm and motivation to the mom, her jaw drops, “What do you mean? She LOVES her lessons!!” I can point out what I mean but mom will immediately make some sort of excuse, and laughingly explain away why the child “always” slumps or acts disinterested or doesn’t talk much or whatever.

I wonder how these children do in a regular classroom setting.

Email exchange between students’ mother and myself.

(Parent’s and students’ names have been reduced to initials to protect privacy.)

 

Wed, 7 Mar 2012 23:29:44 -0600
Any desire to move this week’s lessons to Fri (no afternoon school), 2:30 p.m.?
Thanks,
Sibylle Kuder

 

Thu, 8 Mar 2012 10:07:04 -0600
Good morning Mrs. Kuder:

Thanks very much for asking. It is nice to move to Fri. afternoon. But I don’t think K will be ready since he has been pretty busy this week.
So there two ways for this week:

1. I ask them if they are ready for tomorrow, if they do, I will write email to you tonight.
2. We just stay on the original schedule Saturday afternoon 1 p.m.

Which way do you like?

Thanks

S.

 

Thursday, March 08, 2012 10:01 PM
I think I would prefer tomorrow, Fri, if possible.
I’ll wait to hear from you.
Sibylle Kuder

 

Fri, 9 Mar 2012 08:45:15 -0600
I asked them, only S is ready. If you prefer today, how about we move the time later, like 4 PM, I can let them practice a while. How do you think?

Thanks

S

 

Fri, 9 Mar 2012 08:45:15 -0600
When you said that K was really busy this week I tried to move the time to later in the afternoon to give K more time to practice today, but R must have her lesson at 5 p.m., so 2:45 is the latest we can start. I actually don’t mind if they are not 100% prepared – I know they are one day short. Whatever works best for you and the kids …
Thanks,
Sibylle K

 

Mar 9, 2012, at 10:10 AM
I talked to his teacher and I can pick him up early so that he can get more practice today. We will be at your house around 2:40.

See you this afternoon.

S

Survival of the Strongest

Many years ago, Chuck Gardner, my favorite Methodist minister, managed to weave some secular history into one of his sermons.  While I don’t remember the sermon itself, nor the context, the piece of history stayed with me.

According to Chuck, in the un-enlightened Middle Ages, parents didn’t really feed their children until they were about 5 years old.  The little ones got table scraps, the left-overs no one else wanted, they searched under the table (if there was one) for stuff that might have fallen down, much like some people’s dogs nowadays.    Appalling, isn’t it.  I remember him saying with a chuckle, “The SRS would have had a field day …” (SRS being the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.)

How could parents be so – mean? so uneducated?  Didn’t they know that children need good food in order to grow into healthy adults?  Of course they didn’t know that.  To them, a young child was a burden, something that wasn’t useful until old enough to help in the field, the kitchen, etc.  Something that more often than not might die before being old enough to be useful.  So, according to their thinking, why would you waste precious food on something you weren’t sure would live to be of use?

To our thinking, this is as irrational as it gets:  not feeding a young child good food because he/she might die …  One can only imagine the number of children who died – because they were malnourished!  And the number of children whose bodies, due to lack of nutritious and plentiful food, were too weak to fight off diseases or stand cold weather or recover from accidents.  Which, I suppose, only served to reinforce their parents’ attitude, “See, Mother, I told you he was too weak to make it!  Glad we didn’t waste good food on him.”

One could argue that only the strongest survived.  But even those strongest, I would like to argue, would have been even stronger had they been given a good start by being fed nutritious meals.  

We still have a bit of this attitude today when we claim “that which doesn’t kill you makes you strong”.  I beg to differ.  Take my mother who grew up during WWII.  While she was lucky enough to be evacuated, along with her younger sister and her mother, to a small village north of Frankfurt, south of a big forest which obstructed the view of the village to incoming (from the North) British bombers, thus in no immediate danger, the food that was available to them was inferior.  This inferior food didn’t kill her, but it didn’t exactly make her strong either.  There are many causes for brittle bones, but I blame hers on the lack of good food during a time when her body would have needed it to build strong bones and muscles.

Of course, good food and generally good care do not guarantee that a child grows up to be a healthy adult.  There are diseases, accidents.  Nor does a lack of good food necessarily mean that a child’s health is forever doomed.  There are no guarantees.  But we know that our chances of living a healthy life improve greatly if we set a good tone from the beginning.

And yet, when it comes to piano lessons, so many parents descend right back into the Middle Ages; it’s frightening.  They don’t want to invest in a good instrument or a good teacher because they are not sure that their child will stick with lessons.  Their argument:  let’s wait and see if the child is “interested” or “shows promise”.  How is this different from those parents a couple hundred years ago who waited until their children showed that they were strong enough to survive before they were fed the good stuff?  Yes, again, the strongest will probably survive.  But even those strongest would be stronger if they had had a good foundation via a good instrument and/or teacher. 

And what about those who are perhaps slow to show interest or whose talent lies dormant for a while – even with a good instrument and teacher?  What about those who need a bit of extra tender loving coddling care to bring out their talents?  They will certainly be turned off by an inferior instrument, perhaps being told that they lack talent. 

I have had several students over the years who initially showed no apparent promise and then suddenly burst into bloom.  I have also had students who showed “promise” initially but then lacked the desire to build on it.

I would propose that all children deserve good food, caring parents, good instruments and good teachers. 

From the beginning.