By Wayne Estes
I did some math awhile ago and I learned that there are about 75 to 85 “extra hours” available in every week that my student is not on the bus, or in school, or sleeping. How do we help our students grow deeply, easily and quickly and learn to love and share their passion for music? The parent!
I believe working with the parents is one of the most interesting (although sometimes the most stressful) missions we have as music teachers. Thankfully it’s also one of the most enjoyable and rewarding parts of what we do with music instruction. When we have the parent “on our side”; working with us at home with our students, we see a huge love and enjoyment of music coming from the student and family. So why do we often work harder on the relationship with the student than taking the time and care to work on bettering the relationship with the moms, dads and families?
In our music school we have been trying to change that. We have borrowed some aspects of the Suzuki model and we try to get parents involved in our lessons early on in order to “teach” them how to help at home. I find it very telling that the very interested, involved and helpful parents in our lessons create a more enthused student, which in time usually develops into a healthier and longer-term relationship for all of us. I love it when a parent sits in the lesson and while listening they stop me in the midst of explaining a new concept to the student, to ask their own questions. First, I know that I just made a connection with the adult that will be followed up at home when practice happens, and second I believe the student just noticed a healthy communication between adults and sees mom or dad’s interest as a positive situation and a good behavior to model.
Mom’s and dad’s role in education is so important these days, as I have seen a shift away from it being a “shared responsibility” between parent, teacher and child to it being often solely the teacher’s responsibility. I call it “the drop off the student mentality” where mom, or dad, or caregiver drops the student at our building and then disappears…maybe never even getting out of the car, instead of participating in the lesson. I don’t see them at the beginning or end of the lessons, so establishing a good relationship with them is hindered right from the start.
Our public schools often create the same environment where mom and dad drop the student off at school and a teacher affects change and growth every day, without a parent’s involvement. Then the parent only becomes involved when there is a bump in the road…a learning issue, or an issue with character or a work ethic issue. Without an early established, grounded relationship with the teacher, the parent often gets upset because they seemed to have little warning. But neither the parent, nor the school really took the time to be involved early on to lay the groundwork of a positive relationship. For private lessons to be successful they need to be operated more professionally, with better, early communication shared between the three participants: student, teacher and parent.
In order to create better communication and to prevent the scenario of “going until it crashes,” I began inviting parents to come in and participate/listen to the last 5-10 minutes of our lessons. This has made a significant difference with many of my borderline students in my personal studio. I start right from day one, expecting the parents to participate in the lessons. I teach them how I want them involved, so that I can gently drop the responsibility back on the parent, to help them assist me in nurturing the student’s love and passion for music. Without all three of us being interested and working together, the musical relationship will often fail.
In a recent lesson, I was trying to teach a dad to read the notes on the grand staff with his 2nd grader, and you would have thought it was the hardest thing ever for the dad! I reminded him (in the lesson, in front of his child, and in a nice way) that this was easy and it would be helpful to his child, and I winked at him. He thought for a second and then he restarted with us with a new positive approach and he stepped in and learned to read the notes with us, and remarked immediately afterwards that “it was pretty easy.”
I used this as a teaching moment for the student, remarking “See, your dad can do this now so I know you can do it, and you will have some help at home as dad can quiz you too. Next week maybe you can name the notes faster than dad and beat him during our quiz!” Well that was the spark, and the very next week the child came in knowing all of her notes quite well; a little positive family pressure can be a very good thing, engaging everyone. This little bit of help from dad (or mom, or any caregiver) can be a terrific bonding time for the family and help the student stay on track with their music. The student will succeed and this will help the family’s passion for music grow faster and deeper with everyone’s care and support.
If we communicate that we are professional instructors, and we demonstrate exactly and effectively what we need and expect from each parent and family earlier on in the relationship/lessons, we can create longer lasting and healthier relationships with the student, and with the parents. When you try to steer the relationship later on, without having defined the boundaries and expectations early on, you may end up with a problem that is detrimental to the student and which causes them to leave music. We’ve seen this blurring of the teacher and parenting boundaries change the course of lessons, as personalities, different goals and even anger take the center stage, instead of the child’s interests with music. Because we are professionals, this should not be allowed to happen, as we can remain neutral; working responsibly and diligently to guide the lessons and relationships in such a way that leads to a healthy learning environment and the creation of beautiful music! This is our professional responsibility. It is always going to be hard work, but the work is always worthwhile when you’re able to foster this kind of connection.
Teaching music is a unique interplay between the teacher, the student, and the family which fosters growth in all sorts of areas of life. We should leverage them all, because therein is where the life long love of music is nurtured and inspired!
God Bless and I hope this discussion created some positive insight and thought.
Wayne is a co-owner of the Catoctin School of Music and teacher of piano and bass guitar. At any given time, you’ll see him wandering around visiting lessons or playing his guitar T-shirt (no lie).