Respect

It’s that time of year again. The start of the new academic year and a new teaching term for private piano teachers. Many of us are organising our teaching diaries, planning lessons and welcoming students back to regular lessons, hoping that some if not all have done some practising over the summer holiday…..

Sadly, some of us are also chasing unpaid lesson fees.

Despite clear terms and conditions and reminders via email, there are always late payers. I’ve been freelance since 1998 (and a self-employed piano teacher since 2006); chasing unpaid invoices is the sad lot of the freelancer and is the most disagreeable part of the job. I send out invoices for my teaching fees at least a month in advance of the start of term, with clear reminders of when the fees need to be paid (“in advance of the start of term which is on…..”) etc. The majority of my pupils’ parents pay promptly, but there are always a couple who have to be nudged several times. I don’t like writing payment reminder emails, but I do need to be paid for what I do, and I feel late payment is discourteous and disrespectful to me as a professional person. And where I live, in the very affluent leafy suburbs of SW London, where parents are used to paying for a whole host of extra-curricular activities from Kumon maths to tennis lessons or French language classes, there is no excuse for late payment of piano lesson fees.

Sadly, some parents regard piano lessons as a commodity – a view which is very eloquently and intelligently explained by respected cellist, teacher and examiner Alison Moncrieff-Kelly in her article for Music Teacher magazine (March 2017). For certain parents, piano lessons are just another activity to enhance their children’s CV, and the piano teacher is treated like a “service provider” rather than a skilled/specially-trained professional. Some parents may take this even further by questioning or criticising the teacher’s abilities and judgement (specifically with regard to a child’s readiness to take a grade exam, in my experience), undermining the teacher’s authority by deriding their skills, or “reteaching” the child between lessons (something else I have experienced). Because they are paying for piano lessons as a service, some parents think they are entitled to behave in this way, because “the customer is always right”, and the piano teacher (“service provider”) should submit to the customer’s view/demands. These types of parents tend to be very demanding, requesting changes to lesson times at short notice, make-up lessons, and refunds. They are also often the first to complain if their child is not making progress, yet they may not be willing to support or encourage their child to practise between lessons. In short, they lack respect.

Parents pay, but the teacher must provide everything from the talent to the practice, with a neatly packaged end product……The problem with the Aspirant Parent is that they not only criticise and question the teacher every step of the way, but also deride the very skills they say they want you to instill.

– Alison Moncrieff-Kelly (Music Teacher magazine, March 2017)

Any parent (or indeed adult student) who takes this attitude fails to fully appreciate what piano lessons are really about, which can seriously damage the relationship between parent (client) and teacher.

Respect is a crucial part of teaching – mutual respect between teacher and pupil, and also between teacher and parent/the person paying the teacher’s invoices. From my side of the bargain, respect towards my students and their parents includes:

  • Providing a pleasant, comfortable and welcoming space in my home for lessons to take place
  • Being kind and courteous to my students and their families
  • Supporting and encouraging my students in their pianistic endeavours
  • Being sympathetic if they have not been able to practise as much as they would like due to illness, school or other commitments
  • Ensuring my timetable runs smoothly so that lessons do not overrun
  • Being available by email or phone between lessons to answer queries
  • Providing additional advice or material to help parents support their children in their practising
  • Ensuring exam entries are made correctly and on time.

In exchange I expect students and parents to

  • Arrive on time for lessons with music and other materials
  • Respect my piano, my teaching space and my home
  • Be respectful to me and my experience/judgement, but to feel confident about discussing issues with me such as difficulties encountered in practising, exam readiness, performance anxiety and so forth.
  • Ensure my invoices are paid on time and in full

When mutual respect exists everyone thrives.

Clear terms and conditions can ensure mutual understanding on all sides, but sometimes even the most explicit T&Cs are meaningless to the pushy or disrespectful parent, and when such an impasse is reached, it may be the moment to call time on the lessons. It’s a great shame when this happens, for the student may be happy and progressing (despite the parent’s lack of input), but the dealings between parent and teacher may have become intolerable – and as a self-employed person, one owes it to oneself to create a working environment which is pleasant and conducive to success, if at all possible.


Further reading

Piano Lessons – More than a Commodity

 

 

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Grade exams don’t make musicians 

She can certainly play the 2015-16 [Grade 8] syllabus pieces A-C brilliantly……Can she play anything else? I’ll get back to you on that.

This is a quote from an article about graded music exams by journalist Rosie Millard, who, by her own admission, is “a pushy music parent” when it comes to her children’s music exams. In common with a number of my piano teaching friends and colleagues, this article made me angry and frustrated, primarily because Ms Millard seems to miss the point about taking music lessons and playing music.

1f557-abrsmexamMany students take graded music exams each year, and many students take pride and pleasure from the visible results of their dedication to the practising and study of their chosen instrument. Ms Millard notes this satisfaction in her article and reveals a degree of parental pride (and rightly so) in her children’s music exam successes. Unfortunately, some parents use these simply success as “bragging rights”. Do these achievements make Ms Millard’s children “musicians”? I’m not so sure…..

The memory of taking music exams can stay with us into adulthood, as the author of this article notes. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve met who, on discovering I am a  piano teacher, tell me “I wish I’d continued with the piano, but I hated taking those exams!”. One of the reasons why I decided to take two performance diplomas in my late 40s was to erase the memory of my Grade 8 piano exam, taken some 30 years earlier. A different exam board (Trinity College London) and a different attitude to assessment (Trinity places emphasis musicality and musicianship) meant the diploma recitals were a pleasure instead of an uncomfortable, nerve-wracking chore, and I switched my students from Associated Board (ABRSM) exams to Trinity to ensure their exam experience was similarly enjoyable.

Graded music exams have their uses: the choice of repertoire in the syllabus offers students a chance to study music from the Baroque to present-day; learning scales teaches students about keys and key-relationships, and provides important technical foundations which can be applied to pieces (something which wasn’t pointed out to me by my childhood piano teacher, so that scales were simply dull exercises to be got through as soon as possible in my practising); and the grade system provides a useful benchmark of a student’s attainment. Preparing for and taking a music exam can inform children about the need for and benefits of regular, meaningful practising, and performing can breed confidence and self-esteem (but only if the student is well-prepared). But an exam is only a snapshot of that student on a particular day – and may not indicate the student’s true abilities, especially if the student is nervous or under-prepared. Yes, it’s true that music exam successes look good on a CV as proof of extra-curricular activities, but any savvy interviewer is going to want to see evidence of broader music making, especially if the student is applying to conservatoire.

Teachers love grades, because they reveal their prowess as a teacher.

No. What reveals one’s “prowess” as a teacher is the ability to motivate, encourage and guide young people (and adults too) to become well-rounded musicians, not exam automatons who reproduce by rote what they have been spoonfed simply to secure an exam pass. A good teacher should know the ability levels of all his/her students without the need for testing. And a good teacher does not live by his/her exam results, by how many students achieve a merit or a distinction, but rather by knowing each of his/her students’ strengths and weaknesses, what music makes them tick, and their individual personalities.

I do not believe that taking graded music exams proves you are a “musician”. Being a well-rounded musician goes far beyond the ability to play three pieces, some scales and technical exercises, sight-read an unseen study and complete an aural test. Being a musician is about understanding the music, its structure and its meaning, intellectually, visually and aurally. It is about learning a wide variety of music, outside of the strict confines of the exam syllabus, to gain a broad understanding and appreciation of music and its different genres. It’s about listening, going to concerts, reading literature and poetry, going to the cinema or an art exhibition, to appreciate that composers do not create music in a vacuum, but that their creativity is informed by their personal experiences and observations of the world around them. It’s about the pleasure of a certain phrase or the feel of a particular chord under the fingers. It’s about making music with others, playing in concerts for parents, friends and family, and sharing the experience of music.

Our children are tested almost from the moment they enter school in the UK. Let’s not over-burden them with further testing in an activity which is meant to be enjoyable. By all means take a music exam, but don’t let it obscure the pleasure of music.

Further reading

Why take a music exam?

The curse of the pushy parent

The virtuoso parent

 

 

 

 

The curse of the pushy parent

Guest post by A Piano Teacher

Anyone who teaches will know the type – and those of us who teach privately will know the type very well. The pushy parent – sometimes also known as the Tiger Parent – whose demands seem to take up far more time than anyone else’s, whose child/children require special treatment, and who generally creates far more work for the teacher than is really necessary.

The pushiness manifests itself in a number of ways and there are distinct “types” within the genus of Pushy Parent. There is the one who is determined to squeeze every ounce of value out of the lesson fees, who demands refunds for missed lessons (despite the teacher’s studio policy that there are no refunds except for lessons cancelled or missed by the teacher), who queries increases in lesson fees, and who – guess what – regularly pays late. This parent will also often call, text or email the teacher at unreasonable times of the day, outside “office hours”, and expect an immediate response.

Then there is the parent who demands their child is “fast-tracked” through exams, despite the teacher’s firm assurances that attainment in music comes through consistent, careful study, not jumping onto that exam treadmill and notching up the grades.

Another “type” sets herself and her child up in competition with another child (and parents) who may be having lessons with the same teacher. Grade exams, student concerts and music festivals become hard fought contests and if little Johnny or Emily doesn’t achieve a Distinction, or win first prize, the fault lies firmly at the feet of the teacher. Such parents will often ignore the advice of teachers regarding exam or festival preparedness and will withdraw the child from lessons to seek a teacher who will fall in with their wishes.

Then there is the parent who “re-teaches” the child between lessons, because she believes she knows better than the teacher. This can create quite serious difficulties for teacher and student, as the student receives confused signals, and sometimes what the parent is teaching is just plain wrong!

Of course parents want their children to do well and to succeed, and a good teacher will appreciate this and will support and encourage the child to the best of his/her abilities. And some children actively thrive on being pushed, if it is handled in the right way, with realistic targets accompanied by plenty of praise and positive endorsements. But sometimes the pushy parent’s behaviour and attitude can have a detrimental effect on the child by placing unrealistic expectations on him/her: if the child does not meet these expectations he/she can feel demoralised, disappointed and lacking in motivation. Such behaviour can also increase a child’s anxiety, sometimes to the point where they will be so overcome with nerves in an exam, concert or festival situation that they are unable to perform successfully.

It strikes me that a lot of this pushy behaviour stems from the parent’s own issues which in some cases can be traced back to their own childhood. Perhaps they were also pushed relentlessly by their own parents and the behaviour is simply “learnt”. Or perhaps they are making up for some failing or lack in their own life by living their life vicariously through their children.

As teachers we have a responsibility to manage the expectations of our students and their parents. If we do not feel a student is ready to take Grade 1, or indeed Grade 8, we need to explain this to student and parent. Some parents seem genuinely not to understand the amount of time, commitment and application that goes into learning a musical instrument. We rely on parents to reinforce our messages about practising and to ensure practising is undertaken between lessons. This leads to noticeable progression in the student, and they can then draw satisfaction from seeing improvements in their playing and musical understanding.

Fortunately, in my experience, pushy parents are in the minority (though they do loom larger than life when they are being particularly difficult!), and most are pleasant to deal with, are supportive of what I am trying to do, and treat me with respect.

Further reading:

Parents, Parents, Parents, Parents

Aspirational parents condemn their children to a desperate, joyless life

How to increase your kid’s performance anxiety (not that you’d want to)

The Virtuoso Parent