What to Expect: A Guide for Parents of Music Students
The thoughts below are offered to the parents of elementary, junior high and high school students who enroll in private lessons at my home studio. The relationship between student, teacher and parent is a complex molecule. Through decades of teaching, I have made some observations that parents will find helpful in understanding their role in the music education process. It is my hope that by establishing clear and reasonable expectations regarding the private lesson experience, student, parent and teacher can relate in a way that maximizes the student’s potential for personal growth and progress on their instrument.
The Value of Studying Music in Childhood and Adolescence
Success is most easily achieved, and measured, when goals are well-defined. In the realm of creativity and the arts, this can be a challenge! My primary goal for all students is simply that they will enjoy a deeper understanding and appreciation of music, for life. It is a further ambition of mine that students will strengthen within themselves the virtues of focus, dedication, persistence and patience through the study of music. It is important to me that parents and students understand and derive insight from my intentions.
There is no activity known to science that activates more brain regions simultaneously than music. Practicing music helps young people develop skills in the areas of concentration, memorization, systematic thinking, hand-eye coordination and self-expression, just to name a few. It calms the nerves and helps to bolster self-esteem and self-efficacy. It is also a lot of fun. In evaluating a student’s success in private music lessons, it is important to look at the ways in which the individual is being nourished as a whole in addition to the growth of their tangible musical abilities.
Parents sometimes arrive with preconceived notions about what it means to learn an instrument, and expectations regarding how much time the student should be investing and how quickly they should be progressing. One must take care not to project ones imagined experience of learning an instrument onto their child’s actual experience, lest they overlook the true value of what is taking place. Learning is not a process that unfolds on a linear time scale, it is catalytic. Sudden breakthroughs are as common as plateaus. Work done today on a new capability will yield results that may trail by a year or more. Other times, a fresh awareness can dawn as an epiphany and unlock the potential for startling advancement in under ten seconds! Parent, student and teacher need to take the long view and emphasize the process over the results.
I do not evaluate my success as an educator based on my pupils becoming professional musicians. I am thrilled when a student does choose to pursue music as a career path, but it is neither my expectation nor my objective. It has been my experience that the students who exhibit the greatest potential for a career in music are also excelling in other areas and have many options open to them. In fact, the discipline acquired through practicing music is likely contributing to their success in other endeavors. So I am accustomed to watching the students with the greatest musical acumen eschew a career path in music in favor of another of their interests. I feel no disappointment about this whatsoever.
In the course of my active performance career, many of the best musicians I have shared the stage with were not making a living as professional musicians. The most gifted songwriter I ever worked with was a doctor with the CDC. The best male vocalist I ever supported was a sheet rocker by day. Both of those gentlemen could hold an audience in the palm of their hand on a Saturday night. Point being, music is for everyone. It is my aim that students that have been to see me for any length of time to go forth in life owning musical instruments, thinking of themselves as musically inclined, feeling confident about participating in music in social situations and having profound experiences listening to live and recorded music. These are the goals.
The Significance of Music in the Home
The presence of musical activity in the home is a great predictor of a child’s musical success. Parents who play a musical instrument are strongly encouraged to play in front of their children. Parents who used to play a musical instrument in years gone by are encouraged to resume. This will be fun and provide a way to connect with your child. If there are members of the extended family who play, have them over for a music session. Do whatever you can to establish musicality as a facet of family identity. Listen to music at home and in the car. Take turns selecting songs; this allows you to expose your child to your music you find inspiring on your turn and allows them to assert their tastes during their turn.
The musical instrument should not be stored in its case out of sight in a closet or under a bed. It should be kept out, visible and accessible and enticing. Strive to put music in the same category as riding a scooter, going to the swimming pool or a playing a fun game. Strive against putting music in the same category as taking out the trash, doing the dishes or folding the laundry. Make it a coveted privilege as opposed to a mundane chore. I will be doing everything in my power in private lesson time to light the spark of inspiration in your child. You can support me by reinforcing the role of music as an activity one should be passionate about and look forward to. If you put pressure on your child and make music an obligation that they owe to you, or to me, you will be undoing my hard work.
The language you use can set the tone. For example, “If you finish your homework by 5:45, I will let you have fifteen minutes of free time on the piano,” establishes playing piano as a desirable activity. “If you practice piano for fifteen minutes, you can have an ice cream sandwich,” establishes playing piano as an undesirable activity that one might be willing to suffer in order to attain ice cream. Help me cultivate enthusiasm and allow them to develop self-discipline as an outgrowth of their own motivation. In the best case scenario, this maturation will echo throughout their hobbies, activities and scholastics.
The Meaning of Practice
I once had a colleague, an accomplished musician who was teaching music at the college level, who objected to the term practice. He preferred “sitting around making yourself better.” While I don’t personally object to the word practice, I think “sitting around making yourself better” is a good definition of practice for the young student. The parent might suggest, for example, that the student spends a little while getting better at a piece of music rather than admonishing the student that they “need to practice.” This may seem like semantics, but in my experience the subtle aspects of a healthy attitude towards making music have a large impact on the over all experience of learning and instrument.
It is important to understand that there is a correlation between practicing and improvement, but it is not linear or easily quantifiable. I have often seen students master concepts I am presenting in lessons quickly and easily without much investment of time outside of the lessons. Parents tend to find this disconcerting because it is at odds with their expectations. A few times, tragically, I have seen a talented student withdrawn from lessons by their parents because “they weren’t practicing,” in spite of the fact that the child was interested, performing incredibly well on the instrument and mastering everything presented in lessons. Please do not be that parent!
I have also seen students invest a great deal of time and make only modest gains, but this is exceedingly rare. Generally speaking, if you plant seeds and water them, they will grow. In musician vernacular we refer to periods of slow growth as “plateaus.” They happen. It has been my experience that plateaus are often followed by periods of sudden catalytic advancement. Point being, it is crucial that student, parent and teacher take the long view on music education. It is an endeavor that lasts a life time.
The purpose of private lessons is to help the student get better at getting better. If one spends time on an instrument, one will improve. If one improves the quality of that time, the gains will be greater. One can even get better at getting better at getting better! Advancement begins to take place exponentially. It is the role of the teacher to guide the student onto their own path.
Students often neglect to work on what I ask them to work on and invest their time on the instrument in their own way. This used to bother me until I noticed that such students were progressing well in spite of their lack of adherence to my assignments. Nowadays I am more curious and amused than concerned when students start to develop their own approach. They may need to accomplish certain things on their own terms before they are ready to receive my input of the subject. They eventually circle back to strengthen their basics and it is never too late. I aim to guide but not to interfere.
I once had a student who would not work on anything related to reading the staff or understanding harmony. Instead, he became incredibly adept at playing blues in the style of Stevie Ray Vaughn through the use of tablature, which at the time I was discouraging students from using. I now encourage ALL forms of learning. Whatever it takes to cook the cakes! Within a couple of years, this recalcitrant pupil was clearly my star student. When this student joined the high school jazz band, he was embarrassed to find that he was the strongest player in the room but utterly lost when looking at the paper on his music stand. He came to me at that point and asked me to please teach him to read the staff and understand harmony, and that is exactly what I did. He would not have reached that point had he not approached music from the angle of his own sincere interest. I learned a great deal about teaching from this progression and other similar progressions I have witnessed. I inspire, foster and empower rather than direct. I am simply more efficacious as a mentor when I allow the student’s individuality to shine through.