Parents attending lessons: rewards and challenges
Why would teachers want to encourage parents to attend lessons? Although some teachers—Suzuki, Yamaha, or preschool, for example—routinely invite parents, not all music teachers find that children or their guardians benefit from a shared experience. The following is an overview of some of the rewards and challenges of parental attendance at lessons.
For many students, especially young children, learning and progress can be facilitated by parents sitting in on lessons. The responsibility of understanding the assignment and practicing all the tasks required in an efficient manner every day is not solely on the child's shoulders. Parents observe the teacher working with their child, and have a better idea of how to proceed at home. They are able to take notes of the tasks to be worked on that week, and as adults, have the organizational skills and discipline to establish a practice routine. Parental support has been shown to have a positive impact on a child's self-motivation, expression, and competence, as well as on performances, examination outcomes, and length of practice.1 Adults can also draw the teacher's attention to special concerns about the child or her practice. Richard Chronister observed that, unlike school teachers who can correct mistakes day-to-day, music teachers only learn about errors after a whole week of work. Changes are then more difficult to make, and some material might be totally forgotten.2 Parents can help alleviate this problem not only by attending lessons, but also by acting as practicing assistants during the time the child is not in contact with the teacher. Dr. Christopher Fisher agrees that what is essential to progress and success, especially in the early years, is dedicated parental involvement. This includes parents attending lessons, taking notes, recording the lesson when possible, and practicing daily with the child.3
However, in some cases musical and individual progress can be hindered by "helicopter parents" attending the lessons of older students, who might be more motivated and engaged by coming to lessons unaccompanied and by practicing on their own. At times, parents can also compromise progress by intimidating or belittling their child if their standards are too high or if they feel insecure. Finally, coming to lessons might have little benefit if both parents and children are so overscheduled that no one has time to practice.
Confidence and interest
Attending lessons can help build the parents' sense of confidence in their abilities to support their child at home, and their enthusiasm for the lessons. Parents can see what material is covered, how the teacher is presenting it, and how to help more efficiently and positively at home, where most learning takes place. Enthusiastic parents who feel secure in their abilities to help, confident in the teacher's skills, and supportive of their child can be the motor behind regular practicing, studio participation, concert attendance, and even a commitment to continuing piano lessons. Similar to many sports activities, involving parents as much as possible in all aspects of learning can help maintain interest and dedication.
Conversely, parents can feel guilty and inadequate if they feel they do not have time to assist at home, feel they do not have the skills, or cannot see the point in attending lessons. It is worthwhile to enlighten parents as to what the teacher expects in terms of commitment before lessons begin. Parents should know that just being at the lesson shows interest and helps to keep them informed, even if they feel unsure about their skills at first, or believe they lack the time.
Roles and responsibilities
There are numerous drawbacks to avoid with two adults at the lesson. For parental attendance to work, there must be clear policies in place, and explanations about roles and responsibilities before lessons begin. My policy for parents who come to lessons states:
In general, you are there to quietly observe the lesson. In order for your child to fully concentrate, please refrain from giving advice to your child during lessons. Take notes of what to practice during the week, and record any or all of the lesson on your portable devices, if you wish. Feel free to contact me anytime if you have questions or concerns.
Parents might believe that the teacher requires their presence to help the child play, or to prompt behaviors, especially if they have been asked to do just that at home practices. If it is not clear that the teacher is in charge, then parents could start interfering ("helping") at lessons. (Seat parents slightly behind students to eliminate visual distractions.) Occasionally, other issues arise that could undermine teacher control of the lesson, such as parents interrupting, criticizing, or talking excessively to the child in another language; the child acting out during lessons to get attention; or parents becoming defensive because they feel personally responsible if the child does not play well. The teacher must keep lessons on track ("we have so little time, we need to concentrate on piano while you are here"), and at the same time remain empathetic and supportive by using such phrases as, "learning piano is hard work, you are doing the best you can, thank you for all your help, you are working very well together on this," and so forth. It is beneficial to keep in mind that most parents only want what is best for their child; nevertheless, a follow-up telephone call to parents who want to "help" too much might be necessary from time to time.
Rapport and communication
Meeting every week and collaborating on piano lessons together can promote trust and respect between teacher and parent. The parent is secure in the knowledge that the teacher is a reliable and competent pedagogue and musician who has the child's best interests at heart. Parents would perhaps be less likely to pull the child out of studio events at last minute if they had been heavily involved in preparing the student for these activities. There might be fewer payment issues, since it might be more difficult for parents not to pay someone they know, appreciate, and see face-to-face each week. If parents do not understand the teacher's pedagogical goals, perhaps they would feel more at ease broaching the subject with an educator they trust and see every week, rather than pursuing their own agenda at home.
A few minutes chatting with parents away from the piano can build rapport, and allows the teacher to gain some insights into the family's situation and how that could impact lessons and practicing. Communicating with parents and seeing them regularly can affect their openness to the teacher's requests for help. In fact, a study looking at parental involvement with more than 850 parents of first- through sixth-grade children in the public school system found that "parents' interpersonal relationships with children and teachers emerge as the driving force behind their involvement in children's education."4
Meeting together every week is a powerful way to communicate: there could be fewer misunderstandings, and parents could be conveniently reminded of upcoming events. Especially for new parents, a few minutes at the end of the lesson could be saved to go over the practice plan, and brainstorm together if necessary. As Martha Baker-Jordan noted, parents are often uninformed about learning the piano, and therefore teachers may discover that one of the most significant responsibilities in teaching the child is educating the parent.5 A pitfall to avoid is talking excessively to the parent during the lesson, or chatting about non-piano-related issues. To keep pupils engaged, the teacher could try to talk through them to the parent if necessary. For example: "Nancy, I'd like you and your dad to practice this passage."
• Reduced traffic and parking problems might be a benefit if parents do not drop off and pick up their child.
• Parents will not be late picking up their children.
• Lessons with parents could feel like more work for the teacher; both child and parent must understand the assignment.
• During prolonged holidays, parents may be better equipped to continue practicing with the child.
• Parents may spend time at lessons focusing ontheir electronic devices rather than on piano.
• Young children and students with special needs often thrive with a parent at lessons.
• With parental supervision, there are fewer liability risks, and children can be taken home immediately in case of illness, or if they are engaging in inappropriate behaviors.
• Because parents are supervising them, children can discreetly enter and leave the lesson room to watch and learn from other students' lessons. By observing other lessons first, children have a few minutes of quiet time to calm down and focus before their own lessons.
• Students become accustomed to other pupils and parents listening to them play.
• Teachers may have no need of a waiting room.
• Regular exposure to the teacher's quality, tuned instrument could convince parents to upgrade their home piano.
• With parents attending lessons, siblings may need a babysitter. If they are not too disruptive, siblings could attend lessons, too. This may be convenient for the parent and instructive for the siblings.
• Parents and/or siblings may become interested in taking lessons themselves.
• Some teachers may feel more self-conscious with parents in attendance.
• Established studio parents could balk at a change in policy which requires them to attend lessons.
Parents attending lessons can be valuable assets if they
1) do not disrupt or interfere with the teacher's agenda;
2) actively follow what goes on during the class so they are familiar with the material and know how to help the child at home;
3) agree to practice with the child and set up a workable practice routine; and
4) maintain a positive, supportive attitude towards teacher and student.
The advantages of guided parental involvement in music lessons have been well-documented. Twenty years ago, for example, Jane Davidson and colleagues looked at parental influence in over 250 families and found that:
One of the strongest positive family influences in acquiring musical skills appears to be the role of the parent in lessons, with the most successful learners having parents who typically either received regular feedback from the teacher or were present in the lessons. Furthermore, parental involvement in lessons was maintained at a constant level across the successful child's entire learning period.6
Teachers interested in heightened parental participation in their studios could consider implementing a pilot project with a few new families. A number of teachers may feel uncomfortable with the idea of parental attendance because they were not taught this way as children, nor did they receive training in this area later on. Ultimately, the decision to encourage parental presence at lessons will depend upon the teacher's clientele and pedagogical methodologies. It all depends upon what will help the student learn best.
1 G. Comeau and V. Huta (2015)."Addressing common parental concerns about factors that could influence piano students' autonomous motivation, diligence, and performance." Intersections: Canadian Journal of Music 35(1), 27-52.
2 R. Chronister (2005). A Piano Teacher's Legacy: Selected writings by Richard Chronister, ed. Edward Darling. Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy, 112.
3 C. Fisher (2014, 14 May). How to become the perfect piano parent. Teach Piano Today Podcast. goo.gl/bnNMA6
4 C.L. Green, et al. (2007). "Parents' motivations for involvement in children's education: An empirical test of a theoretical model of parental involvement." Journal of Educational Psychology 99(3), 541-542.
5 M. Baker-Jordan (2004). Practical piano pedagogy: The definitive text for piano teachers and pedagogy students. Warner Bros., 6.
6 J.W. Davidson et al. (1996). "The role of family influences in the development of musical performance." ROAR, 22-23. goo.gl/kzYHHx
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