Parental Involvement in Piano Lessons
The feelings and opinions of parents are obviously extremely important as it is generally they who pay for the piano lessons. Therefore it is vital to have a good relationship with them so that you can communicate points about the child’s development and discuss matters such as whether they would like their son or daughter to take exams.
Fortunately, I have yet to encounter many really pushy parents, although I am aware – through acquaintances – of some who are dissatisfied if their child attains anything less than a distinction in an exam.
Over the years, quite a few of my pupils’ parents have been at the opposite end of the scale and their aspirations for their children have been surprisingly low. Consequently, I’ve had many making excuses for their child’s lack of practice – some going into great detail about homework commitments – while others have ‘let them off’ coming to a lesson if the child was ‘a bit tired’. It sometimes amazes me that parents are willing to fork out the money for lessons yet don’t seem bothered about their son or daughter’s commitment.
Parents who themselves play the piano or another instrument can be a valuable asset when the child starts lessons. However, sometimes well-intentioned parents can hinder the process of learning to read music by showing their child which notes to play without any explanation. Where it becomes obvious that this is happening (for example where a child plays a set piece extremely well but cannot indicate on the page which note he is up to at any point and fails to read notes in a new piece), I usually have a gentle word with the parent, explaining that while support at home is much appreciated, it would be far better if the child was encouraged to use the note-reading methods I have outlined in the lesson, rather than just being given all the ‘answers’.
Let Pupil ‘Be Teacher’
Often, the most useful involvement at home comes when parents or siblings can’t play themselves but are nonetheless curious to find out how to learn piano. This gives the pupil the opportunity to pass on what he has learned and, in doing so, helps him to gain a deeper understanding of the process and makes him aware of any points which need further explanation in the next lesson. It also adds to his confidence to be put in the position of ‘teacher’.
Another way in which parents or other family members can be supportive is by testing the child on words and their meanings – such as ‘crotchet’, ‘minim’, ‘treble clef’, ‘time signature’ and later on Italian terms such as ‘mezzo-forte’ and ‘ritardando’. Or, they can test them on which black notes are required in each scale. (I usually list these in the back of the notebook).
One resourceful parent recently showed me a ‘game’ he had devised following his seven-year-old daughter’s first lesson. He’d made a set of cards – some depicting differently valued notes, others with words such as ‘semibreve’ and a final set with ‘four beats’ etc. written on them. His daughter practised at home, putting these cards in order and matching the notes to their names and values. Having done this, she was able to apply what she’d learned to the notes in the book.
Not all parents have the time or patience to help in this way but they can still be supportive by occasionally becoming an appreciative audience for their child’s ‘performance’. I would always encourage learners to play for family and friends at every possible opportunity.
Chance to ‘Show Off’
In the case of insecure adult learners, it’s particularly important for them to realise that any mistakes made are generally instantly ‘forgiven’ – and in some cases not even noticed. With children, it’s good for them to have an opportunity to ‘show off’ what they’ve learned and to gain positive attention from their parents and admiration from their contemporaries (which may in turn lead to their teacher gaining a few more pupils!)
For those who are confident enough, it might be worth considering entry in a local music festival. These festivals are organised in most parts of the country and give pupils a chance to perform and to hear others do so. Last year I came across a unique event in our area called ‘Tickle the Ivories’ which takes place annually in Liverpool One shopping centre and describes itself as ‘the world’s only official piano busking festival’. This is not only an opportunity for youngsters to play for an audience – it also gives them the chance of earning a bit of extra pocket money.
On the whole, pupils who come to me for lessons at school seem to have less parental involvement than those I teach at home – possibly because I don’t generally get to meet the parents face to face.
One exception was a young girl I taught who had a strange habit of turning to look at me as soon as she played a wrong note during a scale – or used a wrong finger. She would play the same scale incorrectly over and over again – each time turning to me and waiting to be told what she’d done wrong rather than concentrating on putting it right (despite knowing, when asked, which notes of the scale should be played on black keys as well as the order of the fingers).
I found this quite frustrating … until I eventually realised what was causing the behaviour. By asking her a few questions, it became apparent that her mum always sat next to her during practices and told her as soon as she was going wrong – which explained why she kept turning to look at me rather than focussing on her hands and thinking it out for herself.
I knew her mother as being particularly helpful and supportive and was reluctant to risk offending her. However, I suggested that the girl should tell her mum that the teacher wanted her to practise scales alone sometimes so she could work out how to correct them herself.
Sometimes diplomacy skills have to be extended to include not just pupils but also their parents.