“Music lessons are a three-way effort by teacher, student and parents” (The Art of Teaching Piano, Agay, 2004:489). Encouraging parents to attain Agay’s ideal of “display[ing] a constructive interest…without being overzealous or meddlesome” (Agay, 2004:487) is a critical, but often overlooked, aspect of teaching.
Parents expose their children to music
Music teachers should encourage parents (whether or not they have a prospective student) to promote a love of music in their children. Parents expose children to music long before contemplating instrumental tuition; children who hear classical music at breakfast, sing carols at Christmas or dance to popular radio develop an early enjoyment of music. “If you want to encourage children to read, you fill your house with books and make reading a normal daily activity. Making music available to children will similarly stimulate their musical interest” (Raising an Amazing Musician, ABRSM, 2009:5). Imagine asking a child who has never seen a book to write a story; children who have had early exposure to music are likely to be more receptive to musical tuition.
Because children generally learn a musical instrument at their parent’s behest, it is wise for a tutor to understand the parent’s expectations, motivation and goals. It is also the teacher’s responsibility to question unreasonable or potentially harmful parental aspirations. I was recently asked if 9 years old was the right age for a child to start learning a second instrument. This particular child was already learning martial arts, ballet, French, the cello and attending Brownies. I suggested the parents consider why they felt another instrument was desirable given the child’s already overwhelming workload.
Once tuition has begun parents should be encouraged to expose their children to wider musical experiences. Live musical events are wonderful: “Children can find it very inspiring and exciting to witness music being made – seeing an orchestra for the first time, for example, is a richly stimulating experience” (Raising an Amazing Musician, ABRSM, 2009:7). I recently attended an informal concert for families by the London Mozart Players. It was exciting to see so many parents and children learning about different musical instruments and taking part in singing and percussion exercises together. Musical homes provide a significant head-start over those which are musically barren.
Parents facilitate lessons
Parents select private tutors for their children and meet the costs. Teaching ability is irrelevant if a tutor cannot attract students, and this begins with attracting parents. Parents appreciate termly objectives and reviews, and enjoy browsing their child’s portfolio of repertoire, performances and compositions. Concerts and open lessons offer opportunities for parents to chat with each other and the teacher and allow observation of interactions between their children and the teacher. Good business practice is also essential. A fair, transparent waiting list, clear terms and conditions, and costs outlined in advance, reinforce professionalism. Parents are a valuable and often overlooked marketing resource. The playground grapevine is a powerful tool.
Parents also have the power to terminate lessons. When learning something new and challenging, many children reach a stage at which they want to give up. In The Art of Effective Piano Teaching, Ascari observes “At the onset of lessons it should be mentioned to parents that children are sure to experience the normal highs and lows when learning piano, as with anything else of great difficulty” (Ascari, 2003:100). Preparing parents to address this inevitability is an important skill in retaining their children as students. Quite often the desire to give up is temporary, and usually children are ill-equipped to explain their predicament; they don’t actually want to give up lessons, they just want to discover they have magically mastered the current challenge so they can continue playing with enjoyment. Parents must demonstrate tenacity in such circumstances. Parents employ an arsenal of techniques, specific to their own children, to maximise the effective study of compulsory subjects such as maths or reading. Music is more vulnerable than these because it is not a compulsory subject. Once a child gives up, they are unlikely to return.
A teacher who maintains positive two-way communication with parents should have ample warning of any loss of motivation and, in addition to exploring new ways to encourage and re-engage the student, should offer advice and support to the parents.
It is the parents’ responsibility to provide a musical instrument in good working order; for example, a tuned and fully functional piano with an adjustable stool. The piano is unusual in that pupils do not bring it to lessons and some parents perceive this as a reason not to acquire one. Without a piano at home, children cannot practise and their lack of progress quickly develops from disappointment to frustration.
Parents encourage practice
In her book, Professional Piano Teaching, Jacobsen explains; “Parents should establish a regular practice time for their child that is free from distraction, and give positive reinforcement for their child’s practice. When possible, parents should help their child practise, especially at the beginning levels” (Jacobsen, 2006:362). Jacobsen’s practice schedule recommends no less than 30 minutes per day, five days a week for first year students. Whilst this may be ambitious and off-putting for children and their parents, the teacher still must give clear and firm guidelines. Short, regular practice sessions are most effective for young beginners and establish good habits. I recommend 15 minutes, five days a week, increasing with ability, age and the challenges of the music.
Students should take responsibility for scheduling their own practice sessions, but inevitably parental involvement is required. Quiet time, without background television or disruptive siblings is essential and parents must enforce this. The Impact of Parental Involvement on Children's Education concluded “…parents play an important role encouraging their children to spend time on homework and eliminating distractions such as watching television” (DfES, 2008:4). Substituting ‘practice’ for ‘homework’ provides a sound principle for music tuition.
Many children respond well to a routine and if practice is an occasional event children can attempt to negotiate out of it. Good habits should be reinforced consistently.
Practice requires positive reinforcement because children can have difficulty assessing their progress. Acknowledgement from a teacher once a week is simply not enough. Parents should reward their child’s efforts and celebrate their successes regularly and consistently, even if they themselves have little or no musical knowledge.
Parents provide support
Parents will undoubtedly have their own agenda and goals for their child’s musical progress. Sometimes, the pursuit of these goals can obstruct musical enjoyment. In The Art of Effective Piano Teaching, Ascari writes “Excess parental pressure leads students to feel contempt toward their instrument… it is essential that the signs of excess parental pressure be recognized and addressed before the results become irreversible” (Ascari, 2003:103).
The other extreme can be equally harmful. Agay observes in The Art of Teaching Piano, “Parents who are totally indifferent or disinterested will not help the child’s progress; on the contrary, they will create a musically dull and sterile home atmosphere, which may stifle this child’s initiative” (Agay, 2004:487).
Quite simply, a teacher should guide a parent to become the child’s biggest fan. Children love to make their parents proud and perform for them. Sir Elton John laments, “…my dad never ever came to see me play. In Billy Elliot the part that made me cry was when his dad walks into the Royal Opera House and sees him dance. That never happened to me. I wanted my dad's approval but I never got it” (Mirror Interview, 3 February 2011).
Agay, Denes (2004), The Art of Teaching Piano. Yorktown Music Press, Inc.
Ascari, Dino P. (2003), The Art of Effective Piano Teaching. 1st Books Library
Department for Education and Skills (2008), The Impact of Parental Involvement on Children's Education. DfES
Gannon, Louise (2011), Daily Mirror, Trinity Mirror plc
Harris, Paul and Marks, Anthony (2009), Raising an Amazing Musician. ABRSM Publishing Ltd
Jacobson, Jeanine M. (2006), Professional Piano Teaching. Alfred Publishing Company, Los Angeles
 “Parent” refers to anyone with parental responsibility