A Spotter’s Guide: teachers, pupils and parents

As a freelance music teacher, you have to be endlessly cheerful, good-natured, adaptable, patient, resourceful and tolerant. You should be able to tailor your teaching style to suit each individual student, and be flexible and imaginative to make lessons fun, stimulating AND educational. You should never:

  • forget students’ names, or where they are in their learning
  • assign music that is too hard, thus causing frustration and lack of motivation and self-confidence
  • assign music that is too easy, thus causing frustration and lack of motivation and self-confidence
  • make a student cry (one of my pupils told me her previous teacher was “horrible” and regularly reduced her to tears)
  • drop the fall (lid) on a student’s hand. A friend of mine had a teacher who did this (in the 1970s). Unsurprisingly, she switched from piano to flute, at which she excelled, with a brilliant teacher.

A teacher who does at least two of these things on a regular basis is probably a teacher to be avoided. Eccentricity is permitted – indeed, actively encouraged in music teachers – but not inefficiency, ineptitude, or cruelty.

Of course, pupils and their parents fall into categories too, and you get to know their quirks and exigencies in the course of your teaching. For example, one of my students, Laurie, just loves scales and other technical work. Rather than play a piece of his choosing to open his lesson, he will always opt for scales, and will rattle through them with fluency, speed and accuracy. He’s recently got to grips with hands together scales (for Grade 2) and loves to show off how brilliant he is. Then there is Harrison (taking Grade 1 in a week’s time), who always has a packet of Polos. It has become a running joke between him and I, and when he arrives for his lesson, I always ask “Have you brought the Polos?”. We will pause mid-lesson so that he can offer me a Polo, a pleasant break for both of us! Or Ben, who has a fantastic ear and who can play almost anything, by ear, from the opening of the Moonlight Sonata, transposed into D minor (with all the correct harmonies) to a riff from ‘I Can See Clearly Now the Rain Has Gone’. The range of pupils, their individual personalities, abilities, habits and quirks while at the piano, makes the teacher’s working week varied and full of entertainments (and, less frequently, luckily, frustrations).

Parents are also an integral part of your teaching, and need a degree of kid-glove treatment. They are, after all, the people who pay your bills, and you owe it to them to involve them in what is going on, keeping them informed of their child’s progress, and co-opting them to encourage regular, productive practising between lessons. Parents who feel included in the activities of your studio are more than happy to turn out for end of term concerts (even bringing contributions to the post-concert tea party!). Being pleasant, courteous and friendly with parents costs nothing, and reaps huge rewards.

There appear to be several distinct types of parent:

  • Late to drop off/pick up: possibly the most irritating, especially when one is trying to run an efficient studio to a tight schedule. Parents who are late to pick up interrupt other students’ lessons, and seem to regard teacher as some kind of childminding service. Late to drop off parents often expect the lesson to still last for the full 30 minutes, and are consequently also late to pick up.
  • Late to pay: you get to know which parents are prompt in settling termly bills, and those who are not. Excuses tend to be the usual, clichéd ones such as “I’ve run out of cheques” or “I forgot my chequebook”. I live in a very affluent area of SW London, where the demographic is largely upper middle class, professional people. They have no excuse for not paying on time – especially when my bank details are included on my invoices, for ease of paying by direct bank transfer. I have on occasion been moved to consider a “no payment, no lesson” rule, though have yet to implement it.
  • Pushy parent: again the product of living in an affluent, high-achieving area, where the competition for school places is tough, and parents with an “agenda” abound. Pushy parents are endlessly demanding and persistent: they hang on to your every word (though do not always take in what you have said!), muscle in on lessons, make excuses for little or no practice, overrule teacher’s directions, “re-teach” the child in the week between lessons, pester about exams, and generally double your workload.
  • Disorganised parent: the child arrives without music or practice notebook, or both. Or the wrong music. Children of such parents often arrive late for lessons as well, forget to do homework, or, on occasion, forget to turn up for the lesson!
  • “I wish I’d had the opportunity” parent: these parents are the best. Enthusiastic without being pushy, supportive, encouraging and interested. They ensure the student does the practice/homework, though without standing over the child, and are well-organised. They are endlessly positive, and grateful, making both child and teacher feel valued and rewarded. They must be nurtured.

In an ideal world, teacher, student and parent form a perfect circle: instruction-practice-encouragement-progress. The student feels supported and valued, and goes on (and on) to produce consistently good work, pass exams with flying colours, and. we hope, develop a love and fascination for the instrument and its repertoire. This last point is my ultimate goal, and my main motivation for teaching. I am passionate about the piano and its literature, and by teaching, I have the opportunity, every week, to share my passion with others. If even a tiny bit of my boundless enthusiasm rubs off onto my students, then I can consider my job well done.

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