In her book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, Jessica Laney writes,"... why do so many teachers cite the challenge of dealing with their students' parents as their main reason for abandoning the classroom?" 1 Throughout the public and private school systems, the relationships between parents and teachers have never been at a lower ebb. Lahey continues, "Early in the evolution of our [American] educational system, open discussion between parents and teachers was the norm, and students graduated from one skill to the next rather than one grade to the next. However, as we moved to a standardized system of differentiation by age, and report cards replaced interpersonal communication, the divide between home and school widened."
It is wise to see parents as partners, not problems. In the current public and private school atmosphere, this is a difficult view to maintain. As independent teachers, however, we have the luxury of sidestepping legislators, administrators, and lobbyists to foster a relationship between teacher and parent more like the earlier version Lahey mentions. In some small way, our freedom from the pressures of testing and mandated curricula may allow us to steer parents toward a more positive way of supporting their children.
Over the years, the vast majority of my parents have been not only respectful and supportive, but they have also brought the joy of their friendship into my life. Yet different parents have different goals. It is important to identify these goals early on and to work as a team to fulfill not only the parents' expectations, but also, more importantly, those that fit the needs of the child. I have students who are serious classical musicians, singer-songwriters, jazz pianists, accompanists, and composers. A few have chosen music as a profession; all have chosen music as a lifetime passion. Most of my parents have been happy to support their children in these different musical vocations and avocations.
All parents want what they think is best for their children. All of them. Yet sometimes we don't agree on what that best looks like, and we teachers have to decide if and when to speak up.
The realistic parent
I once received a call from an unusually realistic mother. She introduced herself and said, "Four of us want to learn how to play the piano. We are all beginners. I will probably start out and then get discouraged and quit. My oldest child, Judson, is a dancer. He is the most musical of us and will probably do fairly well and continue for a few years. Zach is slightly less-interested, but will do ok. Lily, our youngest, is a first-class soccer player. She will enjoy lessons, do moderately well, and will quit when soccer begins to take more and more of her time." Her scenario is exactly what happened. I wonder if her expectations got in the way of her family's progress and staying power. After all, desire to study for a lifetime is the best predictor of a student's success. Or did this mother just know herself and her children well? All I can say is that every one of them was a delightful individual, each entirely different from the other. I loved working with all of them. For certain, this mother's clear-eyed candor remains unique in my forty-six years of teaching.
The overambitious parent
The opposite set of expectations came from a group of like-minded parents whose children once studied at Northwestern's then Division of Preparatory and Community Music. These parents and their children wanted to win competitions. This can be a laudable goal, but some caution is necessary. In his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi writes, "Too much emphasis is placed on how children perform, and too little on what they experience. Parents who push their children to excel at an instrument are generally not interested in whether the children are actually enjoying the playing; they want the child to perform well enough to attract attention, to win prizes, and to end up on the stage of Carnegie Hall. By doing so, they succeed in perverting music into the opposite of what it was designed to be; they turn it into a source of psychic disorder." 2
This particular group of parents moved their children en masse from teacher to teacher. Every fall, they signed up with whichever teacher had taught the first-place winner in the previous spring's MTNA competition. Of course, the same teacher's student didn't win every year, so these children experienced nomadic study that was fractured and chaotic.
The fun parent
We have all encountered parents with the opposite expectations. I once took on two lovely children whose parents were so excited by their son's and daughter's first lessons that they dressed them up in fancy clothes and videotaped the whole affair. At the end of the lessons, the dad said, "That was fantastic! I just hope every lesson they ever have will be this fun." Parents who say, "fun" misguide their children into thinking playing the piano will be easy when it isn't. I told the parents that I, too, was happy everyone was so excited to study, but I cautioned them. "I will do my best to keep the joy of music in your children's lives, but sometimes learning to play an instrument will be just plain hard work." They studied with me for only three years.
The intrusive parent
Then there are the intrusive parents. How do we handle them? One of my parents, an amateur jazz banjo player and drummer, came to his eleven-year-old son's lesson and announced: "Ross will be playing Dizzy Fingers at the spring recital," a different piece from the one his son and I had chosen. "It's impressive sounding," he continued. He then began berating his son's performance of the piece.
When the father moved from the couch to the piano bench, still spouting his opinions, I stepped in front of him and proclaimed, "You hired me to be the teacher. Ross and I will decide what he will play at the recital. The good news is, you can go relax and read. We have this situation in hand."
Surprisingly, the dad laughed. "You're right. I could use some down time. I'm exhausted." He proceeded to stretch out on the couch and fall asleep!
The dissatisfied parent
We often deal with dissatisfied parents. For ten years, I directed the junior sessions of a summer music camp in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. One morning, the mother of one of our camp's best string students came to me in a rage. This parent, the first-chair violist in a major symphony orchestra, wanted to let me know that the camp practice expectation of three hours a day was simply not enough for her twelveyear-old daughter. "She needs to practice at least five hours a day! The recreation and hiking program is preventing her from doing this. How will she ever make it in the music world?"
I listened quietly as she went on to say this same thing in several more ways. When she had calmed down a bit, I repeated what I had heard so she would know I understood what she had said, "So you think your daughter needs more practice time, and that the camp philosophy of mixing the physical activity of hiking with music study is getting in the way of this need."
The woman said, "Yes, you heard me correctly. I think you need to change this policy for everyone." I waited to see if she had more to say, but she seemed tapped out. Nevertheless, I asked, "Is there more?" "No," she said, "That's about it."
I thought awhile and then said, "Well, you are correct. The camp philosophy includes the mixture of serious practice and music-making with plenty of time to enjoy these glorious mountains around us by hiking in them. We feel these two activities combine to create a well-rounded musician." I wanted to see if we agreed on what the camp philosophy was! "Yes, yes," she said, impatiently. "That's the problem."
"Well," I replied, "I understand what it is you want for your daughter, and you may be right. This may not be the camp for you. Maybe you would be wise to find another one that better f its what you are looking for." The woman gasped. She stood there for at least a minute, speechless. Finally, she blurted out, "Oh, no! We love it here! My daughter is having the time of her life. I am also enjoying it. We wouldn't think of leaving!"
"Well," I said, "I am happy to hear that, because we are enjoying you, too." I gave her a nod and walked away. The woman never had another complaint. She and her daughter attended the camp for several more summers.
1 Lahey, Jessica (2015). The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. New York: Harper Collins Press, p. 184.
2 Ibid., p.185 3Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row, p. 112