Parents have to tread a pretty fine line when it comes to encouraging/harassing/bribing/browbeating their kids to practice an instrument. My angle is that, after the age of 10 or so, it is up to the student whether or not to continue. If the teacher’s guidance is rebuffed for more than 3 lessons (and you need to be able to hear these things from your child’s teacher without defensiveness), it’s time to move on. Answer these questions:

1) Does your child practice?

Ok, if they don’t practice, it’s not going to work. But there are two kinds of non practicers. Those who avoid adversity, and those who just don’t care. Let the apathetic kids go. They want to do something, and it’s not music lessons. Parents: do not nurse your own musical ambitions through your children. Save the therapist bills and show them that you will invest in their dreams. Your dream should be a balanced kid.

The other kind of kid is workable. Communicate with your child’s teacher and see if you can, in tandem, create an environment where practice is a part of life. Realize, though, that if you overextend your children with activities, something will go. It’s not fair to fill every gap in their schedule, even if they ask to do a certain activity. Karate, yoga, Hebrew school, piano, soccer AND cello? No way. Cello will be the first to fall by the side of the road. No matter what emphasis your child’s life finds, make sure they have time to be kids. I know you’re trying to create balance and show them what’s out there, but you just end up creating a 9 year old Day Trader who is on his cell phone telling his friend “He’s so stressed.” Not good.

2) Do you take your child to see live music? Specifically the instrument they play?

This is necessary to expose them to the culture of musicians and the medium in which they exist. I remember my first Beethoven 5th. It changed my life. I knew what I wanted to do from that moment. Thanks, mom and dad!

3) Do you take the teacher up on extracurricular offers?

Summer camps, youth orchestras, sitting in on rehearsals, recitals, etc. Music has to be a thread flowing through your child’s life. They need to work twice as hard at it without it feeling like some nightmare class from school. One way to do that is to introduce them to kids their own age who are excelling and geeking out on music. Not only is it a refreshing break from the school environment, but it can light a little competitive fire inside. Seeing someone 3 years younger than you nail a really difficult piece has a way of adjusting the practice ethic. My first summer at Idyllwild redefined my goals, and I refer to that source of inspiration daily in my own practice. It is that powerful.

4) Do you encourage your kid to persist through failure or do you tell your kid they’re good at everything?

If you’re the latter, please knock it off. Even if they are, they’ll be insufferable. Chances are there is a lot of work to be done, and I have seen enough arrogant 11 year olds to know the pattern well. The purpose of lessons is to seek out the bad stuff! What a nasty shock for the kid who thinks he’s a genius; to have to lower himself and get to work! The indignity! Kids won’t do things they feel makes them look stupid. It’s a playground mentality to insulate themselves from humiliation. I totally get it. But if they associate being a student and needing to practice and take advice with looking like a fool, they won’t do the hard work. The teacher should prepare them for the struggle, and you need to make sure they follow through with the mindset. You may want to tell them about your own experience, working hard to get good at what you do. Let them know you didn’t always succeed, even though you are successful now.

Sometimes a kid just isn’t a cellist/oboist/whathaveyou. In order to really find out, you have to make sure you’re giving them every opportunity to succeed by recognizing their tendencies, taking them to hear music, participating in making music, and fostering a strong work ethic.

*Now about that asterisk. This post has another side, and it’s called: Teachers: Are You Failing Your Students?

1) Do you interact with parents about things other than money and scheduling?

You should. They need a balanced view of what happens in lessons, and what is expected of their children. Without this, they frequently do all kinds of things that end up either wedging themselves between you and your student or tearing the student from the instrument. You are an ambassador from the land of professional musicians. Be evangelical about how much fun it was to be a young musician. Share anecdotes about successes and failures they can relate to. Tell them about how your own parents either helped or hindered your efforts.

2) Do you laugh in lessons?

You should. As teachers, we need to be sensitive to the mindset of all of our students, even children. Many lessons occur after stern lectures in the car that leave a kid welling with tears and feeling horrible about themselves. It usually goes like this:

Mom: “Honey, get your cello out, and I’ll see you in a half an hour.”

Kid: “I don’t wanna go to cello any more!” *snif*

Mom: “Why? What’s going on?”

Kid: “It’s…it’s….haaaaaaaaaaard!!” *full blown crying*

Parents will do one of two things, both of which are normal. One set will teach their kid a lesson in this moment and tell them that if they spent half the time they spent playing xBox on what Emily had asked them to do, the cello would get a lot easier. An incomplete bit of information, but it comes from the right place. The other set comes in and tries to run interference between a clearly bereaved kid and me, saying “We’ve had a tough morning” and the kid pouts their way into the studio.

Here, good teacher, is an opportunity, not a “situation”. In instances like this, you have to get a smile out of them while still teaching. I know my kids pretty well, even after the first lesson. If they chose the Aladdin notebook, I ask them about Disneyland or what movie they like. If they wear a Favre jersey, I talk to them about the Vikings/Packers game. Find something to get them out of the funk. Do this while tuning and being unabashedly positive. Kids need to know that someone is in control, and that their life holds a lot of good things in store if they can buckle down. So if it’s a practicing issue, after a little banter, I’ll have them play what I assigned. It will stink like a paper mill, so I’ll grin widely and say,

“That was not your finest effort, was it? hee hee!”

Get them to admit it, and then lighten up about the whole thing. Tell them their bow was weird, or that they have crazy fingers. It’s important to use teasing words rather than serious doom and gloom. We’re trying to create a resilience to failure, not a sociopath. Then it’s my job to tell them the truth. They need to practice every day, but only for 5 minutes a day this week. It has to be attainable, but disciplined. Most kids quit because they have never tasted success on the instrument. The ones who face adversity and witness progress are usually hooked. We must do everything we can to conv
ince them that they can do it.

3) Do you have recitals?

You should. My recitals are not the high pressure nightmares that some teachers throw. If I have a music school-bound kid, I’ll enter them in a competition to expose them to that kind of stress. Recitals are especially necessary if you have youngsters without a music program at school. Playing in a vacuum is the least fertile ground for success. I think I became a cellist and not a paleontologist because of all of the orchestral playing I did in middle and high school. So have recitals. They’re milestones that give kids a goal. Make sure there’s a party afterward, preferably with wine for the adults and ice cream cake for the teacher for the kids.

4) Do you love teaching?

You should. And if you don’t, you should quit. How dare you.

If you’re doing anything less than investing in a relationship with parents, making lessons upbeat, creating opportunities for your students to challenge themselves while loving what you do, then it’s a miracle you have any success at all. Like being a student, teaching is hard work that requires the daily assumption that there’s more we could be doing to excel. Like the student who half-asses it at home, it shows when a teacher doesn’t do the necessary hard work. Unfortunately, it hurts the student more than the teacher, and that’s a shame.

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8 Responses

  1. What perfect timing for me to read this post! I'm always questioning stuff like this with my 6 and 12 year olds. I was a pretty flaky cello student, but I really glad my parents didn't make me quit. (They didn't force me either!)

    When I discouraged that they might quit, I just tell myself, "great, now I can take lessons and trade in my cello for a better one!"

  2. I was a flaky student in a certain sense. I practiced, but not well. Still, I owe everything to Cathy, my first teacher, who made sure I was competing and participating in every program she could find for me. It really is that extracurricular stuff that makes a difference. Just ask Theresa up there. Her daughter (my student) is flourishing at a supplemental arts academy. She comes in glowing…about music theory! It's amazing. 🙂

  3. She does love her music theory!

    We had a moment, about a year ago where my daughter wanted to quit. It was "too hard." In actuality, she didn't practice one week and was surprised at how poorly the lesson went afterward. I told her it was her choice, but that I thought it was unfortunate that she would give up. Two days later I "caught" her practicing again. ;o)

    word verification: winesicle (yummy?)

  4. It really is those extra-curricular activities … I'll never forget the impact of going to the Summit Music Festival for the first time & meeting a bunch of other people around my age (older & younger) who played better than me & practiced a lot & were just generally fun people, who really loved doing music.

    If I had to name one thing in my cello-life that had the biggest positive impact – that would be it.

  5. Yep to everything… except I don't do the recital thing. I go back & forth on that one; my students are so darn busy and even getting to lessons is difficult. And I'm so busy I can't figure out when to do one! I did try once. No one wanted to attend. Surprise, surprise.

    I guess I should once again email parents & students and see if they want to give that a go.

    Funny: in the wind section, flutists always have the recital thing going. I've asked the others and rarely do they do it. Maybe because flutists are more likely to think "solo career" than the rest of us? I wonder.

  6. Yeah, but Patty: none of your students are in a vacuum, are they? They are either at the school you teach at or are otherwise musically inclined. The recitals are mostly for people who have no other outlet. Not like you need it, but your approach gets an A+ from me. I can tell by your Twitter feed that you are a great, comprehensive teacher. 🙂

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