The Progress Matrix Part 2: What defines progress and support?

The Progress Matrix Part 2: What defines progress and support?

In Part 1 I talked about this matrix:


Practice Not much or No practice
Support 1

Fastest possible progress


Slow progress

Not much or No support 3

Reasonable progress (unusual)


No progress

In Part 2 I’ll talk more about each individual quadrant: what support means and what marks progress, and how to get to and stay in the highly sought-after Quadrant 1.

Q1: Lots of practice and lots of support: Fast possible progress.

It is every teacher’s dream to have all their students and families in this quadrant. In these households, there is a practice routine, there is supervision, there is an adherence to instructions given by the teacher and there is a general support of music in the culture of the house. Q1 students progress fast: they play lots of repertoire, they are learning to practice well, they have all sorts of other skills supporting their playing.

In Part 1 I said that Über-supportive parents can sometimes err on the side of being a tiger parent, which is stressful for the teacher, but at least the practice is being done. However, tiger parents don’t just stress out the teacher: this can also be quite stressful for the child, and as a result it is our job as teachers to manage expectations and make sure that the parent’s competitive streak is not overriding the child’s love of music.

I also call Q1 the Exam Quadrant. I recently had a student who wanted to attempt a very high grade exam.1 I explained to him that in order to succeed at exams, he had to be in Q1. He was pretty much in Q2 (see below): pressure from the parents (masked as ‘support’) but not a great deal of practice going on. I also talked about this to his mum and made it very clear that unless the whole family maintained a Q1 status that I wouldn’t support the exam enrolment. I also insisted that the exam requirements be met by the enrolment date rather than the exam date! This strategy, so far, is working well.

How to get to Q1: The definition of ‘lots of practice’ would be five or more practices per week that are efficient and productive. This usually requires some sort of overseeing or supervision from a parent or other supportive family member (which would be the definition of ‘lots of support’) because it really is tricky to practice well on one’s own!

How to stay in Q1: In any long-term pursuit, there will be peaks and troughs of enthusiasm and achievement. It is the parent’s job to see the big picture and work through the troughs, ensuring the child maintains the practice routine even when they are baulking against it.

Q2: Lots of support but not much practice: Slow progress

There is usually only one reason why a child would not do a lot of practice despite good support at home: they are overscheduled. Intentions are good but there is simply no time. The parent may be a little competitive and wants their child to succeed, and is very ‘supportive’, but hasn’t created enough practice opportunities or simply doesn’t understand that infrequent, ‘fit-it-in-where-we-can’ practice is no substitute for a decent practice routine. Q2 students are the ones who enthusiastically start new pieces all the time but never finish them, due to a lack of time spent.

There are many parents who have the potential to be very supportive, but are under the impression that if their child doesn’t naturally gravitate towards the piano (or whatever instrument) to do their practice, then their child clearly isn’t interested. My mantra here is: Don’t mistake a child who doesn’t want to practice for a child who doesn’t want to play a musical instrument. Of course children don’t ‘want’ to practice, just like they don’t ‘want’ to do their homework and they don’t ‘want’ to brush their teeth. Parents need to enforce practice as part of the normal household routine, and make sure it is not seen as optional.

How to get from Q2 to Q1: Sit down and have a family meeting about the week’s activities and how practice can fit in. Make sure there is enough time allocated to piano: at least 4 practices per week. Schedule the practice time in and make it part of the weekly routine. If it’s possible to practice in the mornings before school, this is brilliant, as children are fresh and this time of day is rarely disrupted by other activities.

Q3: Not much support but lots of practice: Reasonable progress

This quadrant occurs rarely, or in any case does not usually last long. Q3 students can usually play a few things well but they tend to stick to those things and it takes a long time to get through new material. It is VERY difficult for a child to instigate and maintain a practice routine without the support of the parents. What usually happens is that the initial ‘honeymoon’ period of novelty and enjoyment subsides in a few weeks, and the parent then notices a drop off in practice and assumes the child has lost interest.

In the rare instance where practice continues in the absence of support and/or supervision, progress will be reasonable but not usually very efficient. This is because the student is most likely practising the wrong way, or the wrong pieces, or both. In fact, ‘practice’ may be a generous term; very often it is more ‘playing’ that is taking place rather than focused practice. And fair enough too, because as said before, practising is not easy and there are very few children who can practice efficiently on their own.

How to get from Q3 to Q1: Engaging more support from parents is tricky! So many families have both parents working full time, with children either in after-school care or looked after by nannies or grandparents who don’t know the drill. Sometimes it’s a matter of accepting the ‘reasonable progress’ and managing the expectations of the parents. Mostly however it’s a matter of making sure the student’s enthusiasm remains high by finding repertoire that is manageable and enjoyable without needing too much supervision during practice.

Q4: Not much support and not much practice: No progress (or at least very slow)

Q4 students can’t play much, and don’t learn new things at any sort of decent rate. In the course of a year there might be one piece mastered, or several played badly. In the worst cases there might be a failed exam or an embarrassing eisteddfod appearance (sad, but true).

The families who reside in this quadrant are often in denial. They don’t understand that piano is not a 30-minutes-per-week activity. They have started piano lessons with vigour but have neglected to allocate any time or interest at all during the week between lessons. Parents in this quadrant can sometimes be defensive and argumentative, and even accuse the teacher of doing a bad job when their child is not progressing.

Teachers don’t have any fun in this quadrant UNLESS the parent is easy going and the student doesn’t mind covering the same skills in a different way each week. But this is extremely rare. Most parents want value for money, and if no progress is being made, or it is so slow that it is barely noticeable, it is unlikely that parents will continue to make the investment.

And even if the parent AND the teacher are really easy going about no support/no practice, without any progress the student won’t be having much fun either. Everyone wants to feel a sense of achievement and satisfaction in what they do, it’s part of our psychological need for competency.

How to get out of Q4: Let’s face it, any other quadrant is better than Q4! No-one has any fun when there is no progress. It’s a matter of educating parents out of denial, helping them to understand that yes, this is the quadrant they’re in, and that piano doesn’t work as a drop-off activity. Keep the lessons vibrant and fun with lots of different activities, so that if and when a practice routine and/or support does finally kick in, there is still a positive attitude towards lessons.  

How to avoid Q4: Any self-confessed Q4 families might like to reconsider piano as an ‘activity’ to take up.2 The student and parent might be absolutely delightful, but there is just no point going down the path of music education without practice or support.

Conclusion, and a final note about progress:

For the first time in my 30+ years of teaching, I am finding that I can get through to the parents about practice, progress, and exams! Showing them the matrix and making them take stock of which one they’re in is really helping them to understand what is required. Students MUST do an appropriate amount of practice to undertake exams, and parents MUST understand that it is a team effort in terms of routine. But even if exams are not part of the equation, progress must be made in order for there to be any sense of achievement.

So what IS progress? Well, first I’d like to say what progress is not. It is NOT defined by sitting exam after exam, regardless of the result or the enjoyment had. It is NOT defined by attempting harder and harder pieces, whilst never truly mastering any.

Progress means an increase of ability, in a time frame that seems appropriate for that student and their situation. That’s extremely general, but it’s true. As teachers, we have expert knowledge of what each of our students are capable of, given their individual environments.

Sometimes it is not possible to be in Q1. But that’s ok, progress can still be made! We, as the experts, have to manage the parents’ expectations. As long as everyone is on the same page, and there is a solid understanding of what can be achieved given all the environmental factors, a happy musical education will result, which hopefully lasts long into adulthood – and can be passed on to the next generation of music students.

  1. Well, his parents did anyway – I found it difficult to get a truthful answer from the boy.
  2. I can usually weed out these families in the initial interview.
Samantha Coates

Samantha Coates is a professional pianist and teacher with over 25 years experience in both private and group tuition. She is the author and publisher of BlitzBooks, the music education series that has captured the imagination of students across Australia and transformed the teaching of music theory, sight reading and general knowledge.

6 thoughts on “The Progress Matrix Part 2: What defines progress and support?

  1. Verna Kreibig says:

    I found these ideas re progress and support very interesting. As a senior citizen student, support is coming from my capable teacher only. I’ll think more about ‘reasonable’ progress (age is a factor too) and ‘playing’ vs ‘focussed practice’. Thank you for sharing this with the public as you do. I am enjoying learning music theory from your books. Can ‘support’ include playing along with a CD instead of alone?

    • Samantha Coates says:

      Of course Verna! Playing along with a CD is an excellent way to enjoy music. I’m so glad you found this post helpful.

  2. Frances says:

    This whole matrix is brilliant! It really resonated with me when you introduced it at Curious Live. This blog is generally directed towards piano teachers; do you have an equivalent article directed towards the parents/ would it be okay for me to adapt your words? I am in the process of writing my blurb for new parents and will definitely be including this concept!

    • Samantha Coates says:

      Of course, adapt it for parents as you see fit! It would be great if you could use the matrix as is, with the url and copyright info on it.

  3. Heather says:

    Hi again Sam,
    Teachers benefit from having a ‘Welcome Pack” for families. As well as the usual cover letter, policy, basic information about lessons, venue, etc., this could include your matrix or similar visual. There are many of these “matrix for success” diagrams used by businesses and schools. They are a great idea as parents can clearly see the difference between where they are and where they potentially could be.
    Do you use a welcome pack?

    • Samantha Coates says:

      Hi Heather thanks for your great comments! No I don’t use a welcome pack but it certainly sounds like a good idea. I present the matrix in the interview, at which stage I’m not too sure whether we will be going ahead with lessons, so it’s possibly premature to issue a ‘welcome’ pack at that time. But I shall think about what else I’d do with it – thanks!

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