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I am a member of several piano teacher groups on Facebook. To me it seems that the conversation that comes up most often is on how to retain students who don’t practice. There are rants about the schedules that don’t permit enough practice time, the parents who expect everything to be fun and easy, the arguing between parent and student at home (and sometimes between student and teacher in the lesson!) and the expectations from all that are rarely met. Some teachers don’t mind if their students don’t practice, others expel them from their studio immediately. Some parents are realistic and supportive, others demand ridiculous results without much investment.
This year I have had the opportunity to attend several conferences and make a number of new piano teacher friends and to learn from colleagues. I have put a great deal of energy into my teaching and a lot of thought into how to motivate students to practice. But I think what I am going to focus on for next year is not practice, but progress.
There are two ways to ensure progress at home. The first, of course, is practice. The second is the level of parental support. Many parents don’t realise the role they play in their child’s progress. They think they can simply drop their child off for 30 minutes a week, and somehow the teacher will transform their child into a competent pianist. They will typically not ask any questions at all about how much to practice or how often, and will assume that if the child truly wants to learn then surely they will motivate themselves to practice (which, as we know, rarely happens).
I am proposing two simple categories for practice:
- Regular practice1 (let’s say 4 or more times per week)
- Infrequent/no practice (let’s say 3 or fewer times per week)
And two simple categories for parental support
- Supportive2 (sitting with child/helping practice to be efficient)
- Unsupportive (never overseeing any practice)
Now we can use these two components, practice and support, to create a matrix that will determine the progress of the child.
||Practice||Not much or No practice|
Fastest possible progress
|Not much or No support||3
Reasonable progress (unusual)
Here’s the thing: we should show this matrix to the parent, and ask them:
Which quadrant do you want to be in?
Quadrant 1: Best Possible Progress
The child who practices regularly and has a parent either sitting with them or at least listening, encouraging and overseeing what is being done will progress quickly. The regular practice ensures fast learning and that muscle memory is retained. The supervision minimises distractions during practice and ensures that good technical habits are being formed. These students simply rip through the repertoire and can easily be on an exam track if they so wish. Über-supportive parents can sometimes err on the side of tiger parent which is stressful for the teacher, but at least the practice is being done.
Quadrant 2: Slow Progress
Children who have supportive parents but who don’t practice much are typically the ones who live overscheduled lives. The parents may oversee practice and wish their child to succeed, but unfortunately they are doing this for several different activities in the child’s week, leaving them little or no time to actually achieve anything. The parents’ desire for results but lack of implementation of a practice routine leads to much pressure being put on the teacher to achieve unrealistic results with the student.
Occasionally, there are students who seem to manage on not much practice. As they are well supported, their practice is so efficient that they do in fact progress – just not as quickly as they could. Parents need to accept that if they are in this quadrant, progress has the potential to be much faster if there were more opportunities to practice.
Quadrant 3: Reasonable Progress
This is the least common of the four quadrants. The child who willingly practices regularly and efficiently without any support is rare. Most often, students in this situation end up ‘playing’ more than they are practising, and therefore don’t address the nitty-gritty issues as well as they could if they had support. Progress will be at a reasonable speed, depending on how much the student is willing to adhere to all the instructions given by the teacher during the lesson.
Quadrant 4: No Progress
And here we are at the crux of the matter: if there is no practice, and no support, there will be little or no progress. Even if there are 1 or 2 practices happening week, with no supervision this practice is fairly useless, as it is often done with the wrong technique or without focusing on problem areas.
The parents in this quadrant are often the ones who say ‘Oh, we’re just doing it for fun’. But week after week, the teacher will be going over the same things. No-one will be having any fun: the teacher because there’s nothing to build on; the student because they can’t actually play; the parent because they can’t see any progress and are wasting their money.
So, in conclusion: I have decided that I will print this progress matrix, laminate it and bring it out at the very first interview with a new student and parent. I am intrigued as to the reaction I will get (although, having said that, I can usually weed out the Quadrant 4 parents over the phone, before it ever gets to an interview stage). I will also make sure, the next time a parent of one of my current students tells me what they want their child to achieve that year, that I whip out the matrix and ask them which one they’re currently in. I’m going to make the parent take the responsibility for their child’s rate of progress. If you would a copy of this matrix for your studio, here’s the link to a printable version.
My hope is that by focusing on the progress matrix there will be a shift in the parent’s attitude. They will hopefully realise that paying for a weekly piano lesson does not in itself ensure that any skill will develop; what happens at home in between the lessons is the crucial factor.
I’d love to know your thoughts on this! Please comment. And for a more detailed description of progress, read Part 2.
- It’s pretty difficult to define regular practice. Every teacher has different expectations. But at least with a minimum of 4, they are practising on more days than they are not practising.
- I am not including the over-supportive-and-in-fact-too-pushy ‘tiger parents’ in any of these categories. They really are in a category of their own as their ‘support’ is too often negative and unhelpful. That is a whole other blog post.