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Advice for teacher new to kids: the method approach, dealing with parents, etc. (Read 1987 times)

Offline happyaccidental

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Hello -

My primary experience being teaching undergraduate class keyboard, ear training, and music theory, I recently began teaching private piano at a cool little community music center. I have had a few private students in the past, whose homes I traveled to, but in my current setting, this environment works the best for me.

A few months back, I began teaching piano a few times a week at a cool little community music center. I have about 20 students, ages 5-12 (and one adult) taking half-hour lessons. This teaching young children (beginners) is admittedly still a mostly new experience for me, and I have become extremely aware and hypersensitive to my inexperience.

While I am confident enough to embark on such an endeavor, I do have questions about the best pedagogical approaches. I am learning lots about my students in general—finding differences and similarities, within and across age groups, regarding ability and attitude.

The school carries some method books—Alfred, Hal Leonard, Faber, and a few others, as well as some solo material. For new students—a source of anxiety—I typically gauge what to give them based on their age and an initial interview.

I speak to parents for a couple of minutes between lessons. The lessons are 1/2 hour, and when they're back to back without a break, there's not much time to sit and chat with parents.

I have one student who's a bit "difficult" personality-wise, but I like him. Up until yesterday, his dad has seemed rather apathetic about his progress, but suddenly yesterday he was asking lots of questions, and I had the sense (though he didn't say it outright) that he was questioning his son's progress with me. He seemed to want to know why I let his son move on from a particular piece that he didn't feel was ready. I informed him that he had made enough progress—cleared enough hurdles—with the piece for me to feel satisfied with its performance. But dad was right in a sense. The student could have used more work on the piece. I simply thought that the issues can be worked on in future pieces, even though I would have liked to see this piece perfected. However, I'm not sure if perfection is a good goal for a 9-year-old. I ended up telling dad that I definitely see his point, and while I made the decision to move on to another piece, I certainly welcome his desire to his kid perfect a piece, and I will take seriously such suggestions from him in the future. I then took his e-mail and told him I'll e-mail him. I do like it when parents are concerned and part of the process, though I was somewhat uncomfortable with this unexpected discussion, as I felt that dad was calling me out.

I'm rambling. I realize how many questions I have. Let me ask:

  • Is there a best methodology to assess a new student who's about to start with you?
    • What method books best apply to which types of students?
    • How do you speak with parents in such a situation as above?
    • In general, how do I best acclimate in this type of environment?

It's very important for me to do a good job, and I want my students and their parents to be happy and to notice progress. This is an ideal, I realize, but it's what I want to strive for.


Offline bernadette60614

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I am a student and a parent of a student. I see that you haven't received replies, so I'll just add my opinion!

My objective with our son is that he discover the joy of making music and that music be a lifelong source of pleasure for him.  His teacher assigns him little exercises, he spends a certain amount of each lesson learning how to pick out songs by ear, and then he has an assigned piece.  He practices about 15 minutes a day.

Many kids have highly structured curriculum and little time for play. Many kids have parents who are so focused on achievement that they forget that learning is a joy.  So, my advice:  Learn what kind of objective the parent has and build some fun into the lessons!

Offline jgallag

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Hello HappyAccidental,

Haven't been on here in a while, but saw your post and thought I'd reply.

First of all, you made the correct decision with the 9-year-old. You are right that perfection is not the goal. But you still should have a goal, and consider how, in the long-term, your student might progress towards and past Dad's standard for performance. It would help more to hear what the piece was and how you and Dad evaluated the performance differently. Also, it might help to think about why your student has a difficult personality. Unfortunately, with challenges like ADHD and Autism, parents may not tell the piano teacher or even know themselves, and it's not the piano teacher's place to come forward about it. I've also heard that piano lessons are often where dyslexia is discovered, though I haven't had a case myself. Try reading up a little on these challenges and see if there is anything that might help you restructure the lesson so the child learns more smoothly.

Let me look at your questions one by one, and I hope other teachers will reply too:

Is there a best methodology to assess a new student who's about to start with you?

I find this is a tough question to answer. The reality is, there's only one first lesson with a new student, and half an hour isn't exactly a lot of time. When I have a student who has studied before, what I have in mind are the elements of music. I know that I prefer to work from the Music Tree series by Clark, Goss, and Holland, so I have in the back of my head the progression of musical elements in these books and where the student might fit in, in terms of level. Of course, students who aren't beginners have been taught different things in different orders, so you'll have to consider if an element can be picked up as you go, or if you'll need to assign a piece or two from an earlier book specifically addressing that element.

As far as if you're looking to see if a student is ready, you'll generally be able to tell. Students who aren't ready will take every chance they get to sidetrack you. They may simply not do what you've asked and tell you a story about what they did in school that week. Of course, you politely listen, laugh, and engage them, but in the end, they must be open to your suggestions and learning. Always be kind, but it isn't wrong to say to a parent, "I think it might be best if you wait a year before trying piano lessons."

What method books best apply to which type of student?

This is an approach to method books I generally do not agree with. The reason being that many methods are simply poorly designed. However, you must understand that I received my pedagogy training at Westminster Choir College, a program founded by Frances Clark, one of the greatest researchers in pedagogy. So, when I look at the Music Tree series, everything makes a beautiful sort of sense, and when I look at other methods, I'm not always confident the authors were thinking in how they structured the books. I can tell you Bastien is far outdated and will never be appropriate. The new Alfred Premier Piano Course seems to have some great ideas, and was written by some of the best pedagogical composers of our time, but I have not tried it yet. It is something to study and try out. Faber and Faber generally works if you do your best to teach as if it were the Music Tree. I think the actual advice in Piano Adventures on reading is horrible, but the Technique and Artistry books are great, I really like how the Theory books provide ear and eye training activities, and the repertoire is very catchy and exciting. I only really get queasy because the method of learning notes doesn't show any sort of consistency, and lacks some of the valuable features of the Music Tree.

My best advice is this: go get Questions and Answers by Frances Clark (available at https://www.francesclarkcenter.org/shop?product_category=Books) and A Piano Teacher's Legacy by Richard Chronister, as well as a complete set of the Music Tree up through Level 2B (get complete sets of any other series you might want to study and compare as well). Teacher's guides are never a bad idea, also. In addition, read http://www.pianopedagogy.org/practice-steps-for-successful-independent-learning/. Angela wrote such a brilliant article, and she actually went to undergrad with me (she was finishing up when I started), though she attended Oklahoma University, also one of the top piano pedagogy schools in the country. The blog is, of course, full of good information, and the New School has a history of being a center for pedagogy research (Again, also founded by Frances Clark. I'm very sorry, she's kind of an idol for me).

How do you speak with parents in such a situation as above?

Kindly, compassionately, understandingly, but most of all with authority. Unfortunately, part of the game is impressions, and you need to give the impression that you know exactly what you are doing and that is why he is paying you to teach. Even if you're afraid you're wrong, you can't talk without certainty. Maybe next time save the last five minutes for discussion with Dad. Think ahead, though. You need to explain the decisions you make and account for his concerns. Always reiterate that patience and support on his part will be the greatest assets to his child. I don't know what actually happens, since you didn't say, but if he's unhappy with you letting him go on from this piece, he may also be providing extra criticism for his son at home. If so, he needs to be reminded that his son does not need extra teaching from him. What he needs is for his father to listen as if hearing his son play the piano is the only thing that gives him pleasure in this world.

If you are having trouble feeling confident about the discussion, read this: http://www.theguardian.com/news/oliver-burkeman-s-blog/2014/may/21/everyone-is-totally-just-winging-it

How do you best acclimate to this type of environment?

By making it into an environment. The truth is, private teaching is kind of isolated, so you need to do your best to make yourself part of it. I'm sure you're doing this already, and it's just going to take time. Ask your boss for opinions on pedagogy or managing children in ways that don't undermine your authority. Communicate with the other piano teachers, ask what methods they use, how work is going, even about their personal lives. Stop in and see the receptionist(s) and ask how he/she is doing. It's worth staying an extra few minutes after you teach to chat with people. I find I like my coworkers, and it provides the balance needed to sitting alone in the room with one child after another. Parents may be asked about their lives, too. And, if you decide to strike out on your own, go out to lunch with other piano teachers in the area. The actual teaching of the kids will get comfortable if you plan and reflect. Just make sure that you make a bigger web of connections for yourself as well.

One last thing I wanted to mention is that you should remember not to limit yourself to the method books. Try to keep all fun activities geared at the keyboard, but it is nice to try a piece or two from another method, or one of the countless pedagogical sheets out there. Two composers to start with are Dennis Alexander and Martha Mier. You will find things as simple as middle elementary. Also, teach by rote. Go Tell Aunt Rhody, Jingle Bells, etc. You can make up simple accompaniments, even just I/V or blocked fifths. This helps develop their ears further when the eyes might be taking time to catch up. I've got a starting list of rote pieces if you'd like.

I really hope this helps. Please let me know if you need anything else!

Offline dcstudio

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I was somewhat uncomfortable with this unexpected discussion, as I felt that dad was calling me out.

hi there!

just wanted to let you know that I have made some big mistakes handling these kind of situations over the years... and I have, on occasion lost the student because I did not deal with the parent as professionally as I could have -- I wish I could say that it was just when I was young and inexperienced.
 Now I am not talking about the over-bearing, control-freak, parent who sits in on the lesson and drives you, and their own child, crazy by constantly interrupting... or even the parent who habitually cancels and wants unlimited make-up lessons--or doesn't want to pay for missed lessons...  I just let those folks go on to another teacher...

Sometimes an otherwise happy parent will just catch you totally off-guard.  If you let your ego and emotions get involved  well....   I remember once this mother who was furious because her daughter had only learned I song over the summer.   The student was 11, and she had been to only 8 lessons in 3 months because of a family vacation to Europe.  The one song--was "the Entertainer"--the original --she had memorized it in it's entirety and played it beautifully. It was beyond her skill level--and we had to work hard, but she did it and  I was so proud of her.  The mother yelled in my face that they wouldn't have signed her up for summer lessons if that had known she would only learn one song.  Then she went on to demand that I give her a free month to make up for it.   She claimed that her daughter should be learning at LEAST one new song each week.  I calmly started to explain but she wasn't having it. Her daughter was in tears...  I refused to grant the free month--and I lost the student.  I lost sleep over losing that one...  I felt so bad..

well...  1 year later... the student came back--this time with her  father.   It turns out they were in the midst of getting divorced when the "blowout" in my studio had occurred.  It had nothing to do with me personally, or my ability, or how I chose to run my business-- I was just in her way that day.

My point is... maybe there is no point... lol   anyway, be ready for anything...

it does get easier.