How Not To Be A Dick To Your Child’s Music Teacher

After nearly half a lifetime in this business, I have some things to share with you, parents of young musicians.
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September 23, 2015
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parenting, music, teachers, teaching, music lessons

I began teaching my first piano student at the age of 15, for just a few dollars a week.

I lived in a small, not-so-artsy community, so when word got out that there was a piano teacher in the area who wasn't 80, parents started calling, and before I knew it I had a decent-sized studio that paid the bills through 4 years of college as a music major.

Now I'm 25, and, although it would be nice to make a living being a musician full-time, teaching has proven to be a fun and fairly lucrative way to pay the bills when gigging isn't enough.

I love teaching! I love working with your kids and helping them see their potential. I love watching them overcome their nerves in recitals, hearing them compose their own songs, and encouraging them to not be afraid to make mistakes (because trust me, there will be many mistakes).

But after nearly half a lifetime in this business, I have some things to share with you, parents of young musicians.

1. Please, oh please, show up for your lesson.

It’s the plight of music teachers everywhere. They are referred to as “no-shows” in the industry, and when you’re a self-employed private instructor, they are the worst. Certain stores will charge automatically if you don’t show up for a lesson without warning, but in other stores with less strict attendance policies, a student who doesn’t show just means that the teacher doesn’t get paid and is stuck sitting in their studio for 30 minutes waiting for you to show up.

If you really need to cancel, just let me know. I will be happy to reschedule. Also, please try to cancel the day before. Many times, I can fill your spot with someone else if I know you won’t be there.

Also as a side-note, you are not entitled to a make-up lesson if you no-show! Please don’t complain about this. If you cancel in a timely manner, then I can work with you to reschedule. But if you don’t let me know that you aren’t coming and I show up for the lesson anyway, and then you call later asking for a make-up, you are essentially taking up two time slots and only paying for one.

If I have the time, and I am feeling particularly charitable, then I will try to make up the lesson for you. But I am a busy musician who is also currently pursuing a doctorate in music at a conservatory, and the odds of me having oodles and oodles of free time that I can meet with you are not good.

2. If you are going to cancel, make sure it’s for a good reason.

There are a few good reasons to cancel: sickness, vacation, death in the family, car accident, injury, school-related or extracurricular activity. Other than those things, there’s really nothing else that qualifies as a good reason.

But you would be amazed at some of the excuses I’ve heard: “My child got tickets to a baseball game tonight, can we cancel?” “My child has homework, can we cancel? “My child is swimming and doesn’t want to get out of the pool, can we cancel?”

If you really, really need to cancel, of course I understand. Sometimes I need to cancel, too. But if you’re really struggling to make a once-a-week, 30-minute commitment happen, then maybe music lessons aren’t going to work for your family right now.

I’m saying this because 1) I really do need money – this is my job, after all – and if you cancel all the time, I’m not making money, and 2) if your child is going to be a successful musician, they really need to be at their lesson every week. Consistency is key, especially when they are young and first starting out.

3. Don’t just up and quit, but don’t force your kid to take lessons, either.

I have had countless students who will sign up for a month of lessons and then never return. Almost always, the parent will tell me, “Well, my child isn’t really interested anymore.”

Music lessons are expensive. They are a great investment, but they are expensive. And if your kid quits after one month, you’ve basically wasted $100, plus whatever money you spent on books/instruments.

If your kid wants lessons, wait six months before signing up. If your child still wants lessons after six months of waiting, the odds of he/she sticking with them are much higher.

If they do want to quit, try making them stick with it for a few months. A lot of times, students will enjoy the first few lessons when things are still “easy”, but once things start getting a little more difficult, they get discouraged. Making them stick with it teaches them perseverance, and it will also boost their self-esteem when they are finally able to conquer whatever it was that was so difficult.

But, after a while, if they really do want to quit, please don’t force them to continue taking lessons. I know, you took lessons when you were a kid and then you quit and you’ve regretted it ever since and you are determined that your kid isn’t going to make the same mistake you did.

But, not every kid wants to be a musician, and that’s OK. It’s great, actually, because if everyone were a musician then it wouldn’t be that impressive. I had a student once who took with me for a few years while she was on her school’s swim team.

Eventually, she realized she couldn’t do both music and swim, so she chose swim. Since then, she’s won all kinds of national competitions and awards on her swim team, and I couldn’t be happier for her. She found her passion, and I hope your child does, too.

4. For the love of God, buy your kid the necessary instrument and books.

You would think this would be a no-brainer, but I can’t even begin to tell you how many parents just won’t buy their kid an instrument. Your child needs to practice at home, end of story.

I remember one particularly amazing child who didn’t own a keyboard, so she drew one on a piece of paper, and that is what she practiced on for months. I have never been so simultaneously impressed with a child’s determination and yet so irritated with a set of parents.

My husband had a drum student once, and in the entire three years he taught him, his parents never bought him a drum set. This should go without saying, but: if your kid only has access to an instrument for 30 minutes a week, they will make little to no progress on that instrument.

If you aren’t sure what instrument to buy (and believe me, most parents aren’t!), then just ask me, and I will be happy to give you plenty of advice. I will also make sure to consider your budget. There are plenty of decent instruments out there that will be easy on your wallet, especially if you buy them used.

And if you really can’t afford to buy an instrument right now, then wait until you can before signing up for lessons.

5. If your child is a voice student, DO NOT sign them up for a 9 AM lesson!

You know when you first wake up in the morning and your voice is all weird and raspy? That’s because when we sleep, our throats collect mucus (gross, I know), and it takes a while before our voices are really “awake.” Your child will get way more out of a voice lesson with me scheduled in the afternoon or evening, and I will be a far better voice teacher to them as well.

6. I absolutely will not teach anyone younger than 5, so don’t try to convince me that your 3-year-old is a prodigy.

Yes, I know Mozart began playing piano at the age of 2. Yes, I’ve seen the YouTube videos of the 3-year-old Asian kids playing Bach inventions. But just because little Johnny likes to dance to the Wiggles and bang on pots and pans doesn’t mean that he’s musically gifted.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Oh, my child just loves music, when he was a baby we would sit him at the piano, and he would bang on it and just laugh and laugh! I really think he’s gifted. I mean, look at those long fingers!”

Listen, pretty much every little kid is fascinated by something that will make a sound. But there is so much more to playing a musical instrument than just being interested in music. You have to have the right muscle coordination, your hands need to be a certain size, you need to have a certain level of mental awareness, and most importantly, you need to have an attention span that allows you to sit still for 30 minutes.

I’ve tried teaching 3 and 4-year-olds in the past, and very rarely is it ever a productive experience. Trust me when I say that you are better off waiting a few years. Starting a kid at 3 years old will not give them a “head start.”

I tell parents all the time: Take a kid who started lessons at 3-4, and a kid who started lessons at 8-9. If they both practice consistently, and take lessons consistently, then by the time they are in middle school they will have the exact same skill level. The reason for this is that older kids learn exponentially faster than younger ones. So, save your money and wait until they’re older!

7. Please make sure that you accommodate your child’s personal needs.

This is especially true for the little ones. You would be amazed how many parents schedule lessons during nap time, or dinner time, or during a time of day when the student is “moody.”

Don’t feed your kid loads of sugar before lessons, because they won’t be able to sit still and I will spend most of the time just trying to get them to stop jumping around the room.

Don’t schedule a playdate or pool trip right after, because they will inevitably ask me every five minutes “Is the lesson over yet?” Don’t let them bring toys or gadgets into their lessons (yes, this happens all the time). Bottom line: minimize distractions!

8. Be involved!

As your child’s teacher, I will do everything I can to make the 30 or 60 minutes I have with them as productive as possible. But as soon as they leave my studio, it’s up to you to make sure they practice.

After every lesson, I make sure to go over everything we covered in that lesson, and outline in detail everything your child needs to be working on. Don’t just drop them off and wait outside! Come in, meet with me, and talk with me. I absolutely love it when parents want to know exactly what’s going on.

The students whose parents listen to me and are attentive when I explain what we’ve been working on are %100 of the time more successful than the students with uninvolved parents. Oh, and um… PLEASE make sure they practice at home. Please, please, please.

9. Don’t show up to lessons without your books

That one’s pretty self-explanatory.

10. Don’t make excuses as to why your kid didn’t practice this week.

I’ve heard it all: “We have family in town, we had a lot of homework, we were sick, we went to Disneyworld, we got a new puppy, we’re remodeling, we’re moving,” and my favorite, “We lost the book and can’t find it anywhere.”

I understand, life happens. I understand that some weeks will be more productive than others. I even understand that children can be unbelievably busy with all the homework and extracurriculars they have going on.

But the bottom line is: If you didn’t practice, you didn’t practice. Having a good reason for not practicing is not going to automatically make our lesson go any smoother.

If your child didn’t practice, just tell me so. Don’t follow it up with, “But it’s because of this good reason!”

I have been a musician since I was 8. I’ve practiced till my hands were sore, I’ve performed with the stomach flu, I’ve missed parties and even vacations for rehearsals. In my mind, there is no good reason not to practice.

If your child is really too busy to practice, then they shouldn’t be taking lessons. It might sound harsh, but really, if you’re going to be paying so much money for lessons, don’t you want them to be worth it?

11. Don’t interrupt me while I’m teaching.

Every teacher is different, but personally, I have absolutely no problem if you want to sit in on your child’s lesson, as long as the student is OK with it (some students aren’t, by the way, so please respect your child’s wishes if they want you to wait outside!)

But when you are in the room, you are merely an observer. You are not to butt in, you are not to ask questions, you are not to blurt out, “No, Johnny, you’re doing it wrong!” when I am correcting the student.

And you are MOST DEFINITELY not to try to take over the teaching. I don’t care if you yourself are a musician or a singer. You are paying me to teach your child, so let me teach your child. The only time it is appropriate for you to speak is if your child is misbehaving, and you say, “Listen to your teacher!” That’s actually awesome, by the way.

I’m a super non-confrontational person, and I don’t particularly like scolding students who are misbehaving, even though I have to do it from time to time. Usually, scolding means more coming from a parent anyway.

12. Finally, always be encouraging and supportive!

This one makes me a little sad, and fortunately it doesn’t happen very often. But every now and then, I come across a parent who isn’t satisfied with their child’s progress, who complains that they’re playing the same song over and over again, who wants them to stop playing the kid songs and work on “real” music.

Learning a musical instrument is most likely THE HARDEST thing your child will ever do. I read somewhere once that the mental capacity it takes to play the piano is so great that we technically shouldn’t even be able to do it. So every time your kid plays “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” I want you to know that he or she is defying science to do it.

Some kids learn very quickly. Some need several weeks just to learn an eight-measure song. But eventually, they will all make progress. Be patient, be supportive, and be proud! They are doing something amazing.