PART II: What every parent needs to know about music lessons

How will your child meet their expectations?

I once inherited a student who had been playing piano for years. Despite this, I still wanted to learn about their expectations. The student wanted to play for fun and develop skills, but they didn’t like aural work, sight-reading, theory, scales, certain periods of music, had preference for playing works in a minor key over major keys, didn’t like to practise much, and couldn’t always commit to attending lessons; they also felt that exams might help motivate them even though they didn’t really want to do them. This might seem like an exception, but in many cases, teachers are confronted with similar circumstances in their lessons.

I highlighted the difficulty in being able to develop skills, play for fun, and sit exams, if only turning up for lessons (and at that, occasionally). I questioned why were they taking lessons at all? ‘Because I always have’. And it seemed as though this student was going to continue lessons until the end of secondary school (a common cut-off point). I explained the potential to have fun by putting in some effort, along with describing my rationale behind certain approaches; the student thankfully decided to give some things a try. To put this in perspective, it would be like wanting to play on your local sports team but only ever turning up for training for a half hour every week (if even), while paying no attention to eating properly, sleep, or practise between; you may be part of the club, but you might not make it on to the team. However, you may be content with club membership.

Having this conversation helped me realise what to expect from these lessons, helped both of us not to impose our expectations on each other, and to adjust accordingly. Although I questioned their motivations for signing up for lessons, they were still my student, and I needed to work with them. And like the sports team, perhaps they were just happy to be part of a club. Yet, I do not recommend this approach, because it can lead to a stressful or negative experience.

Over the years I have had countless conversations with parents and students in different contexts who don’t always prioritise music lessons. The perception tends to be that it is the less serious hobby, in particular where sport is concerned. There is also the assumption that there is not much effort required in taking lessons (you either have it or you don’t), with the responsibility stopping at the music teacher’s door. Admittedly, this is not the case in every situation, but if you have only ever thought of music lessons as fun and little effort, it might be worth reflecting on what is meant by fun, and how your child will meet their expectations or reach their goals. In doing so, consider what making progress and fun are for you:

  • being able to develop at your own pace?
  • sitting at least one graded exam every year?
  • winning competitions?
  • playing your favourite song after a few lessons?
  • enjoying learning an instrument in the same way you enjoy listening to music?
  • attending lessons only?
  • having a party piece?
  • improved performance at school?

Whatever your expectations may be and regardless the reason for taking lessons, little can be gained, including having fun, without effort.

I didn’t ask any of these questions, what next?

So, you have already signed your child up for lessons without asking any of these questions, what should you do? Well, it’s never too late to consider your answers. You might even be able to confirm to yourself that your child is positively engaging with lessons. If you are a parent of a child beginning their musical journey, continue reading to learn about common issues students face in music and misconceptions about music education.

Expect your child to lose motivation

Losing motivation is not uncommon; in fact, expect it. This does not mean that lessons are no longer effective or that your child wants to give them up, it simply means that like any task, at some point the excitement experienced at the onset has waned and you have to keep going to achieve your end goal. You must remind yourself of that goal and whether it is something you still want. It might also be helpful to look back on all that has been achieved on your journey to date. A lack of motivation can also arise when more effort is required to develop a skill further. Students might progress quickly at the start and become frustrated when they can no longer do something immediately. Alternatively, students may pick things up very quickly in school, or grasp concepts in music straight way, but cannot understand why their fingers do not work at the same pace. Patience is the remedy here. A loss of motivation might also be due to a clash of expectations from the student and teacher.

Forget about what other children are doing

In certain cases, I have had students who wanted to do graded exams because their friends were doing them, their goal being to play catch up. This can be good if it is used as a motivating factor for the student, but not so good if grades are not suitable to their needs at that point in time. I’m aware of situations where parents have insisted their child take grades at the expense of developing a skill. While peers can be positive influencers, signing your child up for lessons just because other children are doing them does not guarantee that they will enjoy them, that they will acquire a skill, or that music lessons will suit them.

Take on board what the teacher has to say

I have been mostly fortunate in my teaching to have had parents and students who are receptive to my feedback. Having a parent who trusts your advice and works with you makes a huge difference to lessons. I have had discussions with colleagues however, where parents have insisted on their child doing a graded exam against their advice. In some instances, it has resulted in the student being moved to another teacher who would work on an exam. This may seem acceptable if your goal is to scrape by the exam and you do not consider any anxiety that may emerge around it a problem, but if your goal is to develop a skill and to enjoy music, it is important to take on board what the teacher has to say. It may take longer than you would like, it may involve practising more than you want, but if it helps you reach your goals, it is what is necessary.

It is not unusual for parents to want immediate results in particular in a society where proof of your achievements is common. Results here might be a certificate or being able to play a piece soon after signing up for lessons. There are teachers who focus only on one graded exam to the next, or on learning a piece of music by memory without drawing students’ awareness to the music. In certain cases, this approach can be due to pressure to produce results. Although the result is immediate, long term it may not serve the student well. This all links back to expectations and understanding what role both the teacher and student play in lessons. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to developing a skill.

Steer clear of misconceptions

Misconceptions surround many disciplines and music is no exception. When it comes to formal lessons, it is worth keeping the following in mind:

  • Doing music for fun should not mean it requires little or no effort.
  • Although some people are naturally more talented than others, even the most talented person practises.
  • Music lessons should not only be about passing an exam, but also developing skills for life.
  • Practice regularly: taking breaks during every holiday season and expecting to pick up exactly where you left off, would be like taking three months off when training for a marathon and expecting to have the same level of fitness when you start running again.
  • Music teaching is a profession and a teacher’s time should not be considered disposable.

You have now read parts I and II of this blog and are interested in learning more about music lessons.  You have considered all the questions and points raised but your child might still be struggling with lessons, or perhaps you are struggling with making a decision. Check back on 27 September to find out is your child playing the wrong instrument, or how you might go about choosing one.

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