Tag Archives: Discipline

Lesson Interrupted? How to Intercept Interference and Keep the Ball Rolling

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How do I stop parents from piping in and giving additional instructions to their children during the lesson?

Nowadays, many music teachers face this problem as we are encouraging, if not requiring, the parents of our students to be present at lessons. How to get parents to stop distracting their children with extra instructions and allow us to get on with our job?

First of all it’s important to remember that this isn’t about us or our authority. It isn’t a wrestling match to see who runs things. We may sometimes see such interruptions as disrespect for us or for the process. It isn’t. And even if it is, we gain nothing by interpreting it that way. As soon as we allow our egos to intervene, we are no longer seeing the situation clearly and can make a mistake, to the detriment of our students.

Let’s look at it from the point of view of the parent. Who has not had the following scenario at a lesson?

  1.  You ask Johnny a really difficult question like, “Where is the A string?”
  2.  He looks at you blankly.
  3.  Mother gets frustrated and jumps in with both feet.

This is completely understandable. Parents go to a lot of trouble to get lessons for their children. They don’t want to waste time or money, especially when they get from us so little of the former and give us so much of the latter. So they break in. It can be very frustrating to be a parent, to sit and watch your child struggle with something you know he knows or do something badly you know he usually does very well. After all, their child has only so many minutes with us a week and parents want to make the most of them. One thing none of us should ever forget is that it’s hard to be a parent – and there’s no training for it. Your students’ parents need your help and your understanding.

So first it’s important to remember a few basic points:

1. You are giving a service for which you are being paid.
2. You have to give customers what they want. The problem is that they often don’t know what they want and you have to help them realize what that is or change their minds if they have the wrong idea (see point 4).
3. You can’t teach effectively if you are worried about your own position or authority. Teaching is something you do with someone, not to them.
4. Teaching is essentially a sales job. We have to find a way to convince our customers to do things our way in a way that makes them think it’s their idea or in their best interests.
5. If you don’t succeed in getting them to do what you think is necessary, then go back to the first two points.
6. Contrary to what you might think from their behavior, almost all parents are there because they want you to teach their children and, by extension, them. They want their children to look good in your eyes and so try to help.
7. Even if point 6 is not true – that the parents really are evil and trying to undermine you – you still have to think that point 6 is the case and act accordingly. Sometimes truly unmanageable parents can be turned into the best behaved ones just because the teacher treats them like they are. People will live up to your worst expectations if you have them.
8. Let’s say that you just can’t bring yourself to assign good motives to some parents’ behavior. What are you going to do – make your student pay because his parents are so awful?

I’ll admit that I once had a mother I just couldn’t shut up. This mother was almost pathologically nervous and jumpy. As a result of her constant interruptions, her eight year old would talk back to her quite rudely during the lesson, not that I could blame her. It was an odd situation because normally parents will always allow me an opportunity, an “in,” to talk to them. She didn’t. So finally what I did say was this – and to the little girl, not the mother, under the guise of reproving the child for her manners: Continue reading

16 October 2018

To Scale and Etude. Or Not.

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A recent question on a music teacher’s forum asked how to motivate two middle school students who won’t practice well their assigned scales and etudes even though the teacher is happy with how their pieces are progressing. This is a rather more complex issue than you might think.

First of all, I have interviewed an awful lot of teachers and Famous Musicians and many seem to be divided into two camps:

  1. I did scales and etudes and by God you will, too.
  2. They traumatized me with scales and etudes and I won’t inflict that on anyone.

I had both kinds of these teachers myself. Neither of these philosophies works well and here’s why.

Philosophy 1.

Teacher being right and student being wrong is not a good way to get through to your students. The question here seems to be if the student is going to do what you say or not. Expecting obedience is a parent’s job. Yours is to help your students get the best possible result. If that means forgoing a scale or two, especially if their pieces are going well, no one is going to die. There will be plenty of time for scales and etudes when they are old enough to appreciate their value. Middle school students just don’t/can’t/won’t and perhaps shouldn’t. They don’t care how their smart phones work – they just want to use them. They can learn about code when they get older.

There is also something else to consider – do you realize how many things they have to do in the course of their schooling that they don’t want to do? I include even getting up too early in the morning when many studies show that adolescents do better when they start school at 9am or even later. Here in Italy, and I am told also in the USA and other countries, these kids are so burdened with homework and outside activities (many already aimed at getting them into a good college) that having to face yet another thing they don’t want to do is just the last straw. And I can’t blame them. So the “Procrustean Bed” school of teaching (one size must fit all, whether you have to stretch them or trim their legs a little) is guaranteed to fail for most of your students who simply can’t bring themselves to practice what they don’t want to.

“Ah,” you say, “but some students willingly practice what I give them to do, so these others are just undisciplined.” Yes, there are some perfect students out there. Somewhere. But the world is also divided in another more-than-one-camp. There are people (I am not one of them but I have lived with some of them and have had lots of students like this) who just cannot do something they don’t like or don’t feel like doing. It’s useless to argue, plead, bargain, bribe (which may work for a while), threaten, whatever. It’s simply physically impossible for them. It isn’t a question of discipline. Plus, can we really expect middle school students to have the discipline we have now (and probably didn’t have at their age either)?

Philosophy 2

This consists of taking every single beautiful piece that your student will learn and making a study out of it. Yuck. This was an important principle of the method I use when I started using it (back in the Middle Ages). I found out fairly quickly that this didn’t work very well for my students when they got to more advanced pieces. Why? Because, not having prepared for, say, the Bach Double’s difficulties with judicious use of etudes and scales, the piece was too difficult for them and remained so in their minds even when this was no longer so. My teacher (the old school type who had studied with Sevcik but never assigned me any of his studies) did this to me with my first concerto. I always avoid listening to that beautiful piece – too much baggage. Continue reading

18 February 2018

Games Children Play

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There are all sorts of ploys, gambits and tactics that children use to avoid practicing. I don’t know how this happens, but children seem to be born with a complete knowledge of tactical warfare that would do Julius Caesar proud. As a child myself who didn’t want to practice, as a parent of children who didn’t want to practice, and as a teacher of students who don’t want their parents to make them practice, I consider myself something of an expert on, if not a veteran of, the practice skirmishes. Here are some insights on three of the favorite tactics: Continue reading

14 April 2015