You Can’t Win ‘Em All

Occasionally sincere young teachers call me in anguish over a particularly serious problem that arises when a parent wants to make a change that the teacher accutely feels is not in the best interests of the child. It breaks my heart to have to confess that there’s a Very Important Principle which I myself have learned the hard way, that has taken me years to accept and that I transmit with sorrow:


I have said that I never give up on a student. And I don’t. But when I am in front of the superior force of parents who cannot or will not take my advice for their child, there is very little I can do. Here are a few of the impossible situations that have presented themselves over the years:

° Parents who suddenly decide to take their child to a terrible music school or a terrible teacher on the advice of someone who doesn’t know what they are talking about (in one case, a next-door neighbor whose child had studied another instrument with another teacher and had quit). In other words, you the teacher are a genius until the parents decide that you’re not and that someone else is. No amount of competence, success, good students – past and present – and pleading on your part is going to matter one little bit. The parents have made a decision and the child is theirs. There is nothing you can do about it.

° Parents who suddenly decide their child does not have “passion” for the instrument and therefore should quit playing it. I don’t know how much passion a 9 year-old can have for an instrument that will require him to practice an hour a day without being reminded, but I have NEVER seen this happen. I have learned to point this out to parents very blandly, however, because nothing I can say is going to change their minds.

° Parents who will not discipline their young child, who allow their child to manipulate them, whose child wants to be in charge and her mother or father lets her get away with it. You call the child to start the lesson, the child says “no” or dances around and the parents do little or nothing. Even Suzuki says that the parent should go get the child and physically but gently bring him to the teacher. You can talk all you want to about discipline, but this situation will not end well. Trying to impose discipline myself, in a very nice way, doesn’t work either. If a parent lets a child run things, then that’s the way it will be. I have learned not to object when the parents tell me, sooner or later, that the child no longer wants to play the instrument. It isn’t really that the child doesn’t want to play, but that she cannot manipulate me, so it’s not fun anymore. I have learned to tell the parents this, again in a very bland way, but it doesn’t make much difference. If the parents want to listen to you, they will do so the first or second time you tell them. When they let the child quit, they have made up their minds.

° Parents who decide, on the advice of anyone they feel like listening to – and believe me, they may take advice from all over the place except where it counts – that their child is full of talent and should pursue a career in music which, naturally, means that you have to prepare the child for entrance into the nearest conservatory at a too-young age. (In Italy you can go to conservatory from the age of 9, but most students start from age 11 and up). Naturally, your opinion is not invited. Naturally, you do your job, get the child into the conservatory, but he winds up quitting because he was too young, didn’t have as much talent as the parents thought, and/or wasn’t interested in a musical career anyway.

° Parents who allow their child – your student – to be poached by another teacher. I don’t mind if the teacher is at least as competent as I am, but when I know that the teacher has a horrible track record and none of her students play well, it nearly kills me. In one case such as this, the parents sent their child, the only student I ever had who from the age of 7 willingly practiced on her own, to another teacher at the insistence of an aunt and the grandparents. The parents didn’t want to do it but family pressure made them give in. It pains me to think of this even today because this child, now grown up, plays terribly and any possibility she may have had with the instrument has been ruined.

All of these things have happened to me, extremely rarely, thank heaven, but they do happen. I used to fight tooth and nail feeling that these children must be defended, but every time I come up against the same thing. The student’s parents eventually do what they want, and after you have expressed an opinion once or twice there is really nothing more you can do. You have to give in gracefully if you want to retain the good will of your student and his family.

I have never cared if the parents think I am only defending my own interests and I don’t go down even now without at least trying to defend the child, but I can no longer allow my passion for the instrument or for teaching and for what I feel are the best interests of my students to allow myself to get involved in a fruitless battle which I (and my student) will lose and that will cause ill will in the end.

Sometimes you have to give up. How I hate to tell any idealistic young teacher this, but you can’t win ‘em all.

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24 March 2015

One thought on “You Can’t Win ‘Em All

  1. Carol de la Haye

    A sad but real situation, sometimes. Your observations and advice are full of wisdom.


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