IMTF: Thoughts on the Teacher – Student – Parent Triangle

This blog post is sponsored by The Northwestern State University Department of Music.

Independent Music Teachers Forum
Patti Misita, NCTM, Past IMTF Chair  

We all know that regular communication between teacher, student, and parent is an essential part of successful piano study.  It helps to have a specific plan of action.  This column will focus on a few ideas that are working in my studio as well as a few of the results that have come from direct communication with parents.  If you have other suggestions that have worked for you, please e-mail them to me and I will post them on the IMTF page of the LMTA website.

Communicating with Parents: 

♫  Establish a written policy and distribute a copy to all new parents.  Include your calendar, fee structure, make-up policies, practice expectations and performance opportunities.  It is also helpful to include the best way to contact you.  Place a current copy in the students’ binder each year.
♫  Schedule an “Open House” in the fall.  Consider having a group meeting for parents in the fall.  A colleague pointed out that there is a different mentality when parents meet in a group.  I tried this last year, and the results were significant.  The meeting focused on practice expectations and incentives, what was new in the curriculum and all performance events available to the students.  Remember that these parents share a common goal and face similar challenges.  The group dynamic seems to impact the parents in the same positive way it affects students. 

♫  Mid-year follow up.  Once clear goals are established it is much easier to follow up at mid year.  This can be via a brief written evaluation or parents may come in for individual conferences. 

♫  Spring conference.  Ask parents to attend the last lesson of the year for a conference.  This conference is used to tie up loose ends such as outstanding balances, books/CD’s to be returned, summer and fall scheduling.  More importantly this is the time to assess a student’s progress, their strengths and weaknesses, and determine what needs to be the focus for the next year of study. Parents have an opportunity to share their perspective on progress.  Many of them have insightful observations and are much more aware of what is going on than you might think.  Parent comments also help me to assess my own strengths and weaknesses.  Last spring several parents commented that their child was struggling with ear training and wanted to know how to address this.  As a result of these comments my curriculum will include a broader focus on listening and harmonization skills.  This fall parents who want to work on ear training outside the studio will have two options to choose from.  One is to subscribe to The Music Learning Community website, which offers theory and ear training drills students can access at home.  The second is to purchase the Sound Advice theory series from Frederick Harris.  This series offers an integrated program of theory and ear training with drills accessed via the internet.  A second issue that came through loud and clear was a feeling among middle school parents that their children were not learning enough music.  As a result of parent comments I plan to offer my middle school students a greater variety of music at an easier level and more opportunities to share music of their choice within the studio.   

Communicating with Students:

 ♫  Outline clear goals and expectations.   In her session on teaching the millennial generation at last year’s LMTA Convention, Dr. Victoria Johnson from LSU pointed out that today’s students are very goal oriented.  She commented that if students know exactly what you expect they will generally do their best to meet your expectations.  Consider giving each student a brief outline of study that includes keyboard skills, technical and theoretical concepts, and a list of performance repertoire.  Include a timeline and a checklist for keeping track of each accomplishment.  Set goals for number of memorized pieces expected at each level and offer a reward when this goal is met.    

♫  Offer opportunites for group activities.   In addition to communicating with students individually it is important to establish communication among them.Group lessons play an important role in establishing a musical community within your studio.  Students need to establish musical connections outside their parents and teacher, and group lessons are the most effective means the studio teacher has to accomplish that goal.

       Elementary Students:  The social aspect of group allows students to see themselves as participating in an activity along with their friends.  Students enjoy playing for each other, they enjoy playing games with their friends and they learn from their peers.  Concepts such as performance etiquette, ear training.  They can share their musical experiences with each other and are often very motivated to keep up with their friends.

      Middle School Students: The teacher’s role is to help students establish an identity as a musician rather than just someone enrolled in piano lessons.  Again, the idea that they are part of a music community is reinforced through group lessons with their piano friends.  Teachers can begin to broaden students’ horizons by showing video clips from great performances, letting them see and hear great artists and works in all genres.  Include younger artists such as Lang Lang and the The Five Browns that they can relate to. Plan a unit of study on a particular aspect of music study such as music history, opera and ballet, or jazz.  Let them explore lead sheets and harmonization so that they can begin to see music as a whole, rather than just through the piano.  Focus on ensemble playing and playing music of their choice for each other.    

     High School Students:  At this age students are more self-motivated in their study.  They see themselves as musicians and are ready to take a more active role in their study.  Many are beginning to decide what role music will play in their adult lives and what type of music appeals to them the most.  Allow students to see you as someone who practices, attends concerts, reads journals, and networks with other musicians.  Group lessons continue to serve as a vehicle for connecting them to each other and to broaden their musical experiences.  Promote more of a masterclass type setting in group, encouraging them to communicate with each other as musicians.  Students should listen to each other play, evaluate and support each other.  

♫  Hold students accountable.   Expect all students to keep a practice record and check it weekly.  Younger students respond to sticker charts that track weekly progress.  They can see at a glance how whether or not they are progressing as expected.  Give a practice trophy at the end of the year to students who achieve a predetermined amount of practice as well as meet established goals for theory work and repertoire.  Allow older students to participate in goal setting by giving them more choices about what performance events they will participate in, as well as how much and what type of repertoire they will study.  Let them be a partner in their musical progress.  Feedback is given in the context of meeting their own goals and not just the teacher’s expectations. 

♫ Expect students to participate in performance events.  Performance events offer another common bond between students, parents, and teacher.  These events are another way to foster the musical community within your studio.  In addition to LFMC Festivals, Rally, and other events offered through the local association, I have always held two formal recitals, one in the fall and one in the spring.  This year I am going to try something new.  In order to balance judged events with broader musical experiences and promote music making for it’s own sake, I am offering a series of studio recitals in my home.  They will include:  

      “Duets and Donuts”  (title courtesy of Linda Manes) Students will perform a variety of ensemble music in the fall. 

      “Christmas Cookies and Carols” This program will be our Christmas party.  Students might play favorite carols or they might play a Baroque or Classical selection 

      “Mrs. Patti’s Pizza Party” will be held in February and will showcase pieces for Solo Festival and Spring competitions. 

     “Spring Recitals” will be held in April.  Rather than hold a large formal recital I am going to have several small recitals.  Students will be able to play several pieces instead of just one.  I hope this will encourage them to build and keep a repertoire, and in particular motivate the middle school students to learn more pieces!  I also hope it will give more recognition and weight to the accomplishments of each individual student. Each of these programs will be small groups of students and will be open to parents and friends.  While each of these programs has a particular focus, students will have a voice in what they choose to play.  They might play repertoire to be performed at a judged event, or they might just play something they enjoy.  Either way, the point is to share their music with friends.  After all, the goal here is to foster a love of music and give students the gift of being able to play for each other and for themselves. 

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