When I started teaching a quarter of a century ago, the bulk of my students were children. They and I depended on their parents for payment and support, which sometimes also meant direction.
And the crucial (if at times complex) triangle relationship between teacher, pupil and parent was a fundamental in almost every private lesson context.
Today the world has changed considerably, and one of the many differences for teachers is that the network of relationships around the private lesson context has become a far more complex and diverse one.
One of the most obvious motors of change is that many more adults now take lessons, whether as beginners or as ‘returners’.
More than half of my own students are adults, and from talking to many other teachers here in the UK, I find that most receive enquiries from at least as many adult learners as they do from children/parents.
The significant and growing popularity of adult tuition points to the success of the “lifelong learning” agenda, which has reshaped how we think about our lifetime journey, the discovery of self, and the function of adulthood itself.
When an adult takes private piano lessons, the triangle relationship between teacher, parent and student is clearly no longer a factor in how lessons progress. However, there will probably be other interested parties, and it’s important not to ignore them:
- Partners and Spouses, who support the learner by allowing time for them to practice and attend lessons, making space for an instrument in their home, and committing to the (shared) financial burden of learning an instrument.
- Children who encourage their parents to pursue their musical interests, who listen to their playing supportively at home, and who have a knack of saying just the right thing to their parent, and at just the right moment.
- Friends who chat with the player about their music, their progress at the piano, and who will support them should they play in a concert or at a local piano meet group.
- Employers who show flexibility in allowing the player to come away from their job at lunchtime for a lesson, leave on time at the end of the day so they get to their lesson, or who even sponsor lessons for their staff.
It’s worth mentioning that parents are often still involved too, providing support in the background. And of course they do so with knowledge and memory of how their child responded to piano lessons, which can reveal valuable insights into how they approach learning as an adult returner.
Changing Attitudes to Learning
Aside from the popularity of adult lifelong learning, there are many other reasons why the list of interested parties has grown, and why the relationship dynamics have changed.
Let’s take as an example the old cliché of the reluctant child, whose parents insist on them learning an instrument.
This is, to put it bluntly, no longer such a cliché. Especially since the last economic downturn there seem to be (understandably) fewer parents eager to invest in an expensive activity which their children aren’t enjoying or working at.
In fact I have noticed relationship dynamics where these once-too-familiar roles have literally been reversed…
By this, I mean the super-keen teenage beginner, who has badgered their parents to agree to lessons, even though the same are reluctant to invest in a new (and frankly very expensive) hobby, commit time to bringing their offspring to my studio between multiple other commitments, and all at a time when they would prefer their teenager was concentrating on passing school exams.
The dynamics of the triangle relationship here are obviously very different; the teacher who lacks the interpersonal sensitivity to navigate changing waters may quickly flounder and fail to develop a successful practice.
Another change to the traditional triangle relationship between teacher, pupil and parents comes as the result of more fluid family arrangements.
Teachers will mostly have several pupils who come from homes where the parents have split up, and are perhaps living with new partners. Ensuring that communication is effective between all parties can be a challenge.
It is not unusual for one parent to be paying for the lessons, while it is the other parent who brings the child each week. Communication between the parents may not be ideal, and as teachers we may need to step in to ensure that everyone is on the same page.
Ensuring email communication includes both parents can really help to limit the potential for misunderstanding.
Again, I have taught children who aren’t brought to their lessons by either parent, but by a grandparent, step-parent, older sibling or other carer. Important to note that their commitment to bringing the student to lessons is crucial and to be highly valued. I’m trying to make a habit of thanking all those who give up their time in this way.
Clearly, the number of significant adults in a child’s life can be larger than we initially anticipate, and I’m sure I can’t be the only piano teacher who has found communicating the appropriate and correct information to the right person a challenge at times.
It’s important of course not to get drawn into conversations about matters which don’t involve us, while still taking an appropriately concerned interest in the welfare of our students.
As always, balance and wisdom are essential!
Learning to Connect
What efforts can we, as teachers, make towards engaging appropriately with these many interested stakeholders? Here’s a few suggestions…
1. Change assumptions
As a starting point to meaningful engagement, I would suggest we need to ignore our own judgments, bias and inevitably false assumptions. Our work will likely (and hopefully) bring us into contact with a myriad of wonderful and interesting people whose lifestyles and views may seem quite different to ours, but who are probably far more like us than we initially realise.
We must particularly resist any temptation to judge others based on our own religious, political, ethnic, class or social opinions; as teachers, our fundamental professional role is to build bridges, not erect walls.
2. The friend’s room
I’m happy to be able to offer a comfortable and spacious waiting area overlooking my teaching studio via double glass doors. Those who accompany my students to lessons have a good view, and are close on hand while still appropriately separated from the lesson. Whatever the accommodation, arrangements must be made for parents, partners, siblings and friends who come to the studio.
As far as I am concerned, everyone in the waiting room area is my guest, and I should make them feel welcome, at the very least by acknowledging them!
The point of common interest is the student, and in the broader sense, music itself. As a general rule this provides plenty of scope to make meaningful connections.
I also find it important to be alert to any other needs my guests have, for example providing refreshments on a hot summer day, offering wi-fi access for their gadgets, and taking an interest in them and their activities when swapping over between sessions.
3. Concerts & Events
As we’ve seen, our students are (hopefully) surrounded by a network of supporters. One simple way we can show our appreciation for their interest and support is to chat with them when they come to student concerts, festivals, events or other get-togethers, and even when we bump into them in the local supermarket or shopping centre.
When meeting a student out and about, I try not to just say hello to them, but to engage with whoever is with them at the time. I am not naturally an extrovert, and breaking the ice with strangers can sometimes be a challenge to my own comfort zone, but one which is invariably very rewarding.
At the same time, I think that it is important to recognise that not everybody I meet wants to be overly familiar; as a fairly insular person myself I can respect others’ boundaries!
Teaching around 70 students, the network of their supporters and ‘significant others’ is literally a huge one. Trying to form connections with everyone who appears at my studio certainly takes effort, determination, and a good memory for names and faces!
The challenge is sometimes simply to make an effort. But it is really SO worth it!
Firstly, it is just great that there are so many people who are willing to support the piano players in their lives. The sacrifices that family, partners and friends make in order to free up the time and resources necessary for learning the piano must never be overlooked or underestimated.
And secondly, this bigger network provides a fabulous opportunity for the enthusiastic piano teacher to extend a love for music and inspire a wider community. Not only so, but our reputation as teachers grows as we connect with this broad range of amazing people we meet through our students, their family and friends.
I’m interested to hear any ideas that you have about connecting with pupils’ parents, partners, and many others!
Do let me know in the comments below!
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- Chetham’s Piano Teaching Course
- Can we really trust educational research?
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- ABRSM’s Piano Scales Review