Has Parenthood Changed My Teaching?

Back in second half of 2006, when I was 14-16 weeks pregnant, Gina Wake (from Hal Leonard Australia) and I did a two or three week tour launching Getting to Grade Four. And then, between weeks 28-31 of my pregnancy (and when Gina was 15-18 weeks along in her pregnancy!), we toured the nation again launching Getting to Preliminary New Mix and Getting to Grade One New Mix. In retrospect we don’t know what we were thinking.

But talking to piano teachers at this cusp moment in my life, this about-to-be-parent phase, meant that teachers who had known me through my seminars since as early as 2000 were sharing this transition with me, celebrating the arrival of motherhood on my resumé and giving me some great advice along the way.

One teacher said to me with quite a twinkle in her eye “I wonder how becoming a parent is going to change your piano teaching…”

“So do I!”, I exclaimed back. I’d always said that people who think that having a baby isn’t going to change their lives are dangerously delusional and/or completely failing to appreciate that the whole point of having a baby is to have your life changed. So the idea that my piano teaching would change as a result of raising a child of my own seemed obvious.

And yet – I’d been teaching since I was 14 years old. I’d already seen my teaching change simply because I’d gained maturity. I’d seen my teaching change because of new ideas I’d been exposed to when undertaking studies in non-musical disciplines (linguistics, semiotics, anthropology, sociology, French, film studies, and so on). I’d seen my teaching change because I’d taught classroom music and experienced first-hand the calibre and conditions of New South Wales high school music education. I’d seen my teaching change because I’d started presenting seminars to other piano teachers. And I’d seen my teaching change because I was composing and publishing music for students to play.

Becoming a parent was just going to be another one of these enrichments that changed my teaching.

When I resumed lessons with my much-reduced number of students and an 8 week-old baby, the biggest change was that I needed to schedule breaks between every lesson to facilitate breast-feeding. And as my son grew a bit older I needed to stop teaching earlier in the evening to facilitate his night-time routines, and I had far less time to organise the administration of my teaching practice.

To be honest, as the first few years of my son’s life passed I was quietly surprised at how little my teaching was changing post-parenthood, organisational rather than qualitative changes.

More notable was how my experience as a piano teacher was shaping my approach to being a mother.

After more than 20 years of piano teaching I had experienced all kinds of different parents: parents who were always two minutes early, parents who were always five minutes late, parents who quibbled over money and parents who arrived at the start of each term with their chequebook open. I’d had parents who didn’t realise there’s any benefit to practice between lessons as well as parents who sat with their children to practice every day, for years, for each child in the family. There were parents who told me they just wanted their child to learn ‘for fun’ and parents who discussed how we should shape the next five to ten years to enable their child to gain a music scholarship or earn a diploma before the end of Year 10. Parents who barely spoke English and parents who thought migrants posed an unfair educational challenge to their children. Parents who were keen to sit in on lessons, parents who used piano lessons for a sleep in the car.

Chief amongst the approaches I’d quietly bemoaned along the years was the parent who uses the piano lesson as a kind of baby-siting, an expensive but enriching weekly event which requires no further engagement on the part of the student or the student’s family between sessions. Why invest the money in lessons each week if you can’t be bothered supporting the practice between lessons, even a little bit?, has been my bordering-on-exasperated thought. Don’t you know how much more your child could be achieving?!

But all of a sudden, I get it.

You’re exhausted. Years of parenting a child who doesn’t seem to need to sleep have finally compounded to deplete you of even the tiniest reserves. It’s a miracle if you can make it through the day without losing it between dinner and bedtime. The piano teacher wants your child to have practiced this week? It’s a feat of extraordinary proportions that the child got fed, for goodness sake, that they’ve turned up to their lesson in clean clothes. But you know that your child loves this 30 or 45 minutes each week, or at least you’re pretty sure they do, and you know that your child is getting quality one-on-one attention from a teacher who is invested in building a long-term learning relationship. AND you know that music is super-fantastic for the brain. Whatever is happening in the lesson is absolutely worth it, because it’s more than you can provide on your own.

I get it.

The piano teacher talks to you about your child’s capacities, potential and achievements based on weekly, focussed experience working with your child. You get to tell the teacher what’s been going on in the life of your family, what’s been making practice or organisation tricky, and the teacher makes some suggestions or sympathises or tells a joke. You know that the teacher wants good things for your child, and that they have been spending the past half hour thinking hard about the best way to help your child grow and develop. So what if this week was a disaster in the practice department? The piano teacher is part of your network, your support team. You’re not going to give this up just to save a few bucks.

I get it.

And I also know, from all my years as a piano teacher, that even without practice at home a child can still (miraculously) make something resembling progress, can still play happily at recitals, can still be a joyful musician. Not anything like a professional musician. But still happy. And it makes complete sense to have your child experience this, even if you can’t (for whatever reason) support your child’s at-home practice the way piano teachers might tell you you should.

Piano lessons aren’t always about playing the piano. A successful lesson might not even involve touching a keyboard. A great outcome for a student might not even have anything to do with music.

And that’s totally, completely, and always OK.

I think I really, truly knew this before I became a parent. But these days I think I marvel more – how extraordinary a thing it is that a student finds an hour a day to practice! – how tremendous that the whole family attends the end-of-term recital! – how spectacular is an improvement in posture! – how thrilling is a memorised performance!

Parenthood has underlined to me how the whole enterprise of learning is miraculous. And how it’s a privilege to participate in that miracle every day.

21 thoughts on “Has Parenthood Changed My Teaching?

  1. Bravo!

    As both a parent to young children and a piano teacher, I get it.

    I’m so glad you said it.

  2. I love this Elissa.

    I’ve also found that since I’ve had children, parents are more understanding when I have an “off day” or need a day off for family issues. I’ve had some of my best “parenting” conversations in the two minutes between lessons or waiting for a student outside an audition room.

  3. Hi Elissa, I love this blog. There are so many things that resonate right across the teaching experience into what I do teach (Alexander Technique, to adults). The idea that a teacher is, for 1/2hr a week, 100% committed to the development of the student, of any age, and to building a long-term learning relationship just reminds me, at a very necessary time, what an honour and priviledge it is to teach. I do wish I’d had you for my piano teacher when I was a kid! best wishes, Karen

  4. Oh, I loved loved loved this. I needed the reminder that all of us are doing our best for our kids and our students, and we can celebrate all kinds of progress. Thank you!

  5. Hard to express how much I love this. In my kids weekly music lessons I love watching them build a relationship with their teachers and it comforts me to think that this is another caring adult in their lives.

  6. This is so beautiful. I needed to hear this as a teacher who does not have her own kids yet but approaching the season where kids will come and wondering how that will change my teaching. I needed to hear this to be more sympathetic towards THOSE parents, and also to hear the perspective of a teacher who is a mom. Thank you Thank you!

  7. Hi Elisssa,

    Thank you for your lucid and candid post. I have forwarded it to one of my parents who can use some re-assureance. Her 3 children, all primary school age, are all doing their first exam on 16 October. She herself is preparing for a 6th grade exam next year.

    > I have had to make a decision for myself to step back from their piano and allow them to deal with it themselves. I have been too stressed about it to the point of dreading the holidays because I would be spending all my time reminding them to practise and having to supervise all of them to mine and their detriment. So, today I have drawn up a calendar from now until the exam and it is in the piano room. They need to fill in the time they spend on the piano each day and they can, if they wish, choose one day in the week to be their practise free day. I have to do this because I am inadvertently turning the exam into a horrible monster and piano is becoming no fun. If they don’t get a great mark so be it, just as long as their enjoyment of music isn’t spoilt.

    This morning these 3 children are having (drum roll please!)

    THE SPRINGTIME SCALES PLAY-OFF

    Each competitor plays one scale or broken chord per round. There will be 9 rounds in Level 1: Nicholas, Oliver and Imogen There will be 15 rounds in Level 2: Nicholas and Oliver

    One merit point will be given for each of the following: (Maximum 3 merit points per round.)

    - doing a crescendo going up and a diminuendo going down – using a curved 5th finger – keeping a level wrist

    Any errors require a replay of the scale. Each replay costs one written copy of that scale, to be completed as homework.

    Errors include:

    - wrong notes – wrong fingering – last note not double length – poor overlapping – hands not EXACTLY together

    There are 2 mystery prizes:

    - for the competitor with the most merit points – for the competitor with the least replays

    The judges decisions in all matters are final.

    I’m looking forward to it! Cheerfully,

    Carol

  8. Brilliant post Elissa, so eloquently expressed what many piano teachers feel, but sometimes find difficult to articulte! I’m going to forward this to the parents of my kids.

  9. I’ve found that it wasn’t until I started taking my 6yo to his own music lessons this year (and tried to make sure he was getting some practice in between lessons) that I really understood what a mammoth effort it is to deal with this as a parent, on top of his homework, free play time, social and family commitments and general exhaustion from my own work day. I have a much better appreciation now of how my students may legitimately not get time to practice.

  10. As a parent of four children who play combinations of five instruments between them in varying degrees of success from little practised fun to studying at university AND as a piano teacher – THANKS FOR THE POST! It’s so easy to be disheartened by the student who lives between three families with no keyboard at any of them, but who loves music and enters the room with a big smile.It’s really the big smile that’s important. And it’s so easy to cross the line from parent to cranky music teacher at home. If music isn’t the fun, engaging, brain tickling, soul enhancing and relaxing part of my students’ and own kids’ week, I’ve done something wrong.

  11. My question to myself is “Has teaching changed my parenthood?” I have been working in early childhood piano teaching for 15 years, and have always strived for lessons filled with joy, fun, excellence, encouragement, and above all patience. Trying to bring all those things to my own house when my daughter is practising has been one of the hardest things I have experienced as a parent – as everything within me wants to discipline her for her distraction or (at times) grumpy attitude. I have persisted withe the joy, fun, encouragement, patience mantra, usually leaving the excellence to her (amazing) teacher to coach in her, knowing that my goal is for her to have a long-term love of music.

  12. Nice one Elissa, hit the nail on the head. I took an old student to a concert the other night, we spent most of the time talking about marriage!! The mentoring is often the most profound part of teaching.

  13. Great post. I think one of the most important aspects of teaching which I’ve experienced as both a student and a teacher, is for the student to really get to have a half hour or so that is all about them, with the guidance of someone who really cares about their well being.

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