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Parents who sit in on piano lessons

Parents of piano students: you immediately subdivide into Those Who Send Their Children In, and Those Who Sit In On The Lesson.

Just quietly, piano teachers probably also have you classified on quite different grounds as Those Who Think Practicing Is Optional, and Those Who Take This Seriously.

But for now we are talking specifically about what’s in it for you, for your child, and for the teacher when you choose to sit in on a lesson.  And what you simply must never ever do.

I would guess that a significant majority of piano teachers who give one-on-one piano lessons would much prefer it if the parent(s) stayed out of the room while the lesson was in progress.  In practice most teachers will insist that parents not sit in on lessons.  And for some good reasons: students change when their parents are present! Almost without exception they become more withdrawn, less confident when trying something new, and less willing to share their opinions.  Teachers are very reluctant to risk admitting these kinds of behavioural adjustments to their lesson when so much about playing the piano (or mastering any performance skill) requires openness and confidence.

There are other reasons teachers keep the lessons genuinely one-on-one: as a generalisation, parents generally end up  ‘coaching’ their child through a lesson, offering the answers a student is too slow to speak, assuring the teacher the child sounded much better at home, and explaining the life events that prevent their child from being quite as good as they would otherwise have been that particular week.  This all takes up a lot of time in the lesson, and contributes nothing useful to the teacher’s task of making a material difference to the child’s pianistic and/or musical skill set within 30 minutes.

And sometimes (not always) teachers can be a little shy themselves, and the presence of a parent can hamper the teacher’s sense of ease and flow.

All of which may have parents thinking (having read my frank descriptions) that there can be nothing at all to be gained from sitting in on a lesson.

But, when managed correctly, this is quite far from the case.

A parent sitting in on a piano lesson will be much more aware of the teacher’s concerns and instructions than the parent who never puts their face inside the studio.  And a parent who observes the piano lesson will know what is required of the child throughout the next week, possibly even with a very clear idea as to how to assist the child with the more challenging aspects of their work.

I particularly welcome parents sitting in on their child’s lesson when the parent has a somewhat restricted/non-existent musical knowledge from which to draw when helping their child at home.  It is extraordinary how much a parent will pick up from observing even a single lesson – things that are fundamental to good performance, but which the parent had no awareness of before.

Here are the ground-rules I use in my lessons to ensure maximum benefit to both student and parent:

Parents are seated out of the sight-line of both student and teacher, keeping the conversation in the lesson between the student and teacher, and minimising the opportunities for parent and child to begin a debate, for the parent to randomly interject, and for the child to turn to the parent for approval.

Parents must not answer for their children or play the piano in place of them. Parents must not say anything to disparage the child.  Parents must not make excuses for the child.  This is all pretty challenging to many parents, especially those in the habit of doing their children’s homework!

And probably most important of all, parents must not use the lesson to praise their children!  Many a time I’ve heard a student give a barely competent (let alone polished) performance only to have the parent chime in at the end “Isn’t he sounding brilliant this week?” or some such similar irrelevant and ill-informed judgement. This creates a diversion from the task of improving the performance (or some related learning activity) while the teacher assesses the cost-benefit of explaining to the parent why, and in which ways, the performance was entirely unworthy of praise.

Does it go without saying that it’s just plain embarrassing all round when parents put forward incorrect answers or explanations during the lesson?!

Finally, parents should not sit in on the lesson if they plan to be actively disinterested in proceedings.  If you are sitting in the lesson but preoccupied with reading a magazine or reading reports from work, this sends a clear message to the child – it might look like I’m interested, but as you can clearly see, I’m not.

If parents do wish to sit in on lessons, it’s well worthwhile for teachers to take a minute at the end of the lesson to debrief (or, more properly, rebrief) the parent as to what is required at home, the salient points to be mastered, and a quick summary of what their child did right that day.  There will be another student waiting for their lesson to begin, so parents need to curtail their conversations to the proportions of the lesson time.

Finally, no matter if you choose to sit in on a lesson or send your child in to enjoy some completely individual attention from the piano teacher, do work with the teacher, and not at cross-purposes!  If the teacher has asked your child to practice slowly, don’t encourage your child to play fast.  If the teacher has asked your child to practice for three hours in the week, don’t tell your child that two and a half hours will do.

Your role in the ongoing progress of your child-pianist is vital,  so no matter what arrangement you come to regarding your attendance at the piano lesson, do take yourself seriously as a music-educator.  Because that, irrespective of your levels of experience and expertise, is exactly what you are!

18 thoughts on “Parents who sit in on piano lessons

  1. Gary McPherson has been focusing on this subject as a research area the last few years. To greatly simplify his research (apologies if this isn’t right, Gary), the greater, interested roles parents play the greater the likelihood of the child to continue learning and to benefit from that learning. I believe it’s especially important about one year in when the initial excitement about learning the instrument has subsided. I wonder if he has drawn up guidelines like yours about *how* to be involved, though?! I expect so.

    Interestingly, my wife has her piano teaching studio set up just as you describe! I
    must ask her if it’s for the same reasons…

    Cheers,
    J

  2. Very thought provoking as always. It’s made me think about my own teaching style, and the atmosphere inside a lesson.

    On a lighter note, I have a parent of a younger student who always falls asleep on the couch. My student likes to point this out as soon as she notices, but we let her sleep until the end when we wake her up for Show and Tell, and to sing canons (that keeps parents on their toes!). I really don’t mind providing a desperately needed kip for an overtired mother.

    Thank you for all the blogging: great info well written.

  3. You have sure looked at this from all angles! And the point James makes (ref comment above) regarding how important it is to try and help inspire a student after the initial excitement of learning a new instrument may have begun to subside, i agree is very important.

    Based on my own experiences as a music student, and also as a parent of children studying music, I have developed ‘vague views’ on the matter. I hope you and other readers pardon a little hyperbole below! .. Here we go..

    ***

    Perhaps parents shouldn’t sit in on lessons.
    Couldn’t they rather listen through doors?
    (Mores for a vacant space anyway;
    Sound-rhymes open, rise then lesson
    As though from a distance, time listens in.

    Thus may visit, (perhaps via hesitant notes)
    An awareness of the beauty of music
    Not of duty, but of their own child’s unity
    With it.

    cheers
    w

    [Thank you for your interesting and thought-provoking post!]

  4. I generally say to parents who wish to sit in, “You may sit in on the first lesson but the student does much better when there is no parent in the room”. Some parents insist on being there so allow it if it is very important to them. Most parents will eventually realize that the student is better off without them in the room
    Gigi

  5. Very good points indeed. I have noticed a rising trend lately of parents wanting to be way too involved in the musuc lessons which consequently confusses the student on who is the real teacher. It is interesting how in some areas children are let too free and in places like the music lesson where they need to express themselves, they are held back.

  6. I agree wholeheartedly on most of what you have written, the only thing I disagree with is engaging with other things (like reading a newspaper or magazine) while the student takes a lesson. We live in a day and age where child protection is a real thing, since I’m a girl, I could probably be looked upon less suspiciously than a male would. Sexist I know, but my own piano teacher has all the parents in his studio sit in because of the day and age we are in. In order to make the child feel like there are less eyes on him/her the parents normally bring a book. I also have parents who sit in out of convenience, I provide them with coffee table literature, they don’t always read it, but it’s there for them if they are are found twiddling their thumbs. If its routine, I don’t think it sends the wrong message, at home, the parent doesn’t always supervise practice.

    • Rebecca, I certainly agree: if the parent is present in order to prevent the music teacher from sexually abusing the child then it doesn’t really matter what they are doing while they are supervising the lesson. 🙂

      I think the dynamic in the room (in regard to the child feeling observed by the parent) needs to be carefully monitored by the teacher so that the optimum learning experience is possible. But if the purpose of having the parent in the lesson is to enhance the learning experience it’s probably advantageous if the parent is paying attention. 🙂

      • I would want to have something for my hands to do. I crochet and knit. It doesn’t mean I’m not listening and in fact I’d pay more attention doing that than I would reading a newspaper.

  7. I sat in on all my children’s lessons firstly to encourage them and secondly because I wanted to learn too. Both my kids have unfortunately given up the piano but I have started playing. I don’t take lessons but my plan is to learn all the songs in all the books I bought for them, including a couple of your excellent books.

  8. I liked your post.
    I generally like parents to sit in on lessons once in a while – and encourage them to drop in when free.
    However, i have a few young kids with serious difficulties paying attention (not just piano, but even otherwise), and some kids who give a lot of trouble – sulking, tantrums and tears. All of them love piano class, and are not being forced into it.
    With these kids, i ask parents to sit in as often as possible, so they can see how i’m handling the teaching or the discipline. I find it helps me a lot, and both the parent and i learn to work together – and i see students changing.
    One student in particular, with a real problem paying attention, is starting to change, as his parent helps him practise, using techniques we discuss in class, and my wildly exuberant students are starting to be a little less rowdy, and more cooperative, when new stuff is taught. The parents are doing a lot at home, to make sure their children change.
    In general, if find, working with a parent, helps me teach better, so i take a lot of effort to try to form a rapport with parents of my young and teen students.
    But most of the little girls i teach currently, do NOT like their mother’s to sit in on piano class! It surprises me that most of the little boys i teach right now feel otherwise! In my earlier lot of students, both boys and girls did not like their parents sitting in, except once in a way.

  9. You are a dear to my heart. I will not teach without a parent and it works really well. Looking forward to your blogs and letters.

  10. I feel I would be well-suited to the description of your preferred sit-in parent. My musical knowledge is indeed limited and I would definitely want to see what my child is learning and how to assist her when the lesson is over. And of course, I would surely learn much for myself as well. Plus I know how and when to keep my mouth shut.
    If only there were such a thing as Parent & Tot piano lessons, I’d be all set. Thanks for this post (and others)!

    • Hi Adam!

      You know, there are teachers who really do enjoy working with parent and child together, with both learning to play?!

      Ideally, the parent has a separate lesson as well, for the very important reason that children often end up progressing more rapidly than their parents!

      Lovely to hear from you – and best wishes for when lessons with your daughter actually begin!

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