New Term, New Pupils, New Parents

The 2015-2016 school year has begun! I am currently trying to schedule various groups of old and new pupils, seeing who is ready to continue the struggle and who has decided to try other things. Before I continue, I think it’s important to stress that I do not expect every pupil and their parents to be embarking on the journey of a lifetime with me as their intrepid teacher and guide. It’s important for children to have many different experiences: they can do violin or cello or piano for a year, but then might develop interests in another direction. It is practically (and financially) impossible for children to do every activity that they and their parents want to do. Decisions must be made, changes occur, and although many teachers love the process of developing a bright-eyed Year 1 pupil into a Vivaldi-playing dynamo by the time they’re in Year 4, it’s not what occurs in the majority of cases. However, we are a sanguine breed, and in the main, understand the many pressures on children and their parents.

I welcome every child becomes my pupil. If they stay 6 months or 6 years, contributing in any way to their musical education, and the many intellectual and physical benefits of their musical development is intrinsically rewarding. As a rule, we instrumental teachers do like, love even our work. Like most components of the musical career, we wouldn’t do it other than for love. As Bernard Black tells Manny in Black Books,  ‘The pay’s not great, but the work is hard.’ Thus we take the rough with the smooth.

I thought it timely to fling together a few thoughts that help reflections that might help to make the crooked straight and the rough places plain. There are a few things which make the road bumpier, whether lessons take place at home, at school, or in a teacher’s own studio. Some of these are the result of the slightly unusual relationship between parents and music teachers. The teachers are, of course, providing a service, but one that’s not quite like the service provided by hairdressers, dentists, or window cleaners, as I’ll show.

  • My first point is so obvious that it won’t be an affront, but do settle your teacher’s invoices promptly, whether they bill you for the whole term at once, or at the end of each month. Some parents do remark on how ‘expensive’ lessons are, but consider the fact that the teacher is unlikely to be making £30 p/h for the standard working week of 37-40 hours.  Lots of their teaching is confined to after school or patchy bits here and there on the weekends. Not only do their tuition fees go towards the normal things – rent/mortgage, food, but also there are travel costs, and of course, a lot of administration time at home. We don’t schedule just your child’s/children’s lesson time each week: there is often a complex jigsaw of a schedule to fix, involving many different families, travel times, logistics…
    Few things will more quickly make a teacher feel more jaundiced about a pupil’s family than late payment. Telling your teacher that it’s a lean month etc, etc, will not cut much ice. I am only responsible for my own finances.
  • Changing lesson times and cancelling lessons is another important point. Many teachers have a 24 hour or even 48 hour cancellation policy. This is not simply so that they can sit comfortably at home by the fire, eating the caviar they’ve purchased with the money from your late cancellation.  It means that teachers can re-jig schedules, and do not need to miss out on other potential work. They can even use the time to go to the opticians, or change a library book. Cancellation policies are common with hairdressers, dentists, gym classes … all of which are businesses; unmusical and un-artistic as it may seem, music teachers are also businesses.
  • Absences from school: if your child has instrumental lessons at school, whether the teacher works for a music service or privately through the school, do let them know if your child will be absent from school.  This is simple courtesy, of course, but it also means that teachers can plan their lessons better, and can make arrangements for pressing deadlines, such as exam entries. I sometimes teach in three schools in one day. If I know, for example, that all my Year 6 pupils are doing SATS, so won’t be needing lessons, it is very frustrating to walk to the school to teach my Year 4 pupil, only to discover that he/she is away at the dentist.
  • Examinations: exams are good things, in their way. I prefer to think of them as a means to an end, not an end in themselves. I do not, personally, subscribe to the idea that a child should do a grade each year, focussing purely on the ABRSM or Trinity repertoire. However, I appreciate the framework they provide for developing technical and musical skills, and I’m happy to enter children for them.  Please discuss your teacher’s approach to exams with your teacher, and trust your teacher if s/he says that your child is not ready for a particular grade. In preparing for exams, having four lessons each week will not equip your child to pass if they do not already have the technical abilities. Five lessons per week to prepare for grade 3 will not compensate for insufficient practice done at the grade 1 level. Trust your teacher, and respect their judgements.
  • School activities and outingsI teach in five schools, primary and secondary, with pupils ranged across the year groups. This means that there are lots of school activities to keep track of, through a variety of school newsletters, last-minute emails from school administrators. Sometimes activities like library visits or swimming trips aren’t listed in these documents. Do take a minute to let your child’s instrument teacher know that there’s a trip or visit on. A text message takes just a minute. If you don’t know all the details, that’s fine – we can check with the school – but it’s good to have even a general warning. I hate to quote Donald Rumsfeld, but this one does sum up the experience of juggling several different school schedules:

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know.

The fewer known unknowns and unknown unknowns we have to deal with, the better.

  • Finally, notice periods. As a general rule, most employers and employees have to give each other notice if they are planning to leave their job, or if they need to dismiss somebody from their employment. There are obviously many reasons for this – it allows both parties to make plans, to find replacement employees or to start looking for a new job. Many teaching agencies and music services stipulate that you must give a month or half-term’s notice if you wish to withdraw your child from tuition.  However, often these rules aren’t adhered to, unfortunately. However, I maintain that it is simple courtesy to let your child’s teacher know if you intend to stop lessons. It means teachers can plan ahead, find replacement pupils right away, or in some cases plan to take on other orchestral work, a tour or even just a few one-off gigs. It means that the teacher can take into account potential loss of income.  Your child’s lesson may cost £20 a week, but most freelancers and self-employed people need to budget very carefully. Your £80 or £90 per month covers my travelcard, which enables me to get around and do my job. By deciding to be a freelancer, we have taken the risk of living on a non-guaranteed income, but as I’ve said, it’s simply good manners to give notice.

And there’s another thing. Teaching/learning an instrument is a form of trust and exchange. Learning the clarinet, violin, or piano is one of the greatest challenges that a child will encounter, as they learn to bring together rhythm, pitch, holding the instrument correctly, developing an embouchure, learning to read music, coordinating their left and right hands … It’s an exciting relationship for teachers and pupils, as we learn to trust each other. Teachers need to learn what makes a child tick, and what their strengths are. Some are shy, some are confident, some may also have special education needs.This is an investment for the teacher, certainly, as they have to plan ahead to develop a programme that motivates the child. If you decide to cancel lessons with no notice, it can, genuinely, be upsetting for the teacher. It can feel like a form of rejection. Think about this, please.

If there are problems, do talk to the teacher. Find out why they are doing what they are doing. I taught a child for six months with lessons that became increasingly fraught. The child was very confident, very proactive, very lively … but was making no progress, and confidence often turned into tears. I couldn’t understand what the problem was, and tried many things to help. One day, apropos of nothing, one of the child’s parents told me that their daughter was extremely dyslexic, and had another medical condition which caused memory and coordination difficulties. This explained all manner of ‘known unknowns’ in a moment, but I was sad that we had spent so long struggling. We could have saved so much time, and indeed, anguish, if I had known this.

Observing these guidelines, and understanding the reasons for them, will help immeasurably to help maintain a positive, long-lasting relationship with your children’s music teachers, and ensure good progression, and happier children.

Please also take a moment to read Frances Wilson’s post on music teaching and professionalism.

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