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Monday, July 18, 2011

The Case for Having Parents in the Lesson

I recently read through someone's blog that mentioned their child's music lesson. It seemed that the parent was not actually in the lesson but was observing the lesson from a window between another room and the teaching area. I wanted to share my thoughts about that.

I am sure there are many different styles of teaching, but I would like to make the case for having a parent in the same room as the lesson. I want my parents there for several reasons:

to take notes: In the beginning, the parent takes notes for his or her own use at home and as reminders of the teacher's assignment. Later the student will rely on the parent's notes to remember what the lesson homework is. When in the midst of a lesson, students often forget what the teacher has requested.

to get clarity: If the parent is nearby, he or she can quickly ask a question for clarity. As a teacher, I can also quickly gauge whether the parent understands what I am saying.

to observe carefully: If the parent is nearby, he or she can easily see the attention to detail that I am giving in the lesson. A parent cannot see accurately what I am doing from 12 feet away! Some of my parents cannot even see what I am doing from two feet away! I need the parents near so that I can be sure the parent understands what I am doing and how I want things accomplished. (Many of my parents also read this blog to keep their memories refreshed as well).

to interact: I prefer that my parents not interact during the lesson except to ask questions for clarity. This means that I ask my parents not to make noises of any kind (no yawns, frustrated sighs, or helpful hints to the student). Removing the parent from the lesson will make this easier for the parent and for me, but having the parent in the same room is actually very enlightening to me, the teacher, about the sort of relationship the parent has with the student and the need the parent has to make an impression on me. Both of these types of observations help me a lot to devise ways of teaching the parent to be a better parent and to have a better parent-teacher relationship with the child.

A parent that needs to "help" their child by giving them helpful fingerings or translating my questions into their child's "language" is not helping the child at all. After all, the child needs to be able to answer questions no matter who asks them and no matter what form the question words take. It is arrogant on the parent's part to assume that they alone understand what the child is thinking or that the child needs to have help remembering something. Helping the child to remember something by reminding them is also not helping the child to strengthen their memory skills. It is the actual act of recalling that helps a child remember something over the long term. Sometimes little children need things repeated many, many times before they actually internalize the information. How many hours did the parent drive a car before it became easy to drive?

If a parent is truly doing a good job in the home practice (practicing daily, practicing accurately, letting the child learn rather than telling them what to do, and actually PRACTICING by accurate repetition of difficult spots or new skills more than just once or twice in a practice session), then the child will probably not need such helpful advice from the parent during the lesson. From these sorts of parent behaviors I am able to identify a parent who wants to look good in my eyes (but not necessarily by doing the assigned homework) or who wants to take the easy way out in practice sessions by telling the child what to do. Sometimes too such a parent is just naturally prone to be authoritative, and maybe even a little dictatorial in style. Some personalities find that style to be natural. I happen to be one of those choleric types, so I understand all too well the temptation to get involved in a lesson. When I went to institute and observed one of my students in a group class situation, I found it very difficult not to engage my student during the class, even though I knew that I should not interrupt the teacher's connecting focus with the class participants. When the institute teacher glanced at me during one of these trying moments, I knew I would either have to leave the class or sit on my hands and keep my mouth clamped shut. I chose to stay and focus on the teacher rather than my student.

to learn: I ask my parents to try out the same skills that I am teaching to their child. If the child is learning how to make good bow holds, then I ask the parent to make good bow holds (I find that the student comes to the next lesson with the same bow hold that the parent makes, so I make sure the parent can demonstrate the bow hold I want the student to come to the next lesson with). The child often enjoys having the parent be part of the process, at least in the beginning, and I find it useful to have the child help me to teach the parent. Remember the following proverbs and quotations about the value of teaching someone else something that we ourselves learn:

"I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand." -- Chinese Proverb

"If you would thoroughly know anything, teach it to others." -- Tryon Edwards

"By learning you will teach; by teaching you will understand." -- Latin proverb

I think that goal is best served by working together with the parent and not by building distance between us, such as by banishing the parent to another room or by insisting that the parent address me by a fancy title. My parents address me by whatever name they wish the child to call me, however, in emails and personal conversations we use more familiar names. That is because I am embarking on what I hope will be a lifelong relationship and friendship with that parent. I am building a lengthy and very personal partnership with the parent. Our joint goal is to create a fine human being out of the parent's most prized "possession" -- the child. Of course I want the parent there to be a part of this wonderful growth experience!

There are times when a student comes to me from another teacher or later in life, and I find that the student does better when the parent is not part of the lesson. I find this state of affairs sad. Of course, when the student finally reaches the independent phase of learning, I understand the desire to have the parent be elsewhere during the lesson. I also understand that this "distance" is a natural part of the student's growth as an individual.

In this blog post discussion, I am not talking about this independent "distance" phase of development. I am talking about the earlier phases in a child's learning, which is all the time before the "independent" stage. When does a student go independent? When a parent asks me this, my usual answer is: "when you feel comfortable handing over the car keys." For some parents (and students), this major event might not happen until after the child leaves home.

What if a teacher insists that they want the parent out of the room? As a parent, I would want to understand why the teacher had that policy. I would listen very carefully to the explanation. I would make sure that I as a parent could duplicate the teaching assignment accurately at home. Perhaps the teacher finds it easier to teach without the parent's presence distracting the student. I would want to understand very clearly what the teacher's concerns are, and I would also want the teacher to afford me an opportunity to address the areas I discussed above. Would there be an opportunity at the end of the lesson for me to ask questions for clarity, for me to take notes and get an accurate assignment, for me to observe closely and learn the same skill so that I could duplicate it at home?

Parents, please do not be intimidated by your child's teacher! Although the teacher is due your respect and that of your child, please do not park your natural understanding and education at the door to the studio. If something doesn't seem right to you, ask respectful questions and seek more information. There are many good teachers out there, and you may find a teacher that fits your desires for your child more comfortably. Do not hesitate to consider this option.

To those parents who claim that they prefer not to be in their child's lessons, I as a teacher have to wonder why the parent would prefer not to be involved in their child's learning. If the parent and child have a difficult relationship, then I would think that the parent would want to understand why and to work to build a more pleasant and stronger parent-child relationship. If the parent and child have a strained relationship, then something is wrong. Please, please take the time to discover why and to work to improve the relationship.

If you are studying with a Suzuki teacher, please understand that the Suzuki way involves the parents. The parent learns the instrument in many cases and is part of the learning process. If you were to read Dr. Suzuki's book "Ability Development from Age Zero," you would find that Dr. Suzuki frequently addresses a parent's understanding and attitude toward their child and their child's learning situation. I believe that Dr. Suzuki well understood the importance of a child's parents in the child's development, and I also believe from what I have learned about Dr. Suzuki, that he did not hesitate to be firm in his expectations of a child's parents.

One of Dr. Suzuki's philosophical points was that he sought to develop the whole child and not just concert artists. He used the violin as the vehicle to impart the necessary life skills to achieve a productive member of society in the long run. Toward this goal, I believe it is imperative that we involve the parents as much as we can in the learning process. I want my student's parents to partner with me every step of the way. If I can help a child's parents to become even better parents due to my specialized knowledge about teaching, parenting, and child psychology and development, then I think it is my duty to share that knowledge as long as the parent welcomes it.


  1. I stay outside the room too when my daughter is having lesson inside, but I still observe and take notes what is going on inside. The reason is, my 35 months old daughter.. starts jumping around the room like a monkey when I enter the room. She will only listen to her teacher's instruction when she can't see me. Strange, she can practise with me at home but when during lesson time, with her teacher.. it's just different..:)

  2. How very interesting! Does your daughter do that same behavior at any other time? If so, what is happening at that other time? This makes me curious.

  3. Come to think of it, I have not seen this behaviour any other time. It is actually better for me , not being in the room, sometimes she look my way while practising, I need to keep an expressionless face. No frowning, if she press the bow too hard, not a too happy face when she plays well, she might get too excited. She'll stop playing come over and hug me.