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Lesson Etiquette

March 31, 2017

 

"I'm so sorry for her behavior today."

 

"I am so embarrassed that he didn't sit better for you today."

 

"I just don't know what to do about his attention span."

 

"I know the other kids are better for you."

 

I've heard every single one of these statements every single year that I've been teaching. The only thing I can say to parents is, "S/He is completely normal for their age! Don't worry!"

 

And it's true. I've taught kids as young as 4, adults as old as 70, and everything in between.  I've literally seen it all when it comes to behavior in lessons and what to expect.

 

In general, I find that kids age 4-7 are easier than 8-10, and 11-13 can be way easier to teach than high school 14-17. I'm sure if I were a child psychologist, I would have a perfectly good explanation for this, but I'm not.

 

(if anyone reading this is a child psychologist, please leave a comment to help the rest of us!)

 

Parents, I know it can be frustrating to watch your child squirm their way through a 30 minute lesson, but I am already one step ahead of them. I really mean it when I say it's up to you to stay for your child's lesson, but if it is frustrating for you, don't feel bad walking out and waiting outside! I will not be insulted, and your kid, maybe not surprisingly, might  focus more.

 

I wanted to take this opportunity to lay out for parents what I know (in my very unscientific opinion) about the way kids are going to behave in their lessons. And it's important to understand that, like everything to do with learning, kids don't progress on a straight line. They ebb and flow in more of a sine wave form. Just roll with it!

 

When I first started teaching, I was completely unprepared for the issues I would come up against in private lessons. By trial and error, and with a lot of patience, I was able to come to terms with what I was going to have to face. I've also learned that group lessons bring out behaviors in otherwise disciplined kids that they wouldn't otherwise exhibit. (a reason why I don't encourage group lessons)

 

Ages 4-7 (preschool - 2nd grade)

In general, these kids are so excited to start a new instrument (usually piano or Suzuki flute) that they automatically behave and pay attention in their lessons. At home, you may see them "practice", which really means they just noodle around on their instrument for a few minutes. Most of my youngest piano students come back with a new song they "composed" during the week, but never once played their assigned music! I don't mind. Getting them to sit down at the piano is half the battle!

 

To the observing parent, our lessons might sound like their child is asking more questions than playing music. Their questions might range from "why is music written on 5 lines?" to "how does the piano work?" This is all great stuff, and deserves and answer. But I do tend to gloss over the real technical info about these kinds of questions because of their age. I know that I will answer these questions as the years go on, so I don't feel bad giving incomplete answers right now.

 

They may, though, ask questions that have nothing to do with music ("where did your dog just go?") or tell me stories about their week at school. This is also ok, but I do try to get them back on task as quickly as possible. Don't be dismayed when you hear your kid excitedly telling me about how their best friend came over for a play date! At this age, they are bonding with me in their own way. I've had students who started with me at this age and continued through high school, and it was amazing to me just how much they trusted me and viewed me as a confidant and friend.

 

30 minutes is a long lesson for kids of this age. My general rule is to keep a 50/50 balance between playing and talking (as long as the talking is about music), and a quick switch back to music when the student goes off topic.

 

It's also important that they "play" during practice time, even if it isn't exactly what I assigned, I'd rather know they were playing around on the piano than that they were forced to plod through every Dozen a Day exercise.

 

Ages 8-10 (3rd-4th grades)

I find this can be a difficult age for parents to observe lessons. This is the first time kids are feeling autonomous and like they can direct the adults around them. They're trying it out on me, and I know this. And it's also ok.

 

The questions still sound an awful lot like the questions the littlest kids are asking me, but they tend more to the off-topic side of things. These kids "need" to go to the bathroom more (obviously just a way to avoid playing), they tend to stand up more often in the lesson, and they just have more energy in general!

 

It can be difficult to keep kids on task, and again, this is a difficult age to have to deal with a group lesson setting. Sometimes I hear parents say "the kids are friends and want to do this together" but really, what always happens is one kid progresses on their instrument while the other becomes disillusioned and gives up; or one will be antsy and the other just wants to play their songs.

 

Ironically, this is the age group that needs to practice being more disciplined since they are the ones joining band and orchestra for the first time. But we will get there. When they are a little off-the-wall, it's helpful sometimes for observing parents (at my house especially) to give a quick reminder ("are you paying attention to Lisa?") and just let them know before or after lessons what *you* expect to hear when you're at the lesson.

 

I don't discourage them from still asking musical questions and telling me about their personal lives, but I do keep a closer eye on the clock. I don't want any less than 75% of the lesson to be spent on music. More playing, less talking.

 

Ages 11-13 (5th-7th grades)

These guys are probably my favorite to teach! They are discovering they have skills on their instrument, they are understanding what is expected of them in band, orchestra and lessons, they are asking on-point questions about the music they are playing, they are improving by leaps and bounds on their instruments and they are hearing the improvements themselves!

 

Especially if a student begins with me at this age, they may be a little shy, and won't talk as much in their lesson. Some kids, who had been previously chatty as younger students, suddenly clam up when they reach 7th grade! There tends to be a lot less talking from the student and a lot more playing.

 

I do tend to impart a lot more musical information at this point: how their instrument works, the history of their instrument, a brief biography of the composer they are playing, details of the time period the music was written. I also get in to the real nitty gritty of how to produce tone and musicality on their instrument. In general, the kids are incredibly receptive to this stuff and we have the most interesting conversations.

 

At this point, we are back to a near 50/50 music/talking lesson. But we're also moving in to 45 minute lessons so we have a little extra time to learn about the music itself. It's at this age that if a kid is remaining off topic with their conversation, or continually "sick" and asking you to skip a lesson, or still bouncing around out of their seat, that we all have to take a closer look and see if private lessons are still something they should be doing. They can still remain in band/orchestra at school without private lessons, so if they enjoy music but dread their lessons, it might be worth saving their musical experience by cutting back on lessons.

 

At this age, I tell parents they can stay only if the student says it's ok. I learned to say this to the parents in front of the kids because often the students are too afraid to tell their parents they don't want them there. I take that pressure off of them, and in general it's rare that a kid says they don't care if their parent stays. 99% of middle school students don't want their parents at their lessons, and that's ok. Just be aware and don't be insulted if they ask you to go. (I never wanted my parents at my lessons right from the start - I was 4 when I started piano lessons and always kept my mom out of the room)

 

Ages 14-17 (8th-12th grades)

This is the point where kids quit or continue. There's no "powering through" or just tolerating lessons. They either want to do this or they don't, and either option is ok.

 

This is where lessons become serious -- I'm expecting them to play sonatas and concertos and difficult etudes, lots of scales, and lots of playing in their lessons. 45-60 minute lessons, and 80% of that time is spent playing. We talk the most about the subtleties of tone production on their instrument, sight reading and public performances.

 

The real problem with this age group is they lose that flexibility their minds had to accept what teachers are telling them. At this age, they are thinking for themselves, forming their world views, and that includes believing they already know everything they need to know about music. It can be frustrating for me at times to hear kids tell me how they're going to play something. I wish I could say that it's entertaining to have them explain to me how it's going to go, but it's not. I also know I probably did this to my teacher at this age, but I prefer not to think about that...

 

This is why, though, the kids that go on to music school are so obvious to me. These are the students who hear my advice, take that advice, and excel. They may start dipping their toes in some independent interpretation of the music (and that's fun for me to work with!) but they are showing their true potential as college students. I do remind the kids that "taking direction" is an actual skill that's required for being a professional musician. Professional conductors are going to literally scream directions at you in front of the entire orchestra and you better take that direction and play the way they demanded on the first attempt. So, these are the years, high school, where those kids that have that skill really start to shine.

 

These students don't want their parents there, so just assume that your son/daughter doesn't want you there. I will still ask and offer for you to stay if the student wants. If your student looks stunned or shrugs or seems indifferent, just give them the space and bring a book to read in the car! 

 

We are going to spend an hour working on their scales, exercises, solos, and we will play duets. We will barely have enough time to get through everything.

 

 

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