Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Why I don't give out "Music Report Cards"

This Fall, I will have been teaching private music lessons for 18 straight years.

My mother-in-law graciously gave us her piano when I was pregnant with our oldest daughter.  When Elizabeth was about 3 months old, I told Billy I thought I could earn extra money by teaching.  I remember saying, "I'm going to need to advertise.  I've prayed about it, but I don't expect God to just drop students in my lap."  THE VERY NEXT DAY, my neighbor came over and knocked on our door.  Having been a piano teacher for 20 plus years herself, she said, "I have several students whom I can't fit into my schedule anymore.  Would you like to take them?"  Dropped.  In.  My.  Lap.

And so it began.

I charged $28 a month.

Last week I gently picked up a student's assignment notebook.  I said to this young man who we'll call John, "John, you started this piece 3 months ago.  It isn't a particularly difficult piece.  6 weeks ago we decided you should go ahead and try to put your hands together.  4 weeks ago, we said the same thing.  2 weeks ago, we said the same thing.  Today, we're saying the same thing AGAIN, but at home, you're still just practicing your right hand?????"  FORTUNATELY, this kid is a good sport and was laughing by the end of my "Mrs. Obvious" speech.

Did he go right home and practice well for his next lesson?  Nope.  For my sake, I changed the song the following week.  Don't judge.  12 weeks is a long time to listen to 8 notes in the right hand.

There is a place for teaching "perseverance".  But living in denial is a waste of time for everyone.  Sometimes, what you WANT to happen -- just isn't going to happen.  In this case, John and I both needed a fresh start.  He's done beautifully with the new piece.

Of course, all things, including music class, can offer a platform for "real life" lessons.  Perseverance, discipline, responsibility, hard work, and the list goes on.  But, that's not what parents pay me to do.

I once had a teacher tell me if her students forgot their books, they would work on flashcards for 30 straight minutes.  She said it as if it were a punishment for their forgetfulness.

Sure. That's one way.

I opt to keep copies of my students books in my studio.  Forget your books?  It's ok.  Adults forget things on occasion as well.  I have a copy here.  Practice your flash cards at home.  When you're with me, we make music.

There is nothing new about the importance of the studio/home connection.  The communication between teacher-student-parent is as important when trying to teach a child to play a musical instrument as it is in the traditional classroom.

Over the years, I've implemented the habit of writing assignments down in notebooks, so my expectations are clear.  Both student and parent have my notes available to refer too.  Reminder emails and the occasional phone call are helpful as well.  Certainly, regular performance opportunities and the occasional competition are good motivators to practice.

Ultimately, I believe that my primary responsibility as private music instructor and business operator is to help each family accomplish THEIR musical goals.  Not to insist that they live up to mine.

The TYPE A mom says, "Shanna, I've decided my children ARE going to learn to play the piano and the viola...because more college scholarships are available for viola players -- and piano teachers who play more than one instrument can charge more.  Therefore, they will be practicing 45 minutes a day per instrument and I'd like them to be placed on a competition track.  I never want a single note written in their books -- their brains need to be working all the time.  And, if they happen to cry in their lesson, just shrug it off and keep going.  We want them to feel pressure."  I do what I can to make that happen for them.

When FUN mom says, "Shanna, we want our daughter to take 3 months of lessons.  She just wants to learn a few chord charts to play while she sings."  I make that happen.

CREATIVE mom, "Shanna, do you know of a Composition Clinic in the Springs this summer?"  Why yes, I do.

When BUSY mom says, "Shanna, I want all 5 of my homeschooled children to take music lessons with you.  However, we are NEVER going to practice.  Are you ok with that?"  Yes. We "practice" during the "lesson".

I don't, however, hand out Music Report Cards at the end of the year.

I  know plenty of teachers that do.

I however have decided that I do not want MUSIC to be another place for kids to be judged and found wanting.  I don't want to say, "You get a C in Theory".  Knowing I'm being "generous" because said child NEVER does their theory assignment.  I'd rather just say, "Hey you, do your theory assignment!"  And if that doesn't work -- I'd rather try, "Hey mom, I noticed your child doesn't enjoy doing assignments in their theory book.  Maybe they'd like this website instead!".  And let the notes fall where they may.

I LOVE good technique.  But bottom line, I don't want to sacrifice joy to get it.

I want to be a light in my students week.  I want my teachers to be a light in their students week.  I want my children to LOVE music and enjoy the process of learning to read it's language (something only 20% of our population knows how to do).  I want kids who are relaxed enough during lessons to concentrate, learn to think musically, laugh, enjoy and make adjustments on the spot.

I'm not suggesting that everyone get a trophy.  Or that we make everyone feel like they are doing a good job -- even when they aren't.  But, teachers must understand that music has it's priority in people's lives -- and it most often isn't #1.  Our students are real people -- with many, many aspects to their full lives.  We want them to be happy to see us -- for they'll never become the accomplished musicians we know they can be if we suck the life right out of them.

A few days ago I saw a young student who had practiced hard on a piece she particularly enjoyed.  She played with great technique, showed mastery of the material and had a delightful smile on her face.  Right up until the last note.  She just couldn't quite get her small fingers to play the inverted chord correctly.  She teared up.

I could have spent our 30 minutes together working that chord shape into her tiny hand.  But something else was at stake here.  Joy.

She had just played 999 notes correctly.  Perfectly.  How could I let 1 chord rob her of her brilliance?

I asked, "Would it be just as fun for you to play this piece if we changed the last chord?"  She answered, "Yes, but then it would be wrong."  I said, "No, it wouldn't be wrong.  It would just be changed.  It's ok for us to think about the piece and change something we'd like to make different."  She smiles.  In 5 minutes, problem solved.  Tears averted.  On to the next piece -- which offered another chance to work on said inverted chord.

No need for a report card.  Although, at that particular moment, I would have given both of us an A.  :)