As the nature of music education shifts from one of note reading, performance and interpretation to one of creativity, curiosity, composition and exploration, many piano teachers are finding it hard to explain the value and importance of this change with parents.
This means that there is sometimes a conflict between what parents believe is best for their children and what music educators know to be the best way to teach in the 21st Century.
For this reason, I’ve written the following “open letter” designed for piano teachers to share with their students’ parents, friends and families in the hope of making the reasons behind this shift in thinking clearer.
Whether you’re a piano teacher or piano parent, I hope you’ll find it valuable. If you feel others would find it helpful, please share it as much as you’d like.
Dear Piano Parents,
Thanks for taking a moment out of your busy day to read this letter.
Its purpose is simple: to help you and your child get the most out of the investment you’ve made in music lessons and to set the stage for your child to develop a lifelong passion for their instrument.
There is a widening gulf emerging in all areas of education between traditional, assessment-based models of teaching involving examinations and rankings, and the need for our students to engage in creative, exploratory learning that will set them up for a future we can’t yet envision.
I continue to be saddened by the number of kids who I see quitting lessons prematurely and never touching their instrument again due to well-intentioned, but often misguided, pressure and advice from parents.
As a piano teacher, I find that just about every adult I meet, who learnt piano as a child but gave up in their teens, expresses sadness that they never continued lessons.
By drawing on my own experience and those of the teachers with whom I work every day around the world in my community, blog and podcast, I want to make sure this doesn’t happen to your child.
You’re committing a huge amount of time and money to this part of your child’s education. Wouldn’t it be a shame if it were wasted?
Before we go any further, let me first congratulate you on enrolling your child in piano lessons. It’s one of the best things that you can do for their growth and development in all areas of their life.
Music education not only provides an artistic outlet for your child, but research demonstrates learning a musical instrument helps students in other areas of study including memory, self-discipline, motivation and even literacy.
Learning a musical instrument changes the brain for the better.
“Music improves cognitive and non-cognitive skills more than twice as much as sports, theater or dance. The study found that kids who take music lessons ‘have better cognitive skills and school grades and are more conscientious, open and ambitious’.” – Music lessons were the best thing your parents ever did for you, according to science.
You’ve started on the path to helping your child enjoy an involvement in music. Now let me help you give your child the best chance of developing a lifelong relationship with music making.
Enrolling in music lessons is a huge commitment – in time, energy and money.
Let’s start with time. You may well need to take your child to and from lessons and concerts. Depending on your child’s teacher, you may be involved in lessons so that you can support your child during practice. You’ll commit time to attending recitals, concerts and all sorts of performances.
You’ll need to help your child find time in their schedule to practise. Sometimes, you’ll need to pester your child to practise. You’ll need lots of energy to keep them motivated as they embark on an activity that involves considerable but delayed gratification.
You’ll tear your hair out and get frustrated when they don’t practise. You’ll nag. You may need to wake them up early so they can practise before school and sometimes their practice might wake you up early on a Sunday morning.
And then there’s the financial cost. I know that many of you have made significant financial sacrifices in order to give your child this experience.
Firstly, there’s the instrument you need to purchase or rent – who knew how expensive a decent piano could be? And what about the lessons themselves? For the most part, music lessons aren’t cheap and, like anything else, the more you pay, the more qualified and experienced your teacher will be. Music lesson costs per year can easily run into the thousands of dollars for a child.
But don’t let this put you off; the benefits your child will gain from music lessons will far outweigh all the costs, as long as we keep a few things in mind.
Have you thought about the goal of music lessons for your child?
Why have you decided to commit all this time, energy, and money into your child’s musical development?
Is it about helping them get a scholarship to a top school? Is it about passing exams or winning competitions? Perhaps you remember your own failed lessons and want to ensure that doesn’t happen to your child? Or is it because they have shown a love of music which you want to encourage?
Whatever your answer, on behalf of piano teachers around the world, I need to share with you a few truths about how music education has changed in the last 5-10 years.
While piano lessons used to be very much about learning to read and perform written music, times are changing.
Quality education is now less about facts, figures, and absorbing content and more about a sense of curiosity, wonder, and a desire to explore and be creative.
Good music educators are delivering lessons that are much more innovative and creative than they were 20 years ago.
These educators are teaching their students to explore popular music and read chord charts, to play by ear with groups or with backing tracks, to sing pop songs, to compose and improvise, to use technology and play jazz. They’re helping students learn the music they want to learn.
These are all creative experiences that will profoundly shape a student’s educational experience and establish a path to lifelong music making.
On the other hand, lessons that push students to learn only a small number of “prescribed” pieces in order to complete ever more challenging exams each year, that force students into competitions and festivals with the expectation of performing ever more perfectly, and are based solely on reading notation and playing it as written are actually starting to have the opposite effect. They will bore your child and will hold less and less currency in the education of the future.
What if I told you that students who equate music lessons solely with exam progress will sometimes achieve all the levels of a given exam syllabus and then quit playing for the rest of their life?
Why? Because students taught in this way may feel like they’ve “finished learning”.
I once heard this described as “being on the exam express” and it’s a certain path to musical destruction. Sure, your child may get an A+ for every level of exam they complete each year and get to Grade 8 by the time they are 12, but then what? When you take away the lessons, the exam structure and the written music, some students feel they have nothing further to do.
Exam syllabi were never designed to form the curriculum of music lessons or become an annual course of study. However, because teachers often teach how they were taught, this myth has become a sad reality for far too many students.
While some teachers are now realising they have to change their perspective and approach to lessons, these changes will take time. I’m calling on you, as dedicated music parents, to support your child’s teacher if they start trying new things in lessons in order to break out of this mould.
Don’t get me wrong, exam boards serve an important purpose and examinations can be an extremely motivating and positive experience for students when used in the correct way.
Parents, please let your child’s teacher decide when to use performances, festivals, exams and competitions to encourage, motivate and excite your child. Don’t force your child to take exams and don’t force your child’s teacher to teach in this way. You’ll be having the opposite effect of that which you intend.
Let me finish by asking you a question:
After all the investment, all your nagging, all the concerts and recitals, and all the ups and downs that come with learning an instrument, would you like your child to develop the skills and passion they need to continue playing music for the rest of their life?
I’m hoping the answer is a resounding, “Yes!”.
In my opinion, and those of the teachers I coach in my community, the things that will have the biggest impact on your child’s love of and ongoing participation in music, is a teacher who:
Put simply, it’s about your child’s relationship with a teacher who can give them a well-rounded, modern, creative experience of music that’s in-line with their goals and related to the music they love. While exams, competitions and festivals may form a part of that experience, it must not be the purpose for its existence.
Many of us teach piano to adult students including doctors, surgeons, lawyers and other respected and highly-paid professionals, all of whom play simply for the love of music. It’s the way these professionals were nurtured to enjoy playing the piano as a fun and creative outlet as children, that is so vital to their life-long desire to keep playing.
Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and all the great composers were brilliant improvisers. They taught their students to create and play the music of their day and would never have thought to teach them solely how to play music of a hundred years earlier. So, why do we?
Let’s ensure that the next generation of students continue to create music and love their instrument for the rest of their lives.
If you’re a piano teacher and you feel that your students’ parents may benefit from a shorter version of this letter, please find the download link below:
As always, I love to read your comments on my articles, particularly if they might be considered a little controversial. Let me know what you think.
Is this helpful? Is it a bad idea? What are your thoughts about the role of competitions, recitals, performances and exams in our students’ lives?
Tim Topham is the founder and director of TopMusic. Tim hosts the popular TopCast show, blogs regularly at topmusic.co and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as pedagogy, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, California Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.