Sunday, January 23, 2011

Parental Pedagogy

If you haven't heard of "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" by Amy Chua, I'd be surprised. In her family memoir, as she calls it, Chua describes a no-excuses style of parenting that demands nothing but excellence in all endeavors, and moms are reacting. Have we really gotten too soft on our kids? Are we wrong to accept that they won't excel at everything they do? Or are some of us as equally unaccepting of lower standards as Chua, denying our children anything that won't put them academically at the forefront?

Let's face it, moms, we are to blame no matter which route we take. We keep family therapists in business, just another gift to the economy.

Seriously, as both a mom and an experienced teacher, I have to admit that it is tougher and tougher to take a tiger's stance these days than when I started teaching 40 years ago. At that time and in that place, parents watched their pennies and wanted value for every one of them. The value in piano lessons was directly related to the amount of practicing each student completed. In a lot of ways, it was easier to be the tiger mother and the tiger teacher.

The expectations and circumstances have changed dramatically. There are more families with multiple income strains and therefore, even in the current economy, with greater ability to budget music tuition regardless of the progress of the student. There are certainly more activities that pull students away from the piano and more technologically magnetic forms of entertainment at home and on the go.

There are also more students who live in two or three different residences in the course of a week. A flute student can readily transport his or her instrument from home to home, but the piano student cannot. Not having an instrument to practice on is actually a valid excuse.

Quite possibly the biggest change is a greater awareness of learning challenges and the impact of interaction styles on students. More and more students are presenting with visual learning challenges, aural difficulties, and forms of autism. We want to help them - we really do! We don't always know the best route, but we do know that standing over them and growling will probably not alter their biology and neurology.

How can moms and dads help the piano student and teacher? First, please let your teacher know if your child has been identified with a certain type of learning challenge. We will probably guess sooner or later, but sooner is always better than later. That gives us time to lay a foundation for the way that particular child will learn and to investigate resources. Most of us are not trained in special education techniques. We have to do some homework.

Second, let us know if your child works best with a tiger or a kitten. We are human, and we sometimes choose the wrong mode. We are sorry when we do.

Third, give some thought to the kind of structure your child requires. Most students do benefit from a scheduled practice time. Most families benefit from a scheduled practice time as well. I know, I know - it is not always easy. However, it is generally easier to start with something more structured and tweak it as needs arise. Be aware that youngsters do not develop scheduling skills for many years. They need help.

Fourth, give some thought to the structure you require. If you need quiet time first thing in the morning, you may not want to awaken your budding pianist for early morning practice. If you are tired at the end of the work day and not patient enough to supervise practicing, set the alarm back 20 minutes.

Piano students spend far more time teaching themselves than teachers spend teaching them. This is how skills advance, by conscious repetition, which is sometimes fun and sometimes very challenging. Progress always requires discipline, which is an orderly way of learning, by definition. The style of that discipline may vary widely from family to family and even child to child. But without it, progress is unlikely if not impossible.