Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Parent burn-out: is the party over?

New student day. A cheerful face comes through the door, full of expectation and the willingness to embrace the world of piano playing. Visions of mastering favorite popular tunes and standard classics include the delighted student practicing without coercion, loving every minute. Music for family get-togethers and school events dangle in the future, reflected in sparkling eyes. And this is the parent!

What happens when reality hits both parent and student is something else. No matter how many times I tell parents, or send the message in policies and emails, the message that reaching performance goals means disciplined practice flies in the face of their perception of the process. They want their children to love playing the piano, or at least like every bit of it. They want this to happen sometime between morning and the parent's bedtime, working around school, sports, homework, and family time. Yes, I said "parent's bedtime", being quite aware that some children outlast their moms and dads. And they want it to happen without a squabble.

Here's the truth:  learning to play the piano - let alone "mastering" it - happens with at least some parental oversight. The same is true of homework and even of sports activities. Parents have to keep schedules organized, prepare equipment, drive to and from the practices and games, and on and on. This is not always fun for the parent. And there are some days when the student does not want to pull on cleats and shin guards and run around in the heat. But parents tend to understand that this is what creates a better performance. And the coach says the same thing.

The piano teacher says the same thing, but we can't "bench" the student for not practicing. Actually, "benching" would be a plus for us! Sit down and play, by darn! A parent has to be the practice coach at home, and that may be one too many hats to wear for a busy mom or dad. I get that, I do. I'm a mom and wife as well as a piano teacher, Alexander Technique Teacher, Body Map Educator, and author. Many, many hats for one medium-sized head.

Another factor that I have recently realized is that some parents have the kinds of learning challenges that we recognize in our students. Imagine a parent/practice coach with an attention disorder who has a hard time staying focused and following a curriculum of piano instruction. This parent may desire a program that has the student hopping from one piece of music to another, regardless of the appropriateness or difficulty level. This parent may be an example of this way of working to the student, who becomes less willing to work on pieces he or she doesn't know or like.

Imagine a parent with some kind of dyslexia or symbol recognition challenge. Try as he or she might, this parent is challenged by the symbolic language of music. Think how many times math has become "new" in your lifetime, and you may find common ground with this parent.

Parents with more than one child may also have their energy sapped by a sibling who is not even the studio. Care-taking for a child with a disability or long-term illness can be exhausting. Even without these dire conditions, the multiple schedule juggling that comes with several children is taxing.

When a parent hits a burn-out stage, the door is open for the student to follow. Yet we don't often address the parent situation. We find new tricks or treats to keep the student playing as long as possible, but we expect the parent to just keep plodding along with the process. This is quite likely to lead to the parent ending the lessons before the student has learned enough to have what I call "life skills". It feels like the party is over, and it's time to go home.

Family decisions may be counter to what we would like to have happen in the studio, and there is little we can do to change a family pattern. We can reinforce the need for practice. We can run motivational contests in the studio. We can be sympathetic listeners. We can explain how the development stage of the student comes into play. We can make necessary adjustments to assignments and make suggestions for practice to be incorporated into the home schedule. We can be willing to be the "hammer" when it comes to practicing, taking some of the heat off the parent.  In some cases, parents choose to take some lessons themselves in order to understand how music works.

In the end, the parent decides. The family decides. The teacher encourages and explains and defends, but the family decides. The loss of a student who is just beginning to click at the piano is always a sad one for me. But it may be time to look for the cause beyond student burn out to parent burn out.

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