August 29, 2014

When It's Time to Drop Your Kid's Piano Lessons

I had a discussion with a parent recently whose son wanted to drop piano lessons. He's been taking lessons with me for a little over two years and has hit a major plateau recently. The student had become frustrated with the difficulty of his pieces and had told his mother that he wanted to quit. She then came to me asking for advice.

Handling this situation is my least favorite part of the job. It puts the teacher in an incredibly awkward position because as I've written about before, although I have relationships with these students and I enjoy teaching them they are also my sources of income. Even if a student should probably drop lessons it is hard to admit this to parents when I know that it means a loss of somewhere between $160 and $500 into the foreseeable future. In the end though, I find that it's valuable to be honest with a parent. The spot will usually get filled within a term or two, and if the student is struggling the lessons usually aren't very fun. It's easy to view these things as a number game, but it's also important to think of the mental toll, and the value of finding a new student who may be more committed.

I think parents understand some of this. They know that I'm thinking of a combination of student happiness, my happiness, parent happiness, and my financial happiness. Often when I'm asked about this, the parents already know the answer. I usually figure that after I'm seriously asked about dropping lessons, the student will only be around for another one or two terms.

The mother in this particular case gave me some of the best reasoning I've heard on this topic. She told me that while she understood her child's frustrations, she also knew that it was a damaging message to send that when something gets difficult, quitting is an easy solution. I've lost several students because piano was "getting too difficult" and I loved that this parent understood that difficulty should not be a contributing factor in choosing when to quit.

There are definitely times when it's okay to stop lessons. When neither the parent or the student are invested, and haven't been for some time, the teacher will often welcome their withdrawal from lessons. I had a student who hadn't practiced for around 4 months but still kept taking lessons. When his mother didn't write me back for scheduling purposes I was extremely relieved. If you find that you, as a parent, have to apologize for your child's lack of practicing for weeks in a row, it's probably a sign that neither of you are ready for it.

If your child is visibly miserable taking lessons, it's probably time to look for another teacher or take a break. I had a student who sometimes cried before coming into lessons and would frequently cry in the lessons. She didn't like piano lessons, didn't like practicing, and didn't really like music. Those are pretty good qualifiers for dropping lessons.

Unfortunately, kids are not always the best judges of their own status and mood. If given the opportunity to drop piano lessons many of them will say yes even if they aren't struggling at all. Parents have to see through their bullshit and work it out on their own. Many of my students have gone through the following phases:

Beginner's Excitement 
Inability to Coast
Loss of Motivation
Want to Drop
Bust Through

It seems simplistic I know, but you'll find with lots of students that the rise in difficulty of music coincides strongly with a loss in motivation. Kids love things that are easy and very few actually want to be challenged. The middle area, when kids plateau and struggle, will be different lengths for different kids. Some of my students emerge quickly, some never struggle through it at all, and some spend months if not years in there. Most of them though, when they get through it, become fine musicians on the other side.

It's important to remember, as a parent, that struggling should not be confused with inability. Musicians have to struggle every day with their craft. Dropping music because of difficulty is never a good route to take. But if you and your child are unhappy, talk to your teacher candidly and ask them to be honest as well. Remember that your child and their teacher have a relationship, and despite any struggled perceived on your end, the teacher may have a different view. Try to judge if the teacher is keeping with your student because they see something, because they enjoy the student, or if they simply need the money. Ultimately the choice is up to you, and it may not be entirely obvious, but try to take everything into consideration and remember, you can always go back again later. Or at least constantly remind them when, as adults, they complain that they shouldn't have dropped piano.

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