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When to call it a day


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#1 BabyGrand

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Posted 17 July 2019 - 10:23

I have a young  student who I've been teaching for about about 3 years.  He started in a group musicianship (Kodaly) class with me, and then switched to private voice lessons, where we have continued with musicianship and gradually introduced some work on vocal technique etc, as appropriate for his age.  I also set him some straightforward "homework" and songs/activities to practise at home each week.  He has never done much practice, and homework was rarely done the week it was set (if at all), but he loved his lessons and I knew there were some difficulties at home, so I have persevered. 

 

However, over the past few months practice/homework has all but ceased entirely, and I am finding it difficult to work with him in lessons because all I can do is go over the same things again and again, because he never reaches a point where we can move on.  I warned him (and his parents) that if things didn't improve, lessons would have to stop at the end of the school year, and there has been no real change.  He apparently loves music/singing and doesn't want to stop, but that's not enough to induce him to do anything at home.  His parents don't practise with him but do remind him every day and try to support him, and he just refuses to do it.  There are also some behavioural issues, which I have no problem dealing with (it's rarely an issue in lessons now, though I know it still is at home), and it's not something I would ever stop lessons over, but it does add to the general sense of fatigue I have over his lessons.  Put simply, teaching him is hard work!  

 

I had a long conversation with his dad a couple of weeks ago where he said he wants his son to switch to piano lessons - because they believe he might practise more with an instrument than "just singing" - and give it a few more months before calling it a day.  I really expected them to want to stop lessons, since they had made numerous comments before about wasting money etc, so I wasn't prepared for his suggestion, and I let him talk me round - but I am now regretting it.  If it hadn't been for that conversation, I would be certain about calling it a day now. 

 

This boy is capable and I'm sure he could do well - with either singing or piano - but I don't see any evidence that changing instrument is going to magically induce him to practise at home.  At his lesson last week I actually had to walk out for a few minutes (I left him doing an activity) because I had an overwhelming sense of "I just can't be dealing with this any more", and I really don't want ever to convey that to a child....I know as teachers we are only human, but I still feel ashamed to think that way, even for a moment.  I know my own health (as many of you know) is very much a part of all this at the minute - I'm so exhausted I have fewer reserves for dealing with things like this that normally I'd just get on with.  But when a student turns up each week and absolutely nothing has changed, and I have to think of a way to fill the next 30 minutes and choose work to set at the end, knowing it won't be done, it does end up feeling rather pointless, and that can be pretty draining. 

 

However, I never like to give up on any student, especially a child, and if switching to piano would actually make a difference, then I would be over the moon!  I don't want to feel as though I've given up without trying.  I have seen this child shine at the points where he has actually put work in and done well, and I get the impression he doesn't get many chances to shine in life, and that is what has made me persevere for this long with him.  I don't want to take that away from him.  So I am in two minds..... 

 

I guess I have two questions: firstly, should I go with the parents' plan to switch instruments for a few months, or go with my initial gut and stop lessons now?  Secondly, if I did make a decision to stop lessons now, how could I go about having that conversation with his parents, given they think we've already made a decision to carry on?  

 

Thanks all!  


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#2 KathyB

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Posted 17 July 2019 - 10:32

I had the same thing with a student only the other way round. We spend over 3 years and got nowhere with piano. Parents suggested we switched to singing and the difference has been amazing. She works with me, practices and comes asking questions and suggesting songs she likes. She is like a different child.
So maybe you could let this lad have a go at piano and hopefully he will surprise you!!
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#3 HelenVJ

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Posted 17 July 2019 - 10:33

In haste, but my first thought is, is there a local piano teacher that you could steer him towards? It sounds as though you have gone over and above with this boy. I'm sure we've all had students who just suck the life blood out of us. My Thursday afternnons used to have a big black cloud over them, as I worked up the energy to deal with one particular student ( now at uni, and doing really well).

Maybe not answering your query directly, but I'm sure I won't be the first to say that you do need to think of yourself. It's easy to feel overwhelmed and it can't be doing this boy much good either. A break would be good!

If you are in the ISM, there is a chatline that you could talk to at greater length, and I think some other professional organisations offer a similar service.


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#4 Norway

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Posted 17 July 2019 - 10:53

I'd suggest a year's break, so that the boy is that bit older and understands that homework needs to be done. This will give everyone involved a break, and if he is genuinely keen to play the piano then (rather than it just being the dad's suggestion), then great. The piano is a bad choice for a pupil who isn't prepared to work, and for parents who can't get their child to do things they don't want to do.


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#5 Hedgehog

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Posted 17 July 2019 - 13:11

I had a very musical pupil learning piano when she was in primary school. Her big sister also learnt but gave up - found it very hard, so parents allowed this. As a consequence, the younger girl became very mutinous and didn't do practising or theory that was set, even though I made it as enjoyable as possible, but perhaps I was expecting a lot because I knew she was able. However, younger girl gave up (huge relief all round).  I then met mother recently and apparently when younger girl reached secondary school she took up lessons again, and another instrument, and took GCSE music, so clearly it was the right time, and probably another teacher that she didn't have any "history" with, so she made really good progress.

I think I'm suggesting that it might be a good idea for the boy to take a break, and consider taking up piano (why is he doing piano rather than trumpet, or oboe, or cello?) with another teacher.  Although I am sure you have done your best to avoid conveying any feelings of tiredness to him, he may detect an underlying feeling.  I do think a break would be a good idea though and it would also help you to feel that you have an end point in sight.

Perhaps you could suggest a trial period of half a term in the autumn and if he hasn't changed his ways by half term cease lessons then. I would put it in writing to the parents as well as talking to them.  If you haven't seen a change in him over the past couple of weeks when I assume from your post he's been learning piano, then you could express concern that he doesn't appear to be showing much enthusiasm for piano at the moment, and that would be your basis for the trial period.


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#6 Dorcas

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Posted 17 July 2019 - 14:00

I agree with having a deadline, say until the end of October, for this student to settle down to the piano lessons.  Sometimes, there is just a natural end to lessons.  You are not asking for much BabyGrand, just some co-operation from your student, and a little progress.  


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#7 jenny

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Posted 17 July 2019 - 17:35

I find myself in a very similar situation. Last year I took on the older brother of a boy I'd been teaching for 2 years and his progress has been extremely slow. The parents of these brothers are lovely and very supportive and asked at the beginning of the year when both boys would be ready to take exams and I told them that it would probably be in November. Since then, they have both progressed really slowly on piano, although the older boy has taken Grade 1 theory and passed with a very high mark. However, he seems completely out of his depth with Grade 2 theory and starts every lesson by saying 'I didn't get the theory'. I explain everything very patiently and try to make sure that he's understood, but get the same response the next week.

Yesterday was their last lesson before an extended summer break for them (they are from Greece and spend all summer there every year) and their mum asked me at the end of the lesson how the year had gone and if they would be ready to do a piano exam in November. I had to be honest and told her that it would probably have to be next Spring, as the closing date for the autumn exams is just a couple of weeks after I see them again and they are nowhere near ready.  I have been so disappointed with the older boy's lack of practice and enthusiasm that I had expected her to say that he wouldn't be returning, but she said that they really want him to continue and to do exams. I asked her if they would talk to him and to make sure that it's what he wants, rather than what they want. I don't think she liked me saying that, but it's what I would say to all parents. I know that I could contact them in September and tell them that I don't think he should continue ( the younger boy will definitely want to) but it would probably be kinder to suggest trying for another term and then discussing the situation again. I find this really difficult as they are a lovely family.  


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#8 Misterioso

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Posted 17 July 2019 - 18:21

A few points in your post leapt out at me as being key in your decision about whether or not you keep this young lad on. 

 

The first thing - Dad wanted him to switch to piano lessons - is a warning sign. Is this just coming from Dad, or has the boy said that this is what he wants to do? Has there been an honest conversation with the child about his choices?

 

Secondly, if it hadn't been for the conversation when you were talked round about continuing, you would definitely call it a day. If that is your gut feeling, I would put it to the parents that you've had an opportunity to review his lessons and progress over the summer holiday, and have decided that it would be best if the lad discontinued lessons with you. You don't have to go into prolonged explanations, but if you want to soften it a little, then Norway's suggestion about a year's break is excellent. 

 

Your feelings about the lessons, where you had to excuse yourself from the room for a few minutes, points to your having reached a stage at which things cannot go on as they have been. None of us like giving up on a child, but you have done all you can for this lad and he is just not meeting you even half way. Please, BabyGrand, for your own sanity and wellbeing, go with your gut feeling. There doesn't seem to be anything about this situation that is going to change.


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#9 BadStrad

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Posted 17 July 2019 - 19:21

I agree with Misterioso's analysis of the situation.
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#10 BabyGrand

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Posted 17 July 2019 - 19:34

Thank you so much to everyone for your replies.  I already feel better just for having shared the situation with others who understand, and feeling as though I have options - I don't feel so trapped any more.  I'm going to spend a few days thinking things over before I contact the family again.  At the minute, after reading all your advice, I feel my choices are:

 

1) Try piano lessons in September, but set a clear deadline for determining whether the change of instrument has made any different.  The dad said another term, but I think maybe a month or half a term is enough.  

 

2) Give him a couple of lessons over the summer (his parents normally like him to take holiday lessons) and use that as a "trial period".  That way I both give him a chance to try piano, but also reserve the option not to carry on in the new term if I don't see any signs of change.  

 

3) Suggest to the parents that he takes a break from lessons completely, and tries again when he's a bit older, on whichever instrument he chooses (whether with me or someone else).  

 

4) Suggest to the parents that perhaps a new teacher might be good for him - having a completely fresh start to go with a new instrument - and give the names of a couple of local piano/keyboard teachers who might be able to take him on.  

 

Are there any other options I've missed?  

 

As I say, just feeling like a have a choice and being able to see a way forward, is such a relief.  So thank you!  

 

To answer a couple of questions:

 

- We haven't tried piano yet, but the plan was to do so either over the summer or in September.  

 

- His parents bought him a keyboard for his birthday.  I don't think he asked for it but he does talk positively about it.  He seems excited at the idea of playing it when it's mentioned, but that doesn't seem to have led him to actually try it out much over the past few months since he got it - it has mostly just sat in a cupboard.  So it's hard to tell whether he will turn out to be like Kathy B's student, or whether he still simply won't want to practise.  

 

- He has said (to his parents and to me) that he doesn't want to stop lessons.  He definitely comes because he wants to and not because his parents make him.  He just doesn't want/choose to practise.  

 

Hope that answers everything! 


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#11 Dorcas

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Posted 18 July 2019 - 06:47

After re-reading the original post, and BabyGrand's response, I feel the parents need to be given a nudge to have the keyboard set up.  Expecting a youngster to unpack, setup then clear away a keyboard sounds a little unrealistic.  My suggestion would be to ask about access, space and set up.  Consider a couple of trial lessons, and set a deadline of the end of October, for signs of commitment, and actual enjoyment, on the part of the student.

 

However, Misterioso's remarks are very pertinent.  Sometimes lessons reach the end of their shelf life, and switching approaches does not work, even with the best of intentions.  I will be very surprised to see one of my students return in September, the last year has been a bit of a struggle.  And I ended up having one of those conversations with the parent.  Youngsters do not necessarily want or enjoy the activities arranged for them, and there is not much the adults around them can do about that.  


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#12 violinlove

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Posted 19 July 2019 - 10:09

You say your initial gut feeling is to stop lessons now. Go with your gut.

You say you have had to walk out for a few minutes before you could continue teaching him. That tells you all you need to know really.

I don't think he will magically change when he changes instrument.

I've had a couple of students change instrument and their behaviour/attitude/amount of practise was exactly the same before and after the change.

I know someone mentioned that they had someone change and they were like a different person - it might happen in this case, but you really do sound like you are exhausted with this situation and you need to think about your own health.

I think that the best thing for all concerned would be if you suggested the names of other piano teachers and say you think a different teacher with a different approach would ensure a great new start for him.


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#13 Jlma

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Posted 19 July 2019 - 14:29

You say your initial gut feeling is to stop lessons now. Go with your gut.

You say you have had to walk out for a few minutes before you could continue teaching him. That tells you all you need to know really.

I don't think he will magically change when he changes instrument.

I've had a couple of students change instrument and their behaviour/attitude/amount of practise was exactly the same before and after the change.

I know someone mentioned that they had someone change and they were like a different person - it might happen in this case, but you really do sound like you are exhausted with this situation and you need to think about your own health.

I think that the best thing for all concerned would be if you suggested the names of other piano teachers and say you think a different teacher with a different approach would ensure a great new start for him.

Totally agree! You will probably feel relief!


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#14 MollyM

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Posted 19 July 2019 - 15:51

Not sure what you've decided to do BabyGrand - I really do empathise, as I too, like others, find myself in a similar situation at the moment with an 11 year old transfer student who I have been trying to help for nearly 5 months.  

 

I do think you have to go with your gut.  I find it quite difficult to sit with a student week in week out, with very little improvement due to their lack of practise. I have to admit, I'm not one to have much patience for it.  So, I do hope you've come to a good decision about it.   


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#15 agricola

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Posted 24 July 2019 - 07:58

I have had similar students in the past and however much one feels for the child I think it's important not to get drawn into whatever difficulties are going on at home.  It's very easy to end up as "piggy-in-the-middle" with passive pressure being applied by the non-practising pupil and active pressure from the parents to continue lessons. 

 

I apply my 'rule of three' which is that the pupil has to enjoy their lessons, do a reasonable amount of practice and make some progress (however little).  Two out of three is OK, one out of three means lessons stop.  I have also told parents that I don't want to see the child again until they have sompleted three hours of practice -- and I will be able to tell if that has happened.  Taking a step back means that they will have to sort themselves out instead of hiving off some of their difficulties onto you!   

 

Teaching music to the average student can be very draining at the best of times so I would keep your energy reserves for those who will benefit the most. 


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