This is very sad. I’d like to comment on what Stringmum says about parents not helping their children with reading, spelling and tables. When I worked in England as a primary school class teacher we didn’t set homework on a regular basis and we didn’t really expect parents to help when we did. And as a child myself back in the fifties I remember that when we left primary school we were very proud of the fact that when we got to secondary school we would have homework. So things have obviously changed a lot. I started teaching in 1967 and worked full time both in England and from the 1980s in France – both class teaching and individual instrumental teaching. So I have observed children for many years in many situations. I am forced to conclude that the average span of attention is very much reduced, that behaviour is much poorer than it was and that there is less appreciation of the value of education. Inattention and even mildly disruptive behaviour wastes hours in school and I think that is where most of the problem lies. I could probably write a book on my opinions as to the reasons but I’m not going into all that now. Let’s just say that a lot of teachers are finding that that is just how it is at the moment.
Running against this tide is the hysterical response of politicians who think that to put this right we should be testing children every five minutes and of those parents who are so desperate for their children to get on and rise to the top of the ladder that they hassle and push them until they become nervous wrecks or just plain sullen. There are also parents who simply opt out - who take refuge in leaving their children to bring themselves up.
For those of us at the grass roots who are battling with the non practisers and the don’t carers and the ones who have seven activities per week, with parents who are incapable of exercising even the mildest parental authority and parents who don’t give their children the slightest bit of freedom – well it’s a mighty big challenge. And there are certainly instances when you have to put your health and sanity first and get out – maybe for a while, maybe forever.
And as soon as I have said all this I can think of numerous exceptions and of many wonderful parents, good schools and excellent teachers – and even some pupils who practise! I had a friend who used to say “It’s all part of life’s rich pattern.”!
I am incredibly lucky. Most of my pupils practise most of the time. I do have times when one or another of them doesn’t practise and I have occasionally had a pupil give up because I failed to motivate them and there was no progress. I am also very fortunate in that I don’t actually teach for a school – in a school yes, as I borrow a room in a primary school and I do have several pupils from that school but it’s on a private basis.
I don’t suppose any of this will help cel or any others in her position but I have certain ideas about practising which might be a bit of use though no one’s ideas work for everyone.
My first thought is that my job is not to teach piano but to teach the enjoyment of music through the piano. That’s my philosophy and I don’t like the word “fun” as applied to any kind of learning situation. I don’t mean that piano lessons should be everlastingly serious (we spend a lot of time laughing in lessons) but that they should, over a period of time, give rise to a deep sense of enjoyment – whether the music is funny, sad, elegant, intellectual, emotional, simple, complicated - whatever. For me, the only way to do that is to consider every child as a companion on a musical journey that we are taking together. When they practise we advance. If they don’t we sit at the wayside and look at the view and I do my best to get us moving on again because the same view can be great for a while but not for ever.
In practical terms I have found that practice records don’t help my pupils. Many teachers use them successfully but I’m not good at them. However I have a fairly fixed order of events in lessons and they all know that I will expect progress (however small) in every aspect of the work I have set in their notebook. They also know that I have a duplicate notebook for each one of them and I won’t forget the instructions given the previous week. If there is no progress, whether because there is a genuine difficulty or misunderstanding or simply a lack of practice we do the practice together there and then. I don’t believe in just running through something or showing them something and then leaving it at that. Every point has to be gone over in different ways until I am sure the child will be able to apply what has been done in the lesson to what is done at home. I tell them exactly what to do and if there are problems I break them down into very small elements. I discourage any kind of intellectual laziness and I never tell a child anything I think they can work out for themselves – but I do help them to work out the right solution via the right reasoning. Remember Joyce Grenfell? I put on my theatrical shock/disappointment/disbelief tone when they haven’t practised something I asked them to do and if it isn’t done the following week I write it in red ink instead of in pencil in the notebook. I am careful to praise when praise is due – even if the improvement is only slight. I don’t rely on parents to help. I encourage pupils to manage their own practice as soon as possible, even the little ones. That’s where some of today’s wonderful modern materials help. I get parents to see that the child has a CD player next to the piano because if you are using a series such as “Piano Adventures” the CDs are a super incentive to practise. And for technical exercises I find there is little to beat “A Dozen a Day” because the little ones like the little girl cartoon and love to see how her movements are illustrated by the music and the older ones are profoundly thankful that the exercises are short and easy to read!
I also like to play for them or use a CD occasionally to let them hear what they might be able to do one day. I don’t do enough of this as time is always short but it can fire enthusiasm. So many children don’t really know why they are being sent to piano lessons. If we can only get them to really love their music they will practise - well most of the time. This week I had a hard working sixteen year old arrive and knowing she has a heavy school homework load I asked her if she had been able to practise. Her reply was “Yes, but not as much as I would have liked.” I also had four weekly boarders arrive in a panic as their practice time at school has been cut. A piano on loan to the school has been removed by the owner and the girls are very upset. I don’t know if there will be a solution.
So, if at all possible, don’t be too upset by non practisers. You never know what seeds you might have sown. Cel, I hope you will feel better after the Easter holiday. Hang on in there and if it really is too discouraging take a break but leave the door open. Even if they don’t manage to practise much I’m sure your pupils will miss their lessons with you.