It feels like school has just begun, but we have already completed our Parents Observation Week here at The New School for Music Study. Parents Observation Week is always held the last week of October. While we do have some parents who regularly sit in on lessons, this is not expected or practiced for most of our students. Our lessons are designed so that the student is learning to practice independently. We do, however, set aside a special week in which we invite all parents to observe the private lessons. Our plan is for the parents to see an enthusiastic learning situation in which all are involved learning, and to help the parent understand what good practicing is.
The late October date is ideal for this type of event. It is early enough in the year that changes can occur if at home practice has not been what it should be, yet late enough in the year that the teachers have had several lessons with the student and can assess the student’s progress. Several weeks prior to Parents Observation week we send out an email announcing that parents are invited to attend their child’s lesson. We encourage parents of sibling students to make a point to attend each child’s lesson; one lesson during the observation week, and the sibling’s lesson during the subsequent week. If parents cannot attend, we find another more convenient week for observation. We feel it is an important event and don’t want any parents to miss the opportunity to attend their child’s lesson!
We plan the lesson for our Parents Week very carefully. Our intent is to highlight the elements that we want the parent to be aware of, and to teach them how they can assist their child at home. We teach as we normally would, but do include the parent in select pertinent comments. The parent is seated at a place where there isn’t a possibility of eye contact with the child. At select times, the parent might come closer to get a better look, especially with warm-ups. The atmosphere is friendly, upbeat, informal and relaxed.
We begin with music. Elementary students might have 2 – 3 pieces that are polished and ready to play with the teacher duet. In this case, the coaching is minimal; we are making music together and celebrating the student accomplishment. With more advanced student, we begin with one piece only and make some positive comments about the performance. Next, we move on to the warm-up. Sometimes we even have the student “teach” the warm-up to the parent as a way of breaking the ice. We always focus on how the hand position can be improved at the time. It is important that the parents leave the lesson knowing how their child is supposed to look when they are practicing at home. Is the bench the right distant from the piano? Is the child seated at the right height? These are important things to revisit, even for students who have been studying a long time. As bodies grow and develop we need to constantly rework their posture at the piano. We make a comment to the parent that practice should always begin with a warm-up.
Next, the student plays a review piece. We pick a piece in good condition that is in the preparation stages for an upcoming repertoire class. The teacher then coaches musical elements with the goal of making a noticeable difference in the playing. The parent can hear how the piece improves with coaching and the teacher ends the session with a comment that draws attention to the improvement. “Wow! Your playing of this piece is SO beautiful! I love how well you are now listening to keep the last note of the phrase the softest.”
We then move on to working out a new piece. This part of the assignment requires careful planning the week before Parents Observation week. We choose only one new piece, so that there will definitely be time in the lesson to do a full workout of the music. We choose a piece that is not terribly difficult so that the student can learn the piece in the lesson. We also choose a piece that will include specific practice steps that we want to highlight as part of the student’s home practice. In working out the new piece, we take care to go through the practice steps in detail, ending with, “Now THIS is exactly how you should practice at home.”
Next, we check the student’s written work and work on a theory or composition activity. This gives the parent a chance to see the theory skills that are developing simultaneously with the playing. This is also a good time to add an ear training activity. Many parents are shocked at how well their child can hear intervals.
Finally, the lesson ends with a performance of a polished piece. It is very nice if this piece is a duet. Very little or no coaching is done with this performance. The student is congratulated on a job well done and sent out of the room.
The teacher then takes about five minutes to conference with the parents about the student. I find it is a good rule of thumb to begin this interaction with a positive comment, “I’ve so enjoy working with your child. He is so bright and always very cheerful at his lessons.” From there we ask the parent if they have any questions and also take time to discuss any concerns we may have about at-home practice or development of skills.
We always come away from this week feeling 1) Tired! The heightened level of planning and the feeling that we want don’t want to miss anything while we have the parent in the room takes a great deal of work. 2) Invigorated: We feel we learn much about our students and have the parents on our side.
Besides Parents week, we do have regular communication with our parents at the end of each lesson. This, however, is not the same as having an entire lesson planned with the purpose of showing the parent how best to help his or her child. A good parent/teacher relationship is so important in guiding a student’s musical progress. Parent observation week provides a good opportunity to build that relationship.