Choosing the Right Families
by Samantha Steitz
A few days before we departed on a plane headed for Graz, Austria, we celebrated our final recital in the whimsical garden of a studio family who lived down the street. This event was the culmination of almost 6 years of teaching in South Pasadena, CA, and leaving my beloved students in light of our imminent move was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. All students played on the piano we had moved outside (!) - most with a partner in the studio. After the 17 performances, we listened to an original “pop music” piece written by a 7-year-old student, which was performed with her classmates and friends from group theory class (forming a “percussion band”). Families brought food to share at the potluck reception afterward. Some grandparents, who had witnessed the progression of their grandkids over the years, were present. The host - a wonderful parent named Stephanie - presented me with a book the studio had made of photos from over the years with personalized inscriptions from the children and parents thanking me and wishing us luck in our “new life.” We all tried not to cry. Bittersweet doesn’t even begin to describe the complexity of what I felt that day and what I knew I would continue feeling for many months (and now I realize, years) -- a mix of profound loss and even deeper gratitude for our time together and all that we had learned.
By the end of my time in California, the studio consisted of entirely wonderful families. We could chat about life and important issues. I could count on them to do the work that they had committed to, and they could count on me to pour my heart into teaching their children. In other words, their commitment matched my enthusiasm.
However, looking back, there’s more to the story. The truth is that this group was highly curated over the years. And I don’t regret admitting this at all. In fact, I would recommend to all teachers to select very, very carefully whom they allow into their studio by way of initial interviews, a parent training course, lesson observations, and a trial period. Here’s why choosing the right families is so important.
The unfortunate reality is that one glum parent will cloud your entire outlook. You will dread the day of the week they arrive at your studio. You will find yourself constantly annoyed when working together. The student -- typically an innocent child -- will pick up on this unpleasant energy and feel sad and confused. Simply put, the situation will be bad for everyone, especially the student. My solution: let go of these families, or, even better, don’t accept them into your studio to begin with.
While this might seem obvious, some disagree. For instance, my first trainer vehemently argued never to “give up” on a student, therefore, letting go of current families (even ones consistently causing problems) was not an option. Since I heard this advice when I was much younger and much less experienced, I took it to heart. In my early days of teaching, I worked with all sorts of families who I knew were completely wrong for my studio or were simply unpleasant, disrespectful, or unappreciative. It drove me half mad, but I kept listening to this trainer’s voice: You can’t give up on a student.
At some point, I began to doubt this logic. As a teacher, you must do what’s in the best interest of the child, which is providing a safe, nurturing space and an effective curriculum. If you teach using parental involvement (which is critical to my philosophy of teaching young children), the families are an enormous piece of this puzzle. If you do not see eye to eye with a parent for some reason, it simply won’t work. If the basic contract involving committing to daily practice (and whatever else you require as a teacher) at home is breached time and again, it won’t work. And in these cases, though it is almost always the parent who is to blame, it’s the child who will suffer. Every child deserves a nurturing environment where clear and respectful communication is exercised.
There are many (bizarre) stories I could tell, but I’ll choose one that I’m sure almost every other teacher can relate to. There was once a man I’ll call Lester. He had an absolutely adorable child that he brought to weekly lessons and group class. Though Lester was a professor and knew what was expected of him during lessons (to be present, take notes, and ask questions) and at home (practice with the child daily and listen to repertoire), he did none of these things, even having the audacity to sit through lessons mindlessly scrolling through his smartphone. It seemed that he believed he knew better based on his own educational background and appeared to inherently distrust the opinions of a young teacher. Not surprisingly, the very capable child did not develop as a musician because Lester was not following the instructions and was more comfortable using lesson time to complain about his (personal) problems. To make matters worse, Lester constantly made uncomfortable remarks on a wide range of topics. As a result, I began to really dread our time together. Finally, one day, Lester arrived at the lesson and flatly refused to take off his shoes, a studio policy respected by everyone else without question. After months of disappointment, it was the final straw. I let them go in an email later that night, took a deep breath, and have never looked back since. I realized then that eliminating this energy and negativity from my studio was the most responsible course of action.
It’s never fun to encounter or to deal with, but I strongly believe that walking away from problem situations is incredibly important for the mental health of the teacher and overall success of a studio. A colleague once lamented, “Every teacher has at least one DISASTER family, you know?” I nodded sadly. But what I’ve learned since taking this new approach is that it doesn’t need to be this way.
Once rid of these attention-absorbing individuals, it’s easy to appreciate the light and positivity surrounding your teaching life. Parents who are pleasant and prepared typically cultivate children who are pleasant and prepared. These people are a genuine joy to work with because the children excel week after week, and, therefore, feel productive and happy. It is an all-around win. As the years progress, you watch these children grow up. You learn about their families, the names of their pets, their favorite restaurants, where they like to travel, which sports teams they root for, the issues close to their hearts. You watch as the students find their unique voices on the instrument and comprehend the complex language of music with fluidity and confidence. They progress from playing Twinkle with one finger to Beethoven with conviction. There’s just nothing cooler.
Finally, on a more macro-level, and particularly in light of the ubiquity of social media/collective psychology, there are infinite problems to fix. We can’t do it all. So what can we do? Identify and build our communities, and then do everything in our power to uplift that group. In essence, make this tribe one you really love because, in the end, this is your life’s work.
I remember a parent approaching me at that final garden party and remarking, “I mean, just look around at this community.” Indeed, with all the children running around in their sunglasses, it resembled a vivacious birthday party more than a typical piano recital. It was quite a moment to take in -- the summation of all that we had built in a loving space filled with so much purpose. So parents: find a teacher you love. Teachers: choose wisely. For all parties, it is so, so worth it in the end.