The mother cornered me at the potluck because somebody'd told her I was a piano teacher.
"My daughter took lessons for ten years and then she QUIT!"
"Really?" I replied. "That's interesting. Ten years is a long time. Did she learn anything?"
The idea that there is something inherently tragic about "quitting" or fundamentally wrong with the idea of ending lessons doesn't make sense. It's not tragic. It not even optional. The real question we need to struggle with is "when." This question has a partner, "What is the right age to start lessons?" That one, I always answer, "There isn't a right age, there are just different ages."
The same is true for ending lessons. Every piano student will stop taking lessons; the only choice is when and how. Can you facilitate this inevitable ending with grace and kindness?
Those of us who've become private music teachers have taken a lot of lessons. We continued studying even when our friends quit. Perhaps we continued studying through college, or even graduate school. I liked studying so much I have a couple college degrees in music. (I hit my wall when I considered getting a DMA. Just couldn't do it. Not so that I could get a job in the middle-of-nowhere America. I wanted to live in San Francisco. But I digress...)
In my experience, all kids go through ups and downs. Sometimes you find the perfect combination of music, inspiration and developmental ability. Sometimes you don't. Most kids have a rough time in adolescence and piano is often a place where their conflict with parents and authority play out. Kids legally have to go to school, but there is no law that says that kids have to take piano lessons. The parents may see piano lessons as vital and non-negotiable; the child may view them as the perfect opportunity for rebellion. How you handle this thorny, can make a difference. I always try to keep the parent out of it and continue forging a strong bond with the student. They are the ones who need an ally.
As a young teacher, I wasn't familiar with starting and stopping taking lessons as a natural part education. Classroom teachers experience it every year. They love and nurture a classroom full of kids. That class moves on. They love and nurture the next classroom full of kids.
As private piano teachers, we often feel like we need to keep every student we have taking lessons. These are some factors that used to be part of my decisions about continuing lessons:
- I needed the money
- I liked (or even loved) the child or the family
- I enjoyed the challenge - Could I keep this student engaged against the odds?
- I didn't want to "give up" on the child
- I thought it would have reflected poorly on me if I couldn't make lessons "work"
- A great teacher should be able to teach anyone, and I wanted to believe I was a great teacher.
Today I have a different set of questions I ask myself:
- Am I still able to teach, help and inspire this student?
- Does this student and their situation exhaust me or put me in such a bad mood that I am unable to give my best to the other students? (This harsh reality was first pointed out to me by a friend whose child followed a particularly difficult student. "You gotta drop her, Di!" she said. She puts you in a bad mood every week." Teaching the girl who put me in a bad mood actually was affecting the way I treated my other students. Bad business for sure!
- Does this student want to be taking lessons right now? (Notice I am not asking if the parents want their child to be studying, but how does the student feel?)
- If they want to be studying, is there someone who could better meet their needs at this time?
- Am I participating in a healthy family system with this child? Is there a family conflict and piano lessons have become a part of this struggle?
If I answer "no" to any of the above questions, I begin a conversation with the parent and/or child about making a change. Sometimes having this communication clarifies why all of us are doing what we're doing. It can clear the air and make for a healthier atmosphere. Sometimes it shows us that we need to end our teaching relationship. At least for now.
Do you realize that every day you have choices? Are there some choices you could make that would affect your happiness and the success of those around you? What criteria will you use when making your choices?