Difficult Parents of Students

June 12, 2013 at 04:23 AM · I have been a full time private violin teacher for many years now.. I have come across all walks of life, but find myself in a predicament that I could really use some advice on. The truth is, you never stop learning!

Now for a brief synopsis of my circumstances - I have a relatively new student (who had a year with a fiddle teacher prior to me) with a parent who is also an amateur musician (a cellist.) The parent is very involved in their child`s development, which is fantastic!! However, they are so invested in things that lessons with me are almost dictated. I am basically told what and how to teach and what the goals/plans are.

Most recently was the most insulting occurrence of all. The child is learning by ear, using the Mark O'Connor method. The method was previously unknown to me so I was happy to accept the challenge of trying something new. So, when the child expressed an interest in a little note reading, I didn't see the harm and proceeded to prepare a small work sheet. We looked at where the notes are for the open strings and practiced drawing treble clefs over dotted outlines. Harmless enough, right? I sent the work sheet home with the student, intending it to be completed and returned for review. I never saw that work sheet again.

For a little background, this child is six, and not necessarily capable of independently completing the assignment and bringing it in. When I did not see the sheet returned, I knew that the parent had dismissed it. I was "told" that all learning will be done by ear and no note reading will be introduced until the completion of at least the third book of the method. Then I was educated in the ways of developing a good ear. Keep in mind, this is my profession, I did an undergrad in music and am a highly respected violinist and teacher. I don't think I need a financial advisor telling me how to do my job..............

#1 To me this demonstrates a lack of respect and trust in me as a teacher.

#2 The child is learning that this is appropriate behaviour and teachers don't get any real say.

#3 The result is, the child and parent (when he is there) controls the lesson.

#4 Why are they paying me to teach their child if this is the case??

#5 Last but not least, most technical things I try to address are not practiced. Instead, they are ignored in the interest of learning tune after tune after tune, no matter how poorly they are done.

Pro's - the child practices! And the parent is their every step of the way. The child regularly performs in public and for family.

Con's - I have relatively no say or control in the develop of my own student. I have 30 min a week, and the other X number of hours in the week are spent ignoring and undoing what I have tried to teach this child. Meanwhile, the label of "Angela's student" is happily applied to the child.

I need to confront this as soon as possible (and probably should have already done so) but how do I do this diplomatically? No matter how I put it, I will be telling the parent to back off and let me do my job. Sigh...

Replies (24)

June 12, 2013 at 06:29 AM · The good old advice - talk to the parents. Tell them that you're uncomfortable teaching the way you're not keen, or lacking experiences in. Tell them your reason as well, and your opinion on both teaching method.

I did that from time to time albeit not the same situation like yours. I find that communication between parents and the students is the key to make a step beyond the relationship of teacher/student. The students and parents are also my friends. When all things failed, at least you won't make enemies!

June 12, 2013 at 08:20 AM · Casey gives good advice, I think. I would only add, explain it in terms of how the situation feels for you, not in terms of criticising the parent. People can understandably get upset if their actions are criticised, but it is much harder to react against another person sharing their own experiences.

"I can see that you're wonderfully committed parent, which is fantastic! But I'm finding it difficult to teach the way you seem to expect. When xxx happens (described factually and without accusation), I feel... Can we discuss a way forwards?"

Who could object to that? You're praising the parent, but still asserting your right to feel good about the situation. Of course, this is stuff we all know already, but it can get lost in the heat of the moment, so perhaps it's helpful if someone else gives a gentle reminder...

June 12, 2013 at 09:42 AM · Yours is very interesting topic, I can answer from the point of parent (who recently became 'difficult'). We had to change teacher four times because of moving but this time it is our decision. Our previous teacher did not speak a word of English, never heard of Suzuki (but when he saw the first four volumes of Suzuki Violin School his comment was 'I never saw anything so beautifully methodologically arranged') but the lessons and relationship worked fine. We reviewed repertoire during lesson, he gave us technical advice and we did our stuff at home. He was happy with our progress and we were happy with him. He accompanied my daughter on the violin and they played together the pieces from My Trio Book.

Unfortunately, my daughter started the first grade and I was no longer able to commute so far away. So we found the teacher nearby at the local school; she claimed she knew Suzuki method (she did know the Perpetual Motion). I gave her the materials we used (Kerstin Wartberg's Step by Step 1A and 1B and My Trio Book) and hoped we will continue with business as usual.

But the new teacher totally refused repertoire review during lessons, was not interested in working on technical points of the repertoire we needed and instead introduced Sevcik, note reading of other pieces in C Major (Kerstin Wartberg and Suzuki introduce the scales in this order A major, D major, G major, B major; it makes sense and is logical). No aural learning at all. Technical exercises from Step by Step were not done at all. Whenever I asked about the pedagogical value and the goal of such approach I was told because the kid was talented.

Well we did what we were assigned at the very beginning but when I did not receive adequate answers to my questions why the things are done the way that are done and my daughter showed signs of losing pleasure of playing the violin I stopped asking, returned to our old ways at home, review of repertoire, doing the technical stuff from Step by Step and the teacher will be dropped at the end of the term. Her approach simply does not work for us.

What my long mail tries to conclude, TALK to the parent and explain your PEDAGOGICAL goals. Study the school they are using and if there are technical points you want to make, incorporate them in the pieces. I do not know Mark O'Connor's school but surely each piece is included for its technical point unless it is a 'breather' included just for pleasure. Maybe his technical point are in different order than yours.

Ask the parents when they want to introduce sight reading and if they want to emphasize aural training if you are comfortable with that.

The teaching should bring the pleasure to you too if not, drop them and recommend another teacher, more compatible with their philosophy.

June 12, 2013 at 12:10 PM · Let me say that I can respond to this from the view first as a parent, then as a student.

Every instructor is different. Their teaching values, their methods, their time lines, and their expectations will be different. As a parent, it helps to recognize this.

My exposure to a stringed instrument came when my daughter walked into our house in grade school with a viola in her hand. I had never seen one, and I didn't know how it would sound, or be played.

I placed my daughter in private lessons with a professional violist. I was not allowed in the studio during lessons. After the lesson, he could sit with me and explain exactly what he and my daughter did, what he expected her to practice, and the expected goal.

Let me just say that had I told my daughter's instructor what I wanted her to do and/or how I wanted HIM to do it, I would have been politely invited to find her another instructor. My daughter turned out to be a very accomplished violist. I began to study viola as well, and I found out (from the viewpoint of a middle aged adult) that it was intense, required at least an hour of daily practice, and that I had to put my trust, regardless of what I thought I could do, or what I thought I SHOULD do, in the hands of my instructor.

For some people, letting go of the reins can be hard. But I think in music, there can be some give and take as long as the instructor does not feel undermined or dictated to. Just my thoughts.

---Ann Marie

June 12, 2013 at 01:14 PM · As a "Suzuki" parent, when I hear of experience such as Anne Marie's -- not even being allowed to be present during the child's lessons -- I sympathize more with parents who fully involve themselves with their child's musical development.

There is big difference in the style of instruction. Teachers who work in a strict 'traditional' manner as for Anne Marie, aren't compatible with parents who dive into Suzuki, and it can be difficult for them to adjust to one another even if they recognize and appreciate the other, which is not always the case.

Suzuki says that there's a 'triangle' between the parent, student, and teacher. Anne Marie's teacher literally leaves the parent outside. Angela's student's parent might as well leave the teacher outside.

A balance has to be found in order to make a triangle work, and as this balance may be hard to find and maintain, in some cases the best approach may be to give up on a particular parent/teacher/child combination.

What's worked for me so far as a parent is that I bear the bulk of the burden of having my child learn new material and practice and practice effectively, and the teacher guides and advises on the overall direction, providing technical and musical knowledge, setting the expectations on quality and also giving external validation and appreciation.

But Mark O'Connor is not Suzuki, and his approach, with its emphasis on improvisation, is not addressed by either Suzuki or traditional classical teaching. As the parent is committed to that method, it may be best that the parent be directed to a teacher who has absorbed and taught using that approach -- then it would be easier for the parent to accept the guidance, and the teacher wouldn't have to become a student of a new method.

June 12, 2013 at 01:40 PM · Hi Angela,

You do indeed have a problem. This seems to me a bit like 'helicopter parenting' but with a personal agenda. Maybe your cellist parent wanted to be a teacher in another life!

In my opinion, sad to say, even though he seems like an attentive parent, he really is no good at attentively contributing to his child's learning when it comes to what you are trying to teach. It boils down to interference in the end. You ask exactly the right question - why bring the child to you for lessons when it seems that there is general disregard by the parent for your teachings? Is this why they left the last teacher?

Unfortunately, the minute you agreed to teach a technique or topic unfamiliar to you, the parent had you on the back foot from the start. He already knows all about it, and perhaps, he even wants to teach you. It doesn't mean new things shouldn't be explored, but surely your own knowledge and expertise count for something?

Pick a time at the end of a lesson and ask the child to wait in the car, you need to speak to Dad. You probably should start by asking him if he and his wife were looking for something particular when it comes to a violin teacher, as you feel that your own methods are not being accepted. But in the end it's your studio and you should not be afraid to lay the ground rules. You know in your heart that the child will never have a chance to develop independent learning with the parent always jumping in, no matter how 'helpful' he seems. And that when you give the child 'homework', as with normal school you expect it to be attempted at the very least.

Be firm, deliver it with a smile and don't go into too much detail with your reasons why this and why that. You don't want to invite an argument. Nor do you have time to quibble. The parents will decide in the end if they wish the lessons to continue or not. No matter how long you take to get to this point, it will be inevitable.

Cheers and good luck.

June 12, 2013 at 01:59 PM · Angela, so is the child still focused on learning thru playing by ear? how is the child progessing?

June 12, 2013 at 02:25 PM · Thank you for all of the wonderful responses! It is especially helpful to hear from other parents. You have given me lots to think about, just as I'd hoped. My initial perspective on this was that it was simply an issue of dealing with the parent. I was neglecting to realize that my lack of experience with the method has a lot to do with it.

Millie Bartlett said "Unfortunately, the minute you agreed to teach a technique or topic unfamiliar to you, the parent had you on the back foot from the start. He already knows all about it, and perhaps, he even wants to teach you."

(sorry I'm not sure how to quote without simply cutting and pasting)

This is very true. I know there is a teacher training program for the method, and while it is much less comprehensive than with Suzuki, it would be helpful to understood more thoroughly what the intentions are of the person who created the method. Having done lots of reading, grown up on the books (though not the method) and taken the first of the Suzuki courses, I assumed they were one in the same. The only difference being the material used.

J Ray said But Mark O'Connor is not Suzuki, and his approach, with its emphasis on improvisation, is not addressed by either Suzuki or traditional classical teaching.

A crucial point to which I was not considering. Obviously, I'm not as well equipped to set about working with a young student in this way.

Much light has been shed on this situation... Your responses have helped give me a new perspective and to realize this is not simply a matter of an overbearing parent not letting me do my job. I have some homework to do (brushing up on what I do know about this method) and a conversation to have with the parent.

Wish me luck!!!!



June 12, 2013 at 07:43 PM · Do you know if this parent is expecting the kid to enter the Juilliard pre-college division in the next couple of years? That kind of agenda could underlie some of this, too.

When Ann Marie talks about her daughter bringing a viola home from school, I'll bet her daughter was in 4th to 6th grade. At that age, lessons without the parent's presence are common. If this child is only 6, there needs to be more parental involvement. Not this much, though!

June 12, 2013 at 11:04 PM · There was a post by Laurie (interview) on this site when Mark O'Connor's method was released, it might be worth doing a search to get a sense of where he was coming from. and then there was THAT RANT. There may have been other posts as well. And I know there have been some youtube posts, that showed teachers developing the improvisation.

June 13, 2013 at 12:12 AM · Why did they leave the fiddle teacher? Did they move or something?

June 13, 2013 at 12:26 PM · @ Lisa -

Yes, my daughter was in 4th grade.

But - to the other posts here, she was not taught the Suzuki method; I never heard of Suzuki before coming to this site. In her instructor's defense, I never felt "left out". He explained to me exactly what he wanted, how he wanted it, and made sure my daughter understood what her goal was for the next lesson. When I left his studio, my daughter and I had a very clear idea of what needed to be done.

---Ann Marie

June 13, 2013 at 12:58 PM · I think that Casey's and Millie Bartlett's posts give good advice and that Geoff's post is useful about how to approach things.

Though I quit childhood a long time ago,I can see something of the situation about changing teachers. I could do with some refresher lessons, but am so apprehensive about ending up with the wrong teacher and having to go through the emotional strains and practical reorganization of changing that I have as yet taken no action.

June 13, 2013 at 02:44 PM · I'm glad to hear this is a problem others have experienced. I'm dealing with one right now - a fairly bright, involved grandparent who unfortunately has zero expertise/experience playing a stringed instrument.

Helping with the practice has been super, and good results have been obtained. However, this person now seems to be of the opinion that teaching the violin is simply a matter of going through a book, and is starting to try to dictate how and what I teach.

My initial reaction was to simply suggest they find another teacher whose opinion they trust, but I will be reading this thread to see if there are more productive and happy ways to resolve the problem.

When they start ripping out pages so that one child can stay 'on track' with a sibling who started two years ago, I have to draw the line, though. Ditto suggesting that music theory is not necessary, or that vibrato should be started because 'it's the next book'.


June 13, 2013 at 06:45 PM · Ripping pages out of the book -- that really is a bit extreme. I predict that one doesn't end well.

June 13, 2013 at 07:05 PM · It's not going to end well with the vibrato thing either.

Not everyone can do vibrato early on. My daughter was well into her fourth year....(so was I, for that matter) before either of us could even grasp the muscle movement of what was needed.

---Ann Marie

June 16, 2013 at 01:33 PM · As an ex-full time pro player, my daughter learned with the local peripatetic teacher at her school, and I tried not to interfere (although I didn't always agree - but her teacher was consistent in her approach, I could see my daughter improving rapidly). Any time I tried to correct something horrible in her practice - and I knew was not what she'd been taught - I was told "my teacher says...." and totally ignored.

Same thing happened with maths - I studied a lot of maths, and my wife's a maths teacher. If either of us tried to correct a mistake we got the same answer - "My teacher says..."

June 18, 2013 at 01:19 PM · Malcolm,

so the question is if the teacher is the ultimate authority, or the parent has the lack of authority. My experience as a parent is more of the latter.......

June 19, 2013 at 03:04 PM · What we do (my wife also teaches) is tell the parent that children have difficulty following the instructions of two adults at the same time, particularly when one of the adults is a beloved parent, so please leave your comments and questions to the end of the lesson.

Don't let the parent highjack your teaching, in other words.

June 22, 2013 at 10:16 PM · I love that others are reading and discussing.. Dealing with parents can be quite tricky!

Now for an update on my situation - Knowing the last teacher, I thought I would touch base with them to see if I could get some insight into the situation. I found out some very interesting information about both the method and the parent.

Firstly, I was very reassured to know that this student had already done a lot of work on note reading (well beyond the point I was at with the student). As with me, this was not practiced at home.

Secondly, the method does not dictate when a student can or can't begin note reading. That is left up to the teacher to judge.

And lastly.. get this.. The parent I am dealing with apparently emailed the former teacher (after I had given some notation homework) to consult them about note reading. Seriously?!?!

I was really glad that the former teacher told me.. and from what I understand, her response was both diplomatic and very supportive of me. I'm still pretty sure it was after this email correspondence that I was told there would only be learning by ear.

I still haven't had any kind of chat with the parent.. I did see them in passing yesterday and we scheduled another lesson. It was probably a good time to talk because the child wasn't there.. but I just have no idea how to approach this without offending him!

June 22, 2013 at 11:42 PM · Broken link.

July 8, 2013 at 10:27 PM · I've had "helpful" parents, although not to that degree, and my response is always to politely stick to my guns on essentials and compromise on peripherals. I won't let a parent tell me when to teach vibrato, but if the child wants or needs to learn something to play in church, I'll be happy to help (assuming the piece is at an appropriate level).

In this case, however, I'd be very tempted to respectfully suggest that another teacher might be more what they are looking for since it seemed they did not trust my pedagogy or my judgment.

July 9, 2013 at 06:43 AM · I've had this problem: parents who know everything except doubt.

In one case they were so struck by my other students playing so much better than their son, (despite his immense talent!) that the y began to listen to me.

I have sid things like: "we all play out of tune, with a poor tone sometimes, but surely we are not going to actually teach poor playing: Surely you pay me to teach him/her to play well!"

July 9, 2013 at 06:40 PM · For no logical reason at all, this discussion reminded me of an incident involving Sir Thomas Beecham.

A woman came up to him and said that she wanted her young son to learn an instrument, but that she couldn't bear the agony of his practicing in the initial stages. "What is the best instrument?" she asked.

"I have no hesitation, madam," Sir Thomas said, "in saying the bagpipes. They sound exactly the same when you have finished learning them as when you start learning them."

Reference: "Beecham Stories" - compiled by Harold Atkins and Archie Newman, 1978, Robson Books Limited (Great Britain). I picked up this little pocket book over 30 years ago in an airport bookstore in Toronto, and it's been one of my favorites ever since.



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