Siblings in the Studio: A note to teachers and parents

Right now in my studio we have many siblings. That is wonderful! It's also a bit of job security for me, nod-nod-wink-wink. Having siblings present at lessons and group lessons helps to prepare them for future music study, whether it is at the piano or another instrument--we are subscribing after all to the mother-tongue approach--ability development from age zero. If children are observing from the time they are babies, they will have a lovely background to start lessons as soon as they are ready. They already know the protocol and routine of the lessons. They know how I am and what my expectations are. There is a level of trust and anticipation. They see the other children loving lessons and loving music. They are ready to start. It's all good. 

But. . . there is a small issue of getting these little cherubs into a routine. Our first responsibility is to the child or children in the lesson or group lesson. Their learning comes first. We have to protect their ability to focus. This time is special. 

It feels to me that there are three stages to siblings in the studio, babies, toddlers and littles. Let's talk about each of these groups.

Babies are wonderful. They generally nurse or sleep. They cry and mama settles them down. Eventually they sit on a blanket on the floor and hold a toy and clap when we clap. This is the calm before the storm. 

Toddlers are tricky. They walk and talk. They are innocent and loud and mobile. Developmentally they are just starting to learn communication skills. How in the world can we make observation a positive experience for everyone in the room? Of course we start from a philosophy that every child is unique and every family has a parenting style. There may be times in the child's growth when he or she is just not capable of being in the lesson without disruption. That's okay. Parents may need to invest in a sitter.

Parents of toddlers, you are already investing in lessons, protect your investment. This is not forever. This window of time seems long but it's only a few short months. When the sibling is able to obey your request to be quiet and still, they can observe the lesson again. While you transition to this stage, please step out of the studio when the sibling is too loud. This is not a punishment. This is a courtesy to the older child. Hold your child outside the door until they are settled down and then return to the studio. Like I said, this is not a punishment, but neither should it be a reward. Don't make stepping out more fun than being in the studio. Stay quiet and listen through the door. I will review any portion of the lesson that you miss at the end. 

Littles are the best! I have a basket of beanie babies and a shelf of books. They can play quietly or color at the table. Do not give them your phone or an iPad. They are learning from the piano lesson too. No electronic baby sitters in the studio! (Teacher and parent set this example by having their own devices set aside). Teach siblings that the parent's attention is primarily on the lesson and they need to be taking notes. In my studio there is a seam in the carpet which divides the room. Parents and siblings remain behind this line during the lesson. Even babies understand this very quickly. Parents and siblings are outside the sightline of the student. When parents and siblings are quiet it facilitates the student's complete focus on me. Every interruption breaks the flow of the lesson. Of course interruptions will happen, but make them the exception rather than the rule. Do not underestimate little children's ability to be calm during the lesson. This has to be taught, but what a joyful reward we get! A couple weeks of stepping outside, for several years of focused lessons. Side note to parents, make sure that you have a special time set aside for the younger sibling, when he has your complete attention and the older child gives him respect. I believe this is important and fair.

As far as practice at home goes? I'm here to tell you that when Calvin was 4-6 and Mary was 1-3 I stuck her in the playpen in the living room while I practiced with Calvin. She was safe and learned to play by herself for increasingly long periods of time. Then when he went to preschool then she and I read and sang songs together. Parents will have to find their own comfort level and routine. 

Group lessons. . . at last count, I had six siblings in the room in addition to parents and the eight children in the actual group. Folks, that's a lot of bodies in a room. We are going to need some crowd control in order to have a productive hour.  This year I'm going to set up the half circle of parent chairs with some space behind them. Siblings will need to be behind that line or at the table. The same rules apply. Parents should give their primary attention to the group. If the sibling is loud, remove her. This too shall pass. Parents, you are giving your child the gift of being able to quietly entertain herself for one hour. 

Recitals. . . please gauge your tolerance of noise to the formality of the recital. In general, parents with babies should sit where they can make a quick exit when baby cries. Be more considerate to others than you are to yourself.  Lastly, during individual graduation recitals, please assign an adult, such as the non-practicing parent, a grandparent or friend to be in charge of each younger sibling. When and if that child becomes fussy, the assigned adult will immediately exit the room with the sibling and take them as far away as necessary to not distract the performer. The graduate has worked hard and deserves the complete attention of the practicing parent, teacher and guests. 

The child who has observed lessons from a young age easily transitions to becoming a student. Think about the hours she spent listening to instruction before she started. She has a wonderful library of sound in her ears. Hopefully these notes will help make these years positive and productive for everyone involved! 

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The Main Point is the Main Point

I think the single most important pedagogical idea for teachers and parents is having a main point for the lesson and/or practice session. When you observe master teachers you quickly see that they have a very strong idea of the point that they are teaching and they weave it into the entire lesson. Edmond Sprunger calls it "Shooting One Arrow" in his book Helping Parents Practice, Ideas for Making it Easier. Jeanne Luedke, one of my favorite parent educators, names it in her top five sticking points.

When you hear your student or your child playing a piece, you may have a lot of things to say. You may notice a dozen issues that need to be addressed. Throwing the book at the kid will only cause discouragement. Discouragement leads to resistance. Who wants to be told a millions ways in which they need to be fixed? Having one main point reduces resistance because it allows the child success. Contrary to popular opinion, none of us can truly multitask. When we address one element of playing, we can succeed. This makes us confident to tackle the next task. Don't we all love checking things off our to-do lists? Success leads to success. 

Sticking to the main point may be more difficult for musical parents than for nonmusical parents. Parents with a musical background will notice more things to fix in their child's everyday performing. They will have to make a conscious effort to focus only on the idea that the teacher singles out. I try to confirm the main point with my students and their parents before they leave the lesson. I write it on the lesson plans I make for their next lesson. It is my goal to follow through on the main point at next week's lesson. 

An example of a main point might be to listen for balance between melody and accompaniment for piano players. It is enough to listen just for balance. Ironically, I often find that once the student is completely focused on their point, many other small issues solve themselves. 

Pope John XXIII had a motto: See everything, overlook a great deal, correct a little. 

We are on this long journey, a good teacher will prioritize and important issues will not be overlooked forever. Please have faith in this process. 

Picking a main point allows the student, parent and teacher to focus their efforts, improve one element and feel successful. Write it down. Remember it. Follow through with it. That is the main point of the main point. 

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