Parents often ask for advice about changing music teachers when their children transfer to secondary school.
Many secondary schools provide instrumental lessons in school which means parents and students have pause to make a choice about whether to have lessons in the school or to continue lessons with their existing teacher.
Our blog post this week is written by Liz Giannopoulos, a member of The Community of The Curious Piano Teachers.
This can be a challenging choice. On a practical level, in school lessons will be easier: no transport, lessons during the school day, evenings left free for homework, being part of a larger music faculty etc.
But is it better?
There are some important tangible and intangible factors to take into consideration.
QUALITY OF TEACHING
Not knowing the quality of the teaching provision at school can make this decision especially hard. I know some fantastic visiting music teachers who have a strong teaching ethos and boundless energy and commitment to their students. However, in some schools, tutors brought in to give lessons may not be directly connected to the music department and ownership of or accountability for the curriculum may be uncertain.
Learning to play a musical instrument should be a three-way effort between the student, the teacher and the parents. Sometimes, parents and visiting instrumental teachers at schools may not have the opportunity to form a bond which can leave a child feeling stranded between two influences who do not necessarily share a common vision.
It may be useful to ascertain whether the school is experiencing a high turnover of peripatetic teaching staff which can compromise students’ musical development as a result of a lack of continuity in teaching methodology and changing relationships.
ASK THE SCHOOL: What is the instrumental teacher’s background and qualifications? Request a copy of the curriculum and the teacher’s exam result statistics. What is the tutor’s teaching philosophy and their approach to practice? How do they report to parents about the student’s progress? What is the staff turnover?
TIMETABLING OF LESSONS
Timetabling varies from school to school, but lessons tend to last for 20-30 minutes. Anecdotally, this time may be reduced by the child forgetting to attend, finishing an assignment in class or having to travel from elsewhere in the building, not to mention forgotten instruments and books. Taking these factors into account, lessons could turn out to be more expensive and less beneficial overall.
Visiting music teachers report that academic staff can be reluctant to release the students from class as – understandably – it can be disruptive to the child’s learning and could have a negative impact on the whole class, particularly if the instrumental lesson starts halfway through a science experiment! If the music timetable is not rotated, the student will miss the same academic class every week, but a rotating timetable increases the risk of younger students (and even older ones) forgetting to attend. When children take lessons out of school they are usually focussed on the task in hand, but when an academic lesson has been interrupted, students may still be preoccupied by the maths problem or French verbs they have left behind.
Some visiting teachers have also commented on the poor quality of instruments in schools, noise disruption from other instrumental lessons and a lack of teaching resources. Parents have observed that the number of lessons offered during school term time may be less than those offered by private tutors by up to 10%.
ASK THE SCHOOL: How is the music timetable structured? (length of lessons, class rotation, catch up/ make ups etc.) Check the lesson fees, cancellation policy and notice period too. What is the school’s official position on individual music lessons and is this actively supported by the academic teaching staff?
MAKING MUSIC WITH OTHERS
When it comes to opportunities for ensemble playing, schools can take centre stage, especially for orchestral instruments; woodwind, brass, strings and the like. However, some instruments are less ‘sociable’ and it is likely an opening for a pianist to play with an orchestra or jazz band will be afforded to the most accomplished or most senior pianists, regardless of whether or not they learn in school or out of school. Whilst opportunities for playing in a group varies from school to school and can depend on the approach of the Head of Music, in my experience, students who learn outside of school have had equal opportunities to take part in ensembles, concerts, talent shows, choirs and other performances.
If the visiting teacher is local to the school they may be tuned into other performance opportunities such as music festivals and youth music groups. However, teachers covering a large number of schools over a wide geographical area may be less aware of these opportunities for their students.
ASK THE SCHOOL: Get in touch with the Head of Music to find out what ensemble and performance opportunities are available to their young musicians. Ask directly if priority is given to students taking lessons in school.
DON’T GIVE UP!
Nationally, statistics show a significant drop off in learning a musical instrument when children transfer to secondary school. In many cases this is due to an increase in academic expectations of the school and parents, and the development of other interests. When children feel overwhelmed, the ‘optional’ extra of learning a musical instrument is often the first sacrifice to be made. However, moving to secondary school is a big change with many new relationships to be formed and fear of the unknown can be particularly difficult for children. At this time of turmoil and uncertainty, routine and a friendly face can be a welcome relief.
The surest way of retaining a child’s musical interest and development is to provide continuity with a teacher they like and respect.
There are a handful of cases where a change in teaching approach could benefit the student. But for most students starting a new school, I recommend maintaining the status quo for at least a term or two, to allow the child to settle into the new school routine and explore different interests. There is so much pressure on students and parents during this transition… not everything has to change immediately.
Take some time to find out about the instrumental teaching provision at school from students and parents who have experienced it, work out whether the existing arrangements are manageable and productive, and then re-evaluate. Is easier the same or better?
Liz Giannopoulos BA (Hons) Music, CT ABRSM, DipABRSM is the founder and director of Encore Music Tuition a group of piano teachers based in and around Battersea, southwest London. Liz is a highly experienced music tutor with a wealth of experience and a passion for inspiring joy and independence in musical learning. In addition to teaching a full timetable, she provides coaching and mentoring to the Associate Tutors within the group.