PIANO LESSONS IN OR OUT OF SCHOOL? (PART 1)

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.

Instrumental Lessons for secondary school students

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.

11 thoughts on “PIANO LESSONS IN OR OUT OF SCHOOL? (PART 1)

  1. Richard Hill

    In my own experience as teacher, we need to be an effective teacher, we must know the needs and potentials of our students. In piano lesson, we know that is difficult and we need to focus our students in every single bet of their finger tips. Thanks for the advice..!

    Reply
  2. Marcia Vahl

    I taught at piano at one main private school for over 10 years. I had an “instant studio” of 41 students the beginning year. I was able to only have students come for lessons during morning class recess time, study halls, or lunch (elementary students have a recess after lunch where they could eat.) It worked well for me for those years, when I could teach every morning from 8:30 to 12:30, while my children were attending Pre K, and Kindergarten. Things that are better in my home studio: 1) Better student retention 2) Huge music library available to students 3) Students rarely, if ever, forget music at home 4) I can control the environment while they wait for their lesson 5) Organization is easier when I don’t have to cart everything with me in a computer bag, and I’m sure there are many more reasons I <3 teaching in the home studio!

    Reply
  3. Julie Cooper

    This article was written from view point of private teacher losing pupils who go to secondary and decide to transfer to school lessons with another teacher. I appreciate this must be disappointing for those teachers who have worked closely with their students from day 1 perhaps. On the other side of the coin, it can also be disappointing for peripatetic teachers to automatically lose students end of year 6. I am not allowed to offer lessons privately if they are moving to another school under same umbrella I work for (in contract). If they are moving to another school, where lessons are not provided under umbrella I work for, then I “can” offer them. I consider myself a good peripatetic who goes beyond what I have to do. I send audio recordings to parents to aid the practice, email, offer phone consultations and provide plenty of performance opportunities. So occasionally one pupil may continue with me, but that doesn’t happen every year. The parents are likely to continue with school lessons than incur extra travelling to my home after school. Whilst some peripatetic staff, as Liz said, change frequently, I have remained in some schools since starting (in 1999). I suppose one of the best situations for me has been when a school boy began with me at primary, moved to a secondary where I happen to teach, so I saw him from day 1 right up to grade 8. He left me at Xmas to concentrate on A levels before Uni. Another came back to because me there was a waiting list at school, though I had to unusually travel to her. Since meeting her probably age 8, she was another I saw right through to grade 8! In short, the article did not have much heart for school peripatetic staff, particularly those in primary. I do recognise it can also be disappointing for private teachers not to take the whole journey with their students.

    Reply
  4. Clare

    A fascinating article, with useful insights for parents and teachers. However, I am debating the question from the other side, ie. whether, as a teacher, to choose to give lessons in or out of the school environment… The question also arises at primary level.

    Reply
  5. Jill Osborn

    Very interesting article, Liz, I enjoyed it. I taught in schools for 12 years and experienced all of the problems described. The advice offered to prospective parents is really good and I concur with most of it. However, as a now exclusively private piano teacher, I’ve only rarely been in a situation where any parent has considered giving up well-established private piano lessons for their child in favour of lessons in school- if the parent is interested in school lessons, however, and funds permit, it’s often worth considering a second instrument, especially if it would offer chances for more sociable ensemble playing. There were a couple of areas I would question. In 20 years of piano teaching, I have never had such a thing as a written down curriculum which could be given out to parents, and I don’t personally know any other private teachers who would have this either. The nearest thing would be my website which gives details about my philosophy of teaching and experience and qualifications, but all of my teaching is geared around the individual pupil and there is no set curriculum as such as it is so variable between pupils. The other thing I would advise is caution on relying on exam results . One thing I have found many times on taking on transfer pupils who have had school lessons is an excessive focus on exams rather than broader repertoire and solid skills. I think the shorter terms and sometimes shorter lesson times may be influential here as if grades are wanted, it can be more challenging to fit everything in, but I have certainly come across pupils who have attained a creditable exam result but struggle with basic concepts as corners have been cut. So I suppose what I’m saying is that a collection of exam passes does not always equate with sound teaching. Really interesting advice, though-I wonder if part of the problem is that parents assume that is teaching takes place in school it will automatically be good, so they wouldn’t necessarily check up on it, in the same way that they wouldn’t check on the approaches of, say, the maths teachers? Food for thought.

    Reply
  6. Rachel

    Putting my parents hat on for a while! My daughter has flute lessons in school from a visiting teacher. Opportunities for direct contact between parents and teachers are fewer but it is so worth the effort – 2 years in and a grade 4 exam complete, I am very happy with my daughter’s tuition and her teacher’s commitment to music at the school; she is always happy to talk things over and get in touch with me if needs be as well as routine updates. I guess I would say to parents considering in school lessons be as involved with your child’s tuition as you can – it is still a 3-way thing; always ask; good teachers will happily answer.

    Reply
  7. Rachel R

    If you work it out per minutes tuition, I think I have spent the last 5 years paying for the most expensive music lessons in the world for my son who learnt drums in school! His attendance was too embarrassing to post here and it was impossible for me to improve it when he was in school. It was also hard to maintain a dialogue with his teacher who was slow to reply to texts, emails etc. Much easier with my daughter who had private cello lessons meaning her teacher could pass on anything important when I picked her up. I can’t complain about the teaching itself as my son loves his drums and has done well, but as a parent it was a deeply frustrating experience!

    Reply
    1. Addiva

      I am so pleased I’ve found this blog. I had a fantastic private piano teacher who has just left and I’m in a conundrum on whether to look for another private tutor or go with the school. I think the general consensus is that a private teacher is better and I shall stick to that! My mission is now to find a good one!

      Reply
  8. Deb Flowers

    I taught in a school setting for several years and experienced all of the hurdles mentioned in the article. I never felt that I was giving the same quality lessons as I did independently.

    But, Piano Lab was very successful! Having students for 40 minutes for 5 days a week sped up the rate progress tremendously. Even beginner middle school students were impressed with how much they learned in a year’s time.

    Reply

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