I am a piano teacher and a composer. I am also a parent.
Back in the second half of 2006, when I was about 16 weeks pregnant, Gina Wake (from Hal Leonard Australia) and I did a two or three week tour launching Getting to Grade Four. In the January of 2007, between weeks 28 and 31 of my pregnancy (and when Gina was 15 to18 weeks along in her pregnancy! we toured the nation again launching. Crazy stuff. Yes, I know.
But talking to piano teachers at this cusp moment in my life, this about-to-be-parent phase, meant that teachers who had known me through my seminars since as early as 2000 were sharing this transition with me, celebrating the arrival of motherhood on my resumé and giving me some great advice along the way.
One teacher said to me with quite a twinkle in her eye “I wonder how becoming a parent is going to change your piano teaching…”
“So do I!”, I exclaimed back. I’d always said that people who think that having a baby isn’t going to change their lives are dangerously delusional and/or completely failing to appreciate that the whole point of having a baby is to have your life changed. So the idea that my piano teaching would change as a result of raising a child of my own seemed obvious.
And yet – I’d been teaching since I was 14 years old. I’d already seen my teaching change simply because I’d gained maturity. I’d seen my teaching change because of new ideas I’d been exposed to when undertaking studies in non-musical disciplines. I’d seen my teaching change because I’d taught classroom music and experienced first-hand the calibre and conditions of New South Wales high school music education. I’d seen my teaching change because I’d started presenting seminars to other piano teachers. And I’d seen my teaching change because I was composing and publishing music for students to play.
Becoming a parent was just going to be another one of these enrichments that changed my teaching.
When I resumed lessons with my much-reduced number of students and an 8 week-old baby, the biggest change was that I needed to schedule breaks between every lesson to facilitate breast-feeding. And as my son grew a bit older I needed to stop teaching earlier in the evening to facilitate his night-time routines, and I had far less time to organise the administration of my teaching practice.
To be honest, as the first few years of my son’s life passed I was quietly surprised at how little my teaching was changing post-parenthood, organisational rather than qualitative changes.
More notable was how my experience as a piano teacher was shaping my approach to being a mother.
After more than 20 years of piano teaching I had experienced all kinds of different parents: parents who were always two minutes early, parents who were always five minutes late, parents who quibbled over money and parents who arrived at the start of each term with their cheque book open. I’d had parents who didn’t realise there’s any benefit to practice between lessons as well as parents who sat with their children to practice every day, for years, for each child in the family. There were parents who told me they just wanted their child to learn ‘for fun’ and parents who discussed how we should shape the next five to ten years to enable their child to gain a music scholarship or earn a diploma before the end of Year 10. Parents who barely spoke English and parents who thought migrants posed an unfair educational challenge to their children. Parents who were keen to sit in on lessons, parents who used piano lessons for a sleep in the car.
Chief amongst the approaches I’d quietly bemoaned along the years, was the parent who uses the piano lesson as a kind of babysitting, an expensive but enriching weekly event which requires no further engagement on the part of the student or the student’s family between sessions. Why invest the money in lessons each week if you can’t be bothered supporting the practice between lessons, even a little bit?, has been my bordering-on-exasperated thought. Don’t you know how much more your child could be achieving?!
But all of a sudden, I get it.
You’re exhausted. Years of parenting a child who doesn’t seem to need to sleep have finally compounded to deplete you of even the tiniest reserves. It’s a miracle if you can make it through the day without losing it between dinner and bedtime. The piano teacher wants your child to have practised this week? It’s a feat of extraordinary proportions that the child got fed, for goodness sake, that they’ve turned up to their lesson in clean clothes. But you know that your child loves this 30 or 45 minutes each week, or at least you’re pretty sure they do, and you know that your child is getting quality one-on-one attention from a teacher who is invested in building a long-term learning relationship. and you know that music is super-fantastic for the brain. Whatever is happening in the lesson is absolutely worth it, because it’s more than you can provide on your own.
I get it.
The piano teacher talks to you about your child’s capacities, potential and achievements based on weekly, focused experience working with your child. You get to tell the teacher what’s been going on in the life of your family, what’s been making practice or organisation tricky, and the teacher makes some suggestions or sympathises or tells a joke. You know that the teacher wants good things for your child, and that they have been spending the past half hour thinking hard about the best way to help your child grow and develop. So what if this week was a disaster in the practice department? The piano teacher is part of your network, your support team. You’re not going to give this up just to save a few bucks.
I get it.
And I also know, from all my years as a piano teacher, that even without practice at home a child can still (miraculously) make something resembling progress, can still play happily at recitals, can still be a joyful musician. Not anything like a professional musician. But still happy. And it makes complete sense to have your child experience this, even if you can’t (for whatever reason) support your child’s at-home practice the way piano teachers might tell you you should.
Piano lessons aren’t always about playing the piano. A successful lesson might not even involve touching a keyboard. A great outcome for a student might not even have anything to do with music.
And that’s totally, completely, and always okay.
I think I really, truly knew this before I became a parent. But these days I think I marvel more – how extraordinary a thing it is that a student finds an hour a day to practice – how tremendous that the whole family attends the end-of-term recital – how spectacular is an improvement in posture – how thrilling is a memorised performance!
Parenthood has underlined to me how the whole enterprise of learning is miraculous. And how it’s a privilege to participate in that miracle every day.
You can read Elissa Milne's blog here.