Guidance for music teachers: how to deal with difficult parents

Difficult pupils can be the least of some teachers’ worries. Sometimes parents can be more of a handful than their sons and daughters. Catherine Nelson provides essential tips for dealing with misguided parent power


Wouldn’t it be so much simpler if, as a teacher, you only had to deal with your pupils rather than with their parents as well? Supportive parents can make the teacher’s world a better place, but every so often you’ll come across a nightmare mum or dad destined to stick in your memory long after their child has headed off to college – or traded in their cello for an electric guitar.

My brief experiences as a peripatetic string teacher many years ago taught me some valuable lessons in the perils of dealing with parents. I remember jotting down the name and number of the local repair shop for a pupil from my beginner violin group whose instrument, inherited from an older sister, needed an overhaul. At the following lesson, the little girl’s mother came in to explain that they’d just taken it in to be repaired and would get it back in seven days’ time. She then scrabbled in her bag and produced a small box of chocolates. ‘And these are to say thank you so much,’ she breathed. ‘She said you’d offered to lend her your violin to practise on while hers is being repaired. Obviously she’ll be really careful with it…’ Like a complete coward, rather than put her straight about the likelihood of my having said any such thing, I mumbled something about a broken E string and suggested her daughter took a week off practising.

Pushy parents can be the hardest to stomach. A Scottish teacher who conducts a junior string ensemble recounts how a mother came up to her one Saturday before a rehearsal, anxious that her daughter, languishing in the second violins, was finding it hard to follow her beat. ‘Katie was upset last week because you told her she wasn’t always playing in time,’ the teacher was informed. ‘Would it be possible just to listen to what she’s playing and take the rhythm from her?’ Similarly, a string tutor from the French national youth orchestra, the Orchestre Français des Jeunes, tells that he was bemused to receive an angry phone call after a round of auditions from the mother of a cellist who didn’t make the grade. ‘Why did you give X a place in the orchestra but not my daughter, Y? Y normally plays much better than X. Ask anyone!’

Aggressive parents are another hazard of the job, as Christian Vachon, of Gatineau Conservatoire in Canada, discovered. ‘Some parents actually sent me threatening messages after their son was expelled from the conservatoire,’ Vachon recalls. ‘He was expelled because at his exam, he had played a three-octave scale of C major and had managed to end on B natural on the way down when he slurred it in twos. He then played it slurred in fours and landed on a B fl at. And this was after nine weeks!’

At the other end of the scale, so to speak, there’s the well-meaning parent – less intimidating for the teacher but deadly as far as the instrument is concerned. Those with no knowledge of the delicate workings of violins are oddly tempted to dabble in repair work. In the US, the problem is particularly prevalent with pupils involved in public-school programmes, as Minneapolis teacher Steve Dunlop explains. ‘Many parents I encounter in the programmes often haven’t a clue about the instruments their children are playing and are broadly unwilling to spend even a dollar on the instrument.’ He remembers an elementary school orchestra concert where a proud dad explained to the music teacher that the bridge had fallen over, so he had carefully glued it back in place, ready for the performance.

In another incident, parents attempted to place the blame on the teacher for damage to a violin. ‘The teacher tried to fix a fallen bridge for a student, only to have the bridge snap in two,’ says Dunlop. ‘The parents made a scene, blamed the teacher for the broken bridge, and tried to get the school to pay to have a new bridge fitted. I would guess that the bridge had cracked as result of whatever bump led it to fall and that the teacher did nothing wrong. Unsurprisingly, the orchestra teachers at that school stopped fixing minor problems with instruments for a while after that.’

Jan Dobbins, former head of music for north Somerset in the UK, remembers a pupil coming in looking very dejected, saying that her bow ‘wasn’t working’. ‘Did you try putting rosin on it?’ she asked the downcast child. ‘We-e-ell…’ came the reply, ‘we, er, we couldn’t find the rosin, so mum said that soap would be OK.’ On another occasion a young cellist lifted her instrument carefully from its canvas case to reveal a scene of devastation. ‘The fingerboard and strings were hanging loose and the cello had a huge crack along the length of its body. I asked how the damage had happened. “Mum shut the boot of the car on it!” the student explained apologetically.’

Practising is another area of contention. One Buckinghamshire teacher complains of a mother who refused to accept that her daughter should make time for practice. ‘She doesn’t have time,’ the mother insisted. ‘The week just flies by – she goes to afterschool club every day, and then what with Brownies, ballet lessons, gymnastics and horse riding, she can’t fit it in.’ Then there are those who seem to take only a passing responsibility for sending their child to lessons. ‘He never does any practice!’ they shrug, despairingly, or, in an apparent attempt to make violin lessons seem like a punishment: ‘I don’t know what she practises – I just send her to her room to do it.’

There are also the parents who just can’t resist an opportunity to tease. One young female teacher from Somerset remembers a pupil asking, apparently in all innocence, ‘My dad says to ask you if you’ve ever broken your G string.’ Then there are those who are just plain bonkers. Vachon says he had a half-hour phone call with a parent on the day of a class concert. ‘She explained that the student might not be able to play on account of problems with her lucky shirt.’

Despite these horror stories, every teacher I spoke to was at pains to emphasise that they on the whole have very good relationships with the parents of their pupils – that their support motivates their children to greater things, and in many cases teacher and parent become good friends. There will always be a small number who prove more difficult to work with – in which case, be flexible but firm, and hang on to your sense of humour. Above all, never forget that these parents are simply making attempts – albeit misguided ones – to do the absolute best for their children.

Top tips for dealing with parents

1. Communication is crucial to developing a good working relationship with parents — let them know exactly what you expect from their child, and from them too.

2. Use a practice diary that the student can take home and refer to — it’s also a really important tool for communication between you and the parent. You can chart the student’s progress in the lesson and set them tasks, so that it’s clear what they need to practise, and you can also encourage the parent to use it to comment on the child’s practice.

3. Encourage parental involvement as much as possible — ensure that they understand that their support is vital to their child’s achievements, particularly in the early years.

4. Always show the child and parents respect.

5. Always have the child’s best interests in mind when talking to parents, and make them understand that you care about their child.

6. Make your boundaries clear — let them know the best way of contacting you, but make sure they understand that you cannot spend hours each week discussing a child’s progress. Email can be an invaluable tool, as parents are more likely to pinpoint exactly what they need to know, and you can answer their queries quickly and concisely.

This article was first published in The Strad’s October 2010 issue. Subscribe to The Strad or download our digital edition as part of a 30-day free trial. To purchase single issues click here