A little prior thought and organisation can do much to avoid antagonism between parents and their child's music teacher, writes Laura Reed


I find it a little shocking, but I swear the mother of one of my students is jealous of her little girl ' wrote Connie Sunday, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, to the Suzuki Chat email list last March.'I get a very strong impression that the parents never want the girl to outshine them, and they show real signs of jealousy if I commend the child. They downplay any accomplishment their child makes with a smirk.'

Strange, irrational, unreasonable or rude behaviour from students' parents is a problem faced by string teachers across the world. Constance Barrett, a private studio and public-school teacher in the affluent Greenwich area, Connecticut, was accused of being racist when an African-American student was not given first chair in her orchestra. Barrett was again accused of racism when she did not allow a Korean student to go on a field trip because of previous misbehaviour.

George Thompson of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was the victim of a parent who would stop at nothing to have him fired from his job - including false accusations about public intoxication. Why the vendetta? Thompson had disciplined this parent's child for vandalising his classroom, after a long run of continually disruptive behaviour.

Dealing with problem parents can be a constant source of frustration but adopting a proactive approach to teaching can help to diffuse tensions before they arise. 'Most of the problems string teachers experience with parents would go away if teachers would spend some time thinking about what they want, how to implement it and what to do when it doesn't happen,' asserts long-time Suzuki teacher Jeanne Luedke. 'Teachers need to decide what they expect from their students' parents in all aspects of their programme and communicate this information orally as well as in writing.' Luedke is a consultant and workshop clinician who helps teachers to deal with students' parents; her printed materials are available at parent-child-education.com.

'One family became irate because they said they were only receiving 28 minutes of instruction each week when they had paid for 30 minutes,' recalls Eva Bogren, an experienced violin teacher at the Smyrna Music School in Gothenburg and president of the Swedish branch of the European String Teachers' Association. 'I learnt that I wasn't as clear as I should have been about what is included in the lesson time.'

Misunderstandings can be avoided if your printed studio policies very specifically address billing, scheduling make-up lessons, home practice expectations and recital-class participation. But as Edmund Sprunger, a Suzuki violin and public school teacher in St Louis, Missouri, points out, you must be consistent in enforcing these policies. 'Studio policies are really for the teacher,' he says. 'They help us clarify for ourselves what we will and will not accept.'

'Early in my career I was quite flexible about certain issues and I found that the parents took advantage of me,' Bogren recalls. 'I find that the more rules that I have and the more strict I am with these rules, the more parents are willing to adhere to them.'

Communicating policies and expectations to students' parents can take a lot of time, but the investment pays off in the end. Susan Kempter, author of 'Between Parent and Teacher: A Teacher's Guide to Parent Education' requires potential violin students' parents to attend a 15-week parent-education programme. 'Educating parents is crucial, especially at this time when education seems to be equated with short bursts of learning followed by testing, then on to the next subject or unit, she says.

'In a society that stresses measurable achievement and competition,' Kempter continues, 'it is very difficult for some parents not to want their child to be the best in the class or to learn the notes in a new piece each week and then move on. Parents and teachers with product-driven expectations are setting themselves and their students up for failure. Teachers need to help parents realign their priorities from quantity to quality.'

'My most common problem has been parents who need to have their child be the best,' agrees Gail Tayloq, a studio teacher and youth orchestra conductor in Dilory Colorado, who recounts the familiar story of parents pressuring for their son to sit as concertmaster, only to have him miss the youth orchestra concert due to a 'prior commitment'. When Taylor moved him to the back of the section until a meeting could be arranged, the parents withdrew their son and called her all sorts of names; but they never made an appointment to discuss the situation. While disappointed that the student was no longer in the orchestra, Taylor thinks he may have been better off in the long run. 'You have to have your boundaries set very clearly and document everything and not give in. We can't make things work for us and also have them work for everyone else,' she advises.

Barrett has noticed a common thread among parents who push their children to be super-achievers.'Often both parents are working in executive-level positions and are not at home very much. I've decided that the level of parents' unreasonable response is directly proportional to how guilty they feel for not being around their child as much as they believe they should be. They somehow believe that they are acting as their child's advocate by going in defensively and fighting, rather than addressing the teacher as a partner in the child's development. If I can address the parents' guilt, make sure they know that I believe that they are not terrible parents and reassure them that I am on their child's side, we can generally come up with solutions.'

'When I talk to parents about problems, I try to begin by letting them know that I really care for the student and am asking for their help in coming up with a solution,' Bogren concurs.'I also try to be open to compromises.' Through experience, Barrett and Bogren have learnt the art of win-win communication and negotiation. 'These skills need to be included in our education,' Bogren laments, pointing out a fundamental paradox of string teaching. That is, to avoid as many problems as possible and to resolve conflicts positively when they do arise, string teachers need to be skilled in strategic planning, finance and accounting, public relations, contract negotiation and conflict resolution. Yet none of these classes is offered in a typical music-school environment.

'We go to music school because we like music; if we liked business, we would have gone to business school,' Sprunger says. 'However, if we want to play and teach music, we have to learn business skills. Studio teachers often don't realise they are running a business and when they come to understand that, they're embarrassed. String teachers need to realise that we run an honorable business, and we can either run it well and respect it or run it poorly and disrespect it.'

In his book 'Creativity', Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi examines the complex paradoxes that make up a creative artist - the same paradoxes that make the business aspects of teaching difficult for string players. Musicians, for instance, spend a lot of time alone in practice rooms and often do not have a great deal of experience of dealing with the public. Music is the main mode of communication, meaning that they are not necessarily adept at the assertive communication so important to business professionals. Czikszentmihalyi also finds that creative individuals tend to be remarkably humble but also proud at the same time. Consider how a strong ego might seriously impede conflict resolution.

'Spending time on the business aspects of teaching presented a major dilemma for me, because it took time away from what I was there to do - teach the violin,' Sprunger admits. 'What helped me reconcile this problem was when I began to understand that the time invested in the business end of things really helps to facilitate teaching and learning. Your bottom line needs to be just that - at the bottom. But you cannot neglect it or you will not be able to do what you have set