When bad news arrives by E-mail that a student is dropping piano

There’s a hot discussion brewing on a Facebook forum about how piano teachers should handle e-mailed lesson terminations. Some in our profession take the position that it’s no big deal. After all, anyone should be able to quit at any time with the tap of a mouse. Many insist that it doesn’t even matter if a text message arrives with somber news. (Notice of firing)

I say “sign of the times” as my response, with an attached example that resonates with the Millennium’s murky mode of communication.

But first, the back story:

When I was teaching in Fresno, well before my relocation to Berkeley, two of my teen students who’d signed up amidst tennis and other extra-curriculars made a case for studying piano. Mary, one of their classmates, had made an indelible impression with a church performance of Schubert’s Eb Impromptu.

Mary’s mom, as it happened, was best friends with the parent who initially contacted me about piano lessons.

Since word of mouth followed a straight and narrow path to my studio, I was fortunate to have received an All in the Family referral.

***

The consultation or entrance interview was blessed by the presence of one parent (a rare thing these days) though 5 mega-cell phone interruptions marred continuity of thought, discourse, and playing. (Red flag!)

Still, each teen marched on, providing a snatch of this and that: “Three Blind Mice” for one, and “Hot Cross Buns” for the other–a painfully unrecognizable rendering by each.

Yet, both students were prepared to start on the right foot, having a triad of support in place that put practicing at the center of learning. (I had adjusted my teaching plan to include classical, popular, jazz, and show tunes as well as a scale and arpeggio regimen around the Circle of Fifths.)

Bill, 15, (track and field, tennis, soccer, swimming) pushed the envelope, begging to study “Liz On Top of the World” from Pride and Prejudice. Though the piece was a bit beyond his playing level, his avid enthusiasm to learn it in baby steps, brought him to a place we both hadn’t anticipated. (Beside Liz he was studiously learning classical selections from the Celebration Series –Toronto Conservatory)

Julie, 14, (tennis, tennis and more tennis) hummed along playing early Baroque minuets, Classical sonatinas, and graduated to Fur Elise after two years of study. Occasionally she would bring Taylor swift scores that, like spaghetti, unraveled from the rack to the floor.

She especially doted on “100 years,” “Let it Be,” and “Forever and Always.”

The musical journey, however, was not as rosy as it sounded. Sports schedules had invaded lessons causing absences and disruptions. Lesson-day and time switching, were running rampant with inadequate notice, yet I managed to adapt as best I could.

Such is the life of a piano teacher. (sadly)

Even with these twists and turns, both youngsters had accomplished a lot, and were prepared to take lessons until each left for college. (That was the understanding from the outset)

Having this plan of study at the core of a collective commitment to learning and growing, I was surprised one day to receive the following email from mom. (I assumed)

It was smack in the middle of year, January to be precise, following the holiday break.

Dear S, “I am sorry but we have decided to discontinue J’s piano lessons at this time. She will be focusing on other activities before heading off to college in two years.”

The older sib had already left the area, without informing me. J, his sister had casually mentioned his disappearance during one of her lessons. Come to think of it, I had an unexplained hole in my schedule.

If this was mystery enough, what followed by second email was even more puzzling! (It was a response to my registered surprise about the termination)
________________________________________
From: the Mother
To: Shirley Kirsten
Sent: Tuesday, January 3, 2012 1:59 PM
Subject: Re: J.
“Thank you for your email! I was NOT on board with the lessons stopping. This has been a source of serious contention. This is not something I feel is beneficial to J. in any way. It is with true regret that she stops– I think it is wrong. Thus, the email I was unaware even was sent. Men in general are poor communicators for this I am sorry.

You have been an outstanding teacher and I have enjoyed you teaching the kids. (Did she say kids? One was M.I.A.)

Mom continued:

“I just don’t know what to do. :(

“I just don’t use my email often. I am usually on twitter for communication.

Respectfully, M

(My response flowed in the midst of shock that Mom had no knowledge of dad’s e-mailing from her account?)

“Thanks for your note.. When parents are not in synch about these matters, I just assume not be part of any contention. Because I’m not a mind-reader, and just a hard-working, dedicated piano teacher for 35 plus years, I can only assume when an email has someone’s name on it, that it is coming from that individual so I respond directly to that person. I don’t share my email account with anyone else.

“Sadly, this decision was made and I wish J. only the best.

“She was a joy to work with and made significant progress over the long term. I also tried to accommodate her interest in popular music as we went along….

“Good wishes are sent for the New Year.”

SK

Footnote to my above reply:

P.S. “While I enjoyed teaching your children, we piano teachers being mostly part of a silent but giving community of hard-working professionals require a bit more respect. Would your husband receive two days notice of discontinuing his employment?”

****

When all was said and done, I posted these communications at the FB Piano Teachers Forum in reply to a colleague who asked:

How do you respond to an email informing you a student will not be continuing lessons this year?

My position remains. An e-mailed discharge is plainly disrespectful and a “sign of the times.”

Perhaps TWEETING would have been the BEST mode of transmission. It says a lot more, in a restricted number of words!

RELATED LINKS:
http://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/06/30/piano-lessons-and-dropout-rates-how-the-initital-interview-is-better-than-a-crystal-ball/

http://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/03/09/pulls-and-tugs-two-sides-to-the-studentteacher-piano-lesson-relationship/

http://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/08/02/piano-lessons-the-parentteacher-relationship-and-striking-the-right-balance-worth-a-few-chuckles/

About arioso7: Shirley Kirsten

International piano teacher by Skype, recording artist, composer, piano finder, freelance writer, film maker, story teller: Grad of the NYC HS of Performing Arts, Oberlin Conservatory, NYU (Master of Arts) Studies with Lillian Freundlich and Ena Bronstein; Master classes with Murray Perahia and Oxana Yablonskaya. Studios in BERKELEY and EL CERRITO, California; Member, Music Teachers Assoc. of California, MTAC; Distance learning and Skyped instruction with supplementary videos: SKYPE ID, shirleypiano1 Contact me at: shirley_kirsten@yahoo.com OR http://www.youtube.com/arioso7 or at FACEBOOK: Shirley Smith Kirsten, http://facebook.com /shirley.kirsten TWITTER: http://twitter.com/arioso7 Private fund-raising for non-profits as pianist--Public Speaking re: piano teaching and creative approaches
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6 Responses to When bad news arrives by E-mail that a student is dropping piano

  1. Gina B. says:

    If the landlord, the phone company, and other service providers require a 30-day notice (and bill you for it), why can’t a piano teacher? Have the parents sign a contract. You have a right to compensation while you try to fill the spot.

    • Another reason why I restrict my teaching practice to adult students.. though I have 2 young ones that I began teaching 5 years ago.. Easier to navigate the adult piano student
      universe, where sports activities, school related obligations are non-existent–and in my experience, adults have self-motivation to learn, and value the musical journey.

    • This is crass of me to say, but I’ve also sensed over decades of teaching that when high school students drift into lessons, it’s to have something else to put on the college applications.. sad but true in many instances.

  2. Right on! Gina–In fact, I left out the whole ensuing correspondence that addressed that issue.. I herewith add: “Thanks for your note, and yes, I enjoyed teaching your children. But we, piano teachers being mostly part of a silent but giving community of hard-working professionals require a bit more respect. Would your husband receive two days notice of discontinuing his employment..”

    Perhaps I should insert..

  3. You could console yourself with the thought that, much later in their lives, some of these students may remember the episode and keely feel the need to make amends. I once abruptly left a singing teacher like this (I was just too immature to know how to end the relationship in a civilised manner) and I have frequently offered mental apologies to her for it since. Not that I can ever find her again to apologise for real….

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