Teaching music to your own child: hints and tips, surviving and thriving

It was the evening of Monday, April 13th, 2020, and I had just begun to teach my youngest daughter her weekly piano lesson. She was the only student I was teaching in person because we were (are) self-isolating during the coronavirus pandemic and I was teaching all of my other students on zoom. To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to the lesson. I was feeling uninspired and tired of stressing over music with my kids. Before we had even settled in, my husband brought my laptop in and said, “You need to read this.”

It was a web message from Chee-Hwa Tan. The timing couldn’t have been better. It was a personal note about the struggles of teaching her youngest daughter. She was contacting me because her daughter had happened upon one of my books and had begun to play the piano again. Her message really touched me and I felt a kinship with her struggle. Sitting in my studio at the beginning of the lesson with my daughter, I took a deep breath and tried to relax a little, knowing I wasn’t alone.

After emails back-and-forth, Chee-Hwa and I have found that we have much in common as piano teachers and parents. Just interacting with someone who understands seemed to uplift and recharge us both. We hope our thoughts on teaching your own child will resonate with you and perhaps assuage any lingering misgivings (or guilt!) you may have.

Interspersed in this post are also quotations from other teachers who have shared their nuggets of wisdom.

What are some of the challenges of being a parent who is a musician?

Rebekah: For me, being a musician is an all-consuming passion, and it came before parenthood. I find music so distracting, so compelling, that it is difficult to balance the cerebral realm with the practical reality of taking care of dependents. Sometimes I sing to my husband, “I don’t wanna work, I just wanna bang on de drum all day!” That being said, I’ve devoted much of my life to my kids and for many years scaled back my professional life in order to be present in the home.

Another challenge is recognizing musical talent in my children and going just a little crazy inside feeling they could be doing more with it. All along I’ve known that piano teachers’ kids can end up with “preacher’s kid syndrome” – rebelling and turning away from the pressure to be good. I’ve never wanted that. I wanted music in my home but also wanted my children to find it on their own terms. I’ve had varying success with allowing that to happen.

Chee-Hwa: Boy, I can totally relate, Rebekah! It takes courage to be a music parent of any kind. But, when you are a musician and also a parent, it’s a lot of pressure. It’s not the same as helping them with their school work because your identity and life training are quite separate from school. As a musician, I can hear how everything is “supposed” to sound. And somehow, when it is my own child, and not someone else’s, it is hard to disengage and not overwhelm them with suggestions, corrections or help. I would not do that with a regular student.

Frankly, with my first child especially (poor thing!), I could become the proverbial “parent from hell.” It is so challenging to allow them to learn by trial and error. I had to keep telling myself, “It’s OK for them to do things wrong. Would I like to live with my piano teacher day and night?” It was also hard to not confuse a “lesson” with a “practice” session in my pacing.

“My husband was always the one who sent them down to my studio for their lesson…and then he was the one who ensured practicing. That way I could just be the teacher. But there were still times I had to take deep breaths and remind myself that I am the teacher right now and not mom!” ~ Michelle Miller, Edmonton, AB

How did you decide to teach your own children piano?

Chee-Hwa: I think I fully expected to farm out my children for lessons, having heard the horror stories about teaching one’s own children. However, when my first child was ready for piano, I realized how much I believed in a fun, experiential approach to foundational musical concepts — I so wanted my own children to receive the benefits of what I had been teaching others. In addition, I had just had my fourth baby and I could not figure out how to drive across town for lessons with four littles in tow.

I suddenly had immense respect and appreciation for all the parents of multiples whose children that I had taught over the years. I don’t know which scared me more – the thought of teaching my own children, or, driving for multiple piano and string lessons! So, I guess I decided to teach my own because there wasn’t someone else easily accessible that could do it the way I wanted, and also, for logistical reasons. I had to decide which was more important for my sanity.

Rebekah: My children all started as preschoolers with a Kindermusik teacher and that was an amazing start. Then my oldest studied with a piano pedagogy student who was teaching in the university group/private program that I was leading at the time. I taught the group lessons and the students taught the corresponding private program. I rather liked being the parent and one degree removed. But after that I taught my children in my home studio.

Like Chee-Hwa, I had a baby when my daughter was ready for lessons and then lost my mother, so life got a little complicated. We simplified by doing what we could for our children ourselves. I have a very imaginative way of teaching beginners and wanted my own children to learn music in a multifaceted, creative way. It seemed only natural to teach them myself.

Chee-Hwa Tan’s family photos from days of teaching piano to her children.

What are some of the practical challenges of teaching one’s own children?

Chee-Hwa: Well…. for me, the first challenge was that I had to pretend that my child was NOT my child and that I was NOT their mom during the lesson time! It did not work to bring any issues from our “real” lives into the lesson with us. Pretty much I had to pretend to be someone else… Especially, when a child would sass or argue with me (of course that never happened – Ha!).  Another challenge was to treat the weekly lesson as an immovable schedule like any other student. My tendency was to reschedule it based on all the other things going on in the family, whereas I would never miss a regular “paid” student’s lesson.

Rebekah: I can echo everything Chee-Hwa says! Another practical consideration is the fact that my children needed a place to practice while I was teaching in my studio. For more than ten years we had a second piano in our living room for practicing.

Also, you are involved in every aspect of their life. It’s very difficult to separate music from the rest of your relationship. When asking your child to practice, try to keep it as a distinct and separate activity. Don’t say, “You need to water the plants, clean out the dishwasher and practice the piano.” You don’t want it to sound like practicing the piano is a chore.

“It works better if they have their own instrument in their room for practice, and if they are sandwiched between your other students so their time slot is set.” ~ Lisa Pattison, Halifax, NS

Funniest moments from this experience?

Chee-Hwa: Here’s one that comes to mind and sadly shows my “control freak” tendencies –  when we discovered the piano studio could be heard in my bathroom via the air conditioning vents. On getting out of the shower and hearing the same wrong rhythm being played repeatedly, I found myself insanely lying on the bathroom floor, yelling down the floor vent: “Stop! You need to count!!” There was a long silence, then a puzzled “Mum??” 

Rebekah: LOL!! That made me laugh out loud! I’ve been hustling my family for a similar story without luck. I think we’re all so traumatized by the experience of lessons together that we’ve completely blocked the memories! But I’ll tell two.

The first is a story of a tin of Pokémon cards on top of our piano. My son could earn one card each day he practiced. We think my husband set this up. My son wanted to earn that card so bad! Never before had anyone in our family woken up so early in the morning for anything, let alone to practice the piano!

The other story: One day my daughter asked to play with a friend up the street. I answered yes but said that she could practice the piano first, thinking the incentive would get her to practice more efficiently than she usually did. It had the complete opposite effect. She just sat silent and resentful on the bench for the entire afternoon not practicing and finally not getting to go to her friend’s, with me jazzed up like a bee out of a kicked hive just about losing my business. 

Rebekah Maxner’s family photos from days of teaching piano to her children.

Any helpful tips for others?

Rebekah: My biggest tip has to do with scheduling! It is a temptation to teach your child outside of your regular schedule. After all, you’re both under the same roof and could hypothetically meet at any time of the week. You could reason that teaching your own child outside of your schedule would make space for one more paying customer. Don’t do it.

It’s best if you can trick yourself (like Chee-Hwa said above) into treating your own child just like your other students. Especially effective is to schedule them between two other students. Not only will you already be in your professional frame of mind, this will give the lesson definite parameters and require you to be as efficient with your time as you are with other students. You will avoid the run-on lesson in which you require more of your own child than you do other children the same age.

Another approach that other teachers have reported is piano “unlessons” with their kid. They simply give their child music to work on and wait for the child to initiate help when they need it.

Chee-Hwa: I totally ditto Rebekah’s suggestions about how you schedule. It helped me to teach mine in a mini group lesson with 1-2 other peers their age. It would really force me to treat them just like any other student and it created that emotional separation. I found it easier to be fun. In addition, my husband ended up writing me a tuition check for each child when he noticed that I was missing private lessons! I know it sounds crazy, but for me, it helped me think of teaching my child as a “job.”

I do want to add a tip about practice. I think that as a pianist, I discovered that it was healthiest that I either had the role of piano teacher, OR, practice supervisor. Just not both at the same time. I finally assigned my husband to supervise child #3, which he did from behind the newspaper! I think it’s the reason my son still enjoys playing today. While it seems counterintuitive, I learned to “tune out” when my children were practicing, for their sakes as well as mine. The byproduct of this was interesting – they actually will ask me to listen to them because they know that I truly am not paying attention (well – most of the time!).

“I taught two of my kids, who are 5 years apart in age. Too late in the process I realized that they were my MOST IMPORTANT students, and should get my PRIME TIME lesson spot. So I chose a time that was optimal for energy levels in all of us, and things went better.” ~ Heather Macnab

How do you balance your family life and professional life?

Chee-Hwa: I’m still figuring this out and there are many things that I wish that I had learned to do differently with my time management. I think a lot of times, I put myself, and my own needs as a musician, last. If I had a do over, I would probably be more strategic to protect that part. However, it has helped me to identify what are the most important “big rocks” in my “jar” of life – to hold that up as a reminder before the “pebbles” edge out what is most precious.

My biggest “rock” is family relationships. The season as a mother raising children has an expiration date, while my season as a musician has a longer shelf life. I decided that my relationship with each child was more important than them being able to play well, or do things the way I wanted. I figured that they’d still survive if they had “gaps” in their education, but that they couldn’t thrive if they didn’t know how to live. This came to the forefront with a health scare with my eldest child when she was ten. That was when I realized that, despite many failures, I had no regrets about my big priorities. Don’t sweat the small stuff. I’m still learning though!

Rebekah: Sometimes as a musician and a mom I feel that my work is never done. I likely have “too many irons in the fire” (something my Dad used to say about a blacksmith who had more projects than could be worked). Even when I’ve worked all day, when evening comes there still seems to be more I should be doing, something else I need to practice or compose or write (or bake). I’m not sure how successful I am at balancing my family and work life.

I almost envy my husband and his 8:30-4:30 job because he has a clear and defined workday and when he’s done, he simply changes gears for the evening. It isn’t that simple for me. I’m still not sure when I can call it a day and feel guilt-free about relaxing. For me at this stage of parenthood, “family life” is making supper or muffins or tidying up.

Lately with our voluntary self-isolation we’ve been having family movie nights with a revolving “pick.” I’ve truly enjoyed kicking back with the family. I agree with Chee-Hwa that there is an expiration date for these precious years. Perhaps knowing this, I’ve been working overtime trying to maintain a balance between my professional life and family life but somewhere between, I myself have taken a back seat. At this moment I’m feeling ready for a shift. Maybe it’s time to reset the balance. 

Chee-Hwa’s and Rebekah’s children.

Would you do it again?

Rebekah: I would! There’s some space between my oldest two children and my youngest, and it’s almost like I’m already getting a re-do from what I learned the first time around. My youngest is 11 and I’m just letting the tween years happen. Kids at this age are pickier about the music they want to play. I’m simply letting her choose. If she practices in a hap-hazard way, I turn a deaf ear. I get out of the house if at all possible when she practices so there’s no temptation to comment. Instead of being the parent who prompts practice, I quietly prompt her father and get him to mention it. Or, I enlist her older siblings to give an encouraging word. Lately sometime after her lesson, I’ve made a point to give her a hug and say simply, “That was a really good lesson!” …And leave it at that. No other comments.

If I were to begin again with my older two, I’d take the wisdom I’ve learned and do it all very differently. Chee-Hwa has said there’s nothing more important than the relationship with the child, and I firmly believe that, partly because I learned it the hard way the first time around. The simple joy of music is important, but the child is the most important of all.

Chee-Hwa: Ahh… being a parent is the most humbling experience! My husband and I always tell my eldest, with abject apologies, that she was our “test child” and that we will pay for her therapy! I taught my eldest till she was in junior high, then farmed her out because schedules got too crazy. It was ironic because I had finally learned to relax and we were enjoying each other. My second wouldn’t quit, even though cello was her first passion, so I got the joy of preparing her to pass out of college piano proficiency.

My son transferred to a different teacher at the intermediate level because it was time, then eventually stopped. He has however asked to take lessons with me again as he is interested in recording production. Where I wish I had persevered was with my youngest. I ran out of steam and fell off the early morning lesson bandwagon. Also, I did not have the energy to create a group lesson for her. However, I recently found her sight reading Rebekah’s Old Macdonald had the Blues that I left out as an enticement. Thank you, Rebekah! So, yes, I would do it again, but I would try to do and expect less of myself. What makes it so worth it is that they still enjoy making music.

Do you teach music to your own child?

Do you have any thoughts or nuggets of wisdom to add to this conversation? If you do, feel free to leave your comment below!

Chee-Hwa Tan coordinates and teaches undergraduate and graduate Piano Pedagogy at the University of Denver Lamont School of Music. She created the Lamont Piano Preparatory program that serves as the supervised teaching lab for the M.M. in Piano Pedagogy degree. Chee-Hwa music is published with Piano Safari, RCM and LCM.

Rebekah Maxner is a composer whose piano solos are listed and published in RCM, LCM, CNCM and her ensemble music is listed in the National Federation of Music Clubs bulletin. She is a member of Red Leaf Pianoworks. Rebekah maintains an independent piano studio in Hantsport, Nova Scotia, and her Piano at Play blog has an international following.

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I appreciate shares, comments and likes. Happy teaching! ❤

Video of the week

Mary had a Little Jam (Elementary, Level 1), a cheerful piano solo with a swing! From the print and eBook Old MacDonald had the Blues, Late Elementary to Early Intermediate, 12 Familiar Tunes Arranged in Today’s Popular Styles. Check out the Mary had a Little Jam eSheet, here!

An audio clip of Mary had a Little Jam.

2 thoughts on “Teaching music to your own child: hints and tips, surviving and thriving

Add yours

  1. I love teaching our three kids. As beginners I had them in small group classes for that weekly consistency. In addition to that giving them an exact timeslot on the schedule, it also gave them a good recreational experience; like most kids of music teachers they naturally have excellent audiation skills so I would otherwise probably have pushed them much harder as beginners working one-on-one. My husband and I are both musicians so we are extra careful to help one another not push because we’ve heard how likely that is to backfire!

    As intermediates sometimes they still pair up with a buddy and sometimes go solo with the kid and not me in charge of pacing. At that point I deviate from the advice offered in the article (offering here to add an alternative, not to negate what clearly worked well for the authors); I find it works better *not* to have them on the schedule. Their skills don’t seem to atrophy as much as most students’ do during low practice weeks or longer breaks, probably because they’re always music making in some capacity every day even when they aren’t practicing their assigned pieces! For my kids, singing songs or sitting down to noodle at the piano is like sitting down to draw or build Lego. I’ve mostly learned when to occasionally nudge (usually when a concert is looming, or as a response to them asking when they’ll be ready move on to another assigned piece or book or play something they hear another student playing) without being too demanding.

    We homeschool using a Montessori influenced version of unschooling, so music feels like just one more thing we explore together in a given day.

    I let small mistakes slide sometimes but I do try to catch the bigger or more important ones even if that means yelling from other parts of the house because honestly I so wish my other students would have their bad habits nipped in the bud like that! They know I’m not always listening, though, and that big mistakes are more likely to catch my attention when I’m doing other things than minor ones. If they want to have me listen “with both ears” they have to request it!

    There are times where it really helps everyone for my husband to be the “practice parent,” like while preparing for our Zoom concert a week ago. I was frantically pulling everything together so he was in charge of recording our three kids’ performance videos.

    My kids are 4, 8, and 10 so my experience is potentially only relevant for kids and preteens. 😂 It is definitely possible as teens they will need a teacher who is not their parent. However, as I see my eldest mastering late intermediate level material with gorgeously expressive phrasing, where I can drop a tiny hint and have her immediately incorporate it, I’m in no rush to hand that joy over to anyone else.


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