The question of whether of not to involve parents when children learn a musical instrument is a contentious one. Many teachers prefer not to, perhaps because they themselves learned on a one-to-one basis. Personally, I actively encourage parents to get involved and to participate in lessons and practice sessions. I find it creates a positive learning environment, and improves performance. Yet strange as it might seem (to me, anyway), involving parents in education generally, and in instrumental learning in particular, is a relatively new idea. Clearly, it's a subject worthy of further investigation.
Parents almost always want to be involved in the life and work of their children in school, and numerous studies into general education have found that their involvement improves student achievement. A study published in 1997 by the Irish National Teachers' Organisation said that 'parental involvement in the education of their children cannot be viewed as an optional extra for professional teachers and effective schools', and in his excellent book Improving Parental Involvement Garry Hornby concludes that evidence that parental involvement improves student progress is beyond dispute.
A survey published in 1996 by Jane Davidson showed that musical achievement is linked to high levels of parental involvement, and that teachers' attitudes are vital. (The role of Parental Influences in the Development of Musical Performance, British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 14: 399-412.) Davidson and her colleagues found that parental involvement is a crucial factor in whether a child persists or gives up, and that almost all of the children selected for entry to a specialist music school had parents who took an active participatory role in their music lessons and daily practice.
Their study also showed that the highest-achieving children received the most support from their parents, up to the age of eleven. Thereafter, children are increasingly driven by an intrinsic motivation to practice regularly by themselves. Davidson goes so far as to suggest that high levels of musical achievement are likely to be unattainable without a positive emotional atmosphere and the support of parents. The most crucial determinant is not a parent's musical literacy, but the time commitment they are willing to make. Successful learning, after all, is a group effort involving parents, teachers and friends.
Teachers' attitudes to Parental Involvement
A child's motivation and enjoyment will be affected by many factors, including the pieces they play, how they perceive their ability and their relationship with their teachers and parents. Research by Gill Crozier found that children in all age groups welcomed and valued their parents' interest and support, which is fortunate as her research also suggested sixty-two per cent of eleven and twelve-year-olds, and fifty per cent of fourteen and fifteen-year-olds, usually receive help with their homework! (Parental Involvement: Who Wants It? International Studies in Sociology of Education, 9/2: 111-130.)
However, while most children might welcome parental support and benefit from it, some studies suggest that many teachers in general education are unwilling to utilize it (despite being aware of its importance). This needs to change, as their attitudes are critical to a child's development according to the 1967 Plowden Report: 'What matters most are the attitudes of teachers to parents and parents to teachers – whether there is genuine mutual respect, whether … teachers realise how dependent they are on parental support.' (Children and their Primary Schools, London: Central Advisory Council for Education.)
Teachers seem fairly equally divided in their views on parental involvement in lessons and practice sessions, with impassioned arguments both for and against. Despite the large body of evidence suggesting that parental involvement is highly beneficial, some teachers prefer to work one-to-one with minimal parental contact. Even when a parent wishes to be involved some will deliberately exclude them, and when this happens it's rare for any attempt to be made to show parents how to assist positively. That's wrong, I believe: it's a teacher's job to inspire parents, and show them how their help will make a difference.
How teachers promote parental involvement, assuming that they do, varies. This is something you can ask about when meeting a potential teacher for the first time. Some will discuss how a lesson has gone, and draw attention to positive achievements and issues that need to be addressed in the coming week. Others will, like me, invite parents to sit in on lessons with a view to helping with practice. Apparently, only one in ten of us give parents guidance on supervising their children's practice sessions! I always ask parents to encourage practice, and to act as an appreciative audience and help if asked.
Supporting your Child
Parental support varies from family to family, and can sometimes occur without a teacher realising. Where there is little communication between teacher and parent, each can have a different perception of a parent's role in practice sessions. Parental involvement in lessons varies between never attending, reading a book and not talking to the teacher at all, not attending but discussing each lesson with the teacher afterwards or listening to a lesson and then discussing it. Unfortunately, it's quite rare for parents to actively participate (even if that just means taking notes to help with practice afterwards).
Parents sometimes feel that teaching is a specialised subject from which they are somehow excluded, and many don't realise the improvement that even a relatively small amount of time and effort can bring about. They are conscious of their 'limitations' as educators, and feel they don't know what to do in order to give effective help and encouragement. Yet the vast majority of parents have almost unlimited reserves of the most important qualities: patience, enthusiasm, common sense and perseverance. These are far more important than instructional skills and teaching techniques.
In my experience a lot of parents want to do more than just encourage, they would actually like to make music with their child. Parents should never underestimate their ability to help, whether they play an instrument or not. They can encourage their children to use their time productively, set high standards, provide challenging opportunities and create the right environment for effective learning. I'm firmly convinced that children appreciate a helping hand, and frequently hear comments like "Mum helps me work out the notes" or "Dad helps me realise when something is wrong". This is great!
Studies suggest that the teachers who are most likely to encourage parental involvement between lessons are those who have received training, followed pedagogical courses and been teaching for some years. It seems that those who have not received training, or have less teaching experience, are more likely to discount or discourage parents. I firmly believe that one of the keys to unlocking a child's musical potential is showing parents how to help, in a positive and non-critical way. Parents must have confidence in their abilities, and teachers must have the confidence to learn the value of their input.