Mira Marchenko on the teacher-student-parents triangle
One of the best piano teachers of our time, Mira Marchenko (Moscow), whose students are prize-winners at the most prestigious international competitions – such as Long-Thibaud-Crespin Competition, Ferruccio Busoni International Piano Competition, The International Robert Schumann Competition, International Vladimir Krainev Young Pianists Competition and many more – shares her experience on the role of parents in the musical education in a conversation with the Zakhar Bron School of Music.

– Mira, could you begin by giving us your vision of the role of ideal parents in the teacher-student-parents triangle?

– Well, for starters, let’s get rid of the word “ideal”. Parents have to be sure that they want their child to be taught music. They have to understand that a child has musical abilities. They have to find him a teacher with whom their child will be comfortable studying, and who will be comfortable working with the child himself. What I mean is that this comfort should be mutual. There should be a trusting relationship between them. Next, parents have to provide their child with a foundation for studying music.

– And the foundation for studying music is…?

– It’s a schedule and an instrument.

– Let’s start with the instrument. What should it be?

– I think that an instrument has to be “alive”, to be acoustic. One doesn’t need to explain it to violinists because they play live (that is acoustic, not electronic) violins. In order to study music, one has to study sound. Music is the art form that relies on sound performance. And you can only find your sound, your colour, by using a live instrument. One has to be a master of sound, because only by being a master of sound can one be called a musician.

– Are you saying that even expensive electronic pianos are not suitable for learning music?

– An electronic instrument can be used for certain tasks. For example in the evening or at night, it is sometimes not possible to play a live instrument. However, since an electronic instrument has volume control, one can play it with headphones at any time without disturbing anyone. Besides, an electronic piano can be taken to a summer house or on a journey. At the same time, you have to understand that even an acoustic piano of the poorest quality is better than the most expensive electronic one. Working with a live instrument is vital, because that is how you learn to seek your own special sound.

– Ok, it’s clear about the instrument. Now, how can parents put in place an effective music learning schedule for their children?

– Children are different from adults: they are often restless and don’t have the same ability to remain concentrated on any given activity for an extended period of time. Therefore, a flexible and individual approach is very important, as the amount of time that different children of the same age can practice music will vary greatly. For some five-year-olds, thirty minutes is the limit, yet other children even at such a young age are already able to practice for hours.

– Well yes, for example, in her book “Pedagogical Etude”, Maxim Vengerovs’s mother stated that at the age of five Maxim played violin for six hours a day. And when we asked Maxim if this was really so, he said that in fact, at that age he practised for nine hours a day!

– Exactly! There can be no question of any norm here because everyone will have their own “norm”, especially when it comes to musically gifted children. Parents should ensure that their child develops and, at the same time, does not overwork during music lessons, which means working productively and efficiently. Right from the start, parents should teach their child discipline and responsibility.

– And how might that look in practice?

– In practice, parents, for example, may know that their child’s attention span lasts around twenty minutes, and after that he or she begins to be distracted and might start asking for a drink, or something to eat etc. What should parents do in this case? They should keep track of these intervals, make breaks, switch attention to something else, and then continue the studies. This ensures that their child doesn’t get tired and continues to learn effectively.

– Are there any other things parents should do?

– They should bring their children to their lessons on time. Take them to concerts, to theatres. If possible, buy sheet music to teach children sight-reading. If the parents are musicians, they can play the piano four hands, and eventually give the child the opportunity to play in an ensemble with other musicians (violinists, cellists, etc.). Where children are engaged in music, their family should strive to open the world of music to them in all possible ways.

– Are there any things parents shouldn’t do?

– Sure!

– Such as?

– Firstly, it’s important never to scold a child in case of failure. Always find something for which you can praise him or her. Try to figure out the reason for the failure. This is important because children should not be afraid of their mistakes and failures on stage. Parents should experience with them all levels of development: both positive and negative. Secondly, it’s particularly important not to interfere with the teaching process built by the teacher. That is the way to get great results.

– Interference with the teaching process? What do you mean?

– Often, parents express their wishes to the teacher about which pieces their child should play now, which ones later, and so on. At this point, they forget that there are many details in learning to play a musical instrument about which non-professionals have no idea. For example, the development of an “ear for music” at any given time, muscular readiness, physical readiness, stretching of the fingers, etc. A child may simply not be physically ready to play this or that composition at this particular stage of development. In fact without realising it, parents may set an impossible task for their child, through the teacher. This may end up with the child overplaying his hands, pinching his back, studying one piece for too long, and still not performing it successfully, which can lead to a loss of confidence.

– And the teacher would be the one to blame…

– Exactly! The teacher would be to blame! It would never occur to anyone, for example, to tell a dentist how to treat teeth. But it has become normal for many people today to interfere in music education. This is very sad. After all, to become a teacher, we study all our lives, and this becomes not just a profession, but a way of life. Therefore, the best thing parents can do is to let the teachers do their job.

– Right, but we don’t live in an ideal world, and cases where parents interfere in the teaching process are not uncommon – especially among musically gifted children. What happens in such situations?

– The worst can happen in such situations: a student’s trust in his or her teacher can be destroyed. Trust is the foundation. It must not be destroyed, because a house won’t stand without a foundation. When a child trusts his teacher, you can work with him; you can develop him and move him forward. When there is trust, musically gifted children can develop very quickly. And when this trust is undermined, it’s much more difficult to move forward. It’s like moving from a fast run to a walking pace. And sometimes the development can stop or – even worse – start moving backwards. This can happen when, after the intervention of parents (or someone else) in the work of the teacher, a child begins to play not better, but worse.

– So it turns out that instead of helping, parents can actually put a spoke in a teacher’s wheel with their advice on what to do next?

– Exactly, and in the child’s wheel as well. Through any form of interference – from “wishes” regarding the musical repertoire to participation in concerts and competitions – parents indirectly let their child understand that the teacher is not really good at his work, and that they – the parents – know better. And when parents (especially in the presence of a child) “correct” the process of music education, they thereby reduce the authority of the teacher in the eyes of the child and – in doing so – destroy the trust.
In a child’s life, parents are the most important people. He believes them unconditionally. And even if he loves his teacher, the child’s scales will always swing in the parents’ direction. Very often the teacher develops a program and a whole methodology for a particular student, and this trust is very important to him, because it takes a lot of time to build it and only a few moments to destroy. I would like to encourage parents – when they accompany their child to competitions, on a tour, to concerts, rehearsals, performances etc. – to share them with the teacher, to discuss the pros and cons together, not to lose touch, and thereby to maintain the proper parent-student-teacher relationship.

– And what if the parents are musicians?

– There are many examples of musicians entrusting their children to professional teachers, and this brings excellent results. Many musicians are afraid to teach their own children and, because of this, they entrust them to teachers. And yet there are parents who “know better” how to teach their children. And I would like to ask such people: why don’t you teach your children yourself in this case, instead of bringing them to someone else?

– What do you say to the parents who try to interfere with your teaching process?

– I say that instead of refusing to follow the teacher’s recommendations, first of all, one should try to understand that these recommendations are given for a reason. An intelligent teacher never says no: he suggests postponing and thinking about the expediency of working on this or that piece. He always feels what the child likes. However being responsible for the result, of course he has the right not to follow the wishes of the family, but to develop, teach, build up opportunities, accumulate a repertoire and acquaint the child with all trends in music. Then the preparation for any concerts and competitions would not be boring and monotonous.

– And if, for example, a child (or his parents) doesn’t like the repertoire that the teacher gives him?

– What do you mean “doesn’t like”?! In the process of learning a foreign language when you don’t like certain rules (for example, articles in German or tenses in French), you don’t stop learning the language or skip these rules, do you?! Of course not! You study them, cram them, spend more time on them than you’d like to. It’s the same with music. You have to understand that learning to play a musical instrument is not exactly a holiday. It’s a hard and painstaking work. Professional musicians start at a very early age – at the age of five to seven years old, and some start even earlier! This is how it works, and there are no exceptions. So all these “like – doesn’t like” conversations are just inappropriate. One can never succeed as a musician by playing not one’s own repertoire. Because at every age one should only play those compositions which can be understood and they should be performed at the very highest level – using all the acquired skills.

Parents who want to achieve results learn too – just like their children. They have to remember that their role is not about using the teacher’s talent to achieve their own goals. It’s about building trust, good contact and the joy of communication. This generates incredible results and will be remembered for the rest of their life.