My daughter made the travel basketball team! I have loved watching her play. It is mesmerizing and so fast-paced. As activities have started to conflict, however, I’m finding I am automatically canceling or deferring her other interests/lessons without remembering how the art/music/science professionals running those after-school activities view our choices. It can appear that maybe I am knowingly putting sports above arts or sciences. But setting aside my teacher hat and viewing things from a parent perspective, I can suddenly see why it’s so easy for studio parents to get caught up in the “cancel music for sports” mentality without even realizing they are doing it.
There is a productivity/psychology theory out there that if you give someone a deadline they will be more likely to commit and follow through. (It even works with relationships. Don’t say, “Can I talk to you?” Instead say, “Can I talk to you for 5 minutes?” and the listener will be more likely to listen intently and do what you ask.) An 8-9 week commitment for a sports season creates feelings of “this won’t take that long” and “we can’t miss anything because it isn’t very long,” especially when viewing it besides what may be a 48-week or several-years music lesson commitment.
In addition to sports seasons not feeling very long in comparison, seasons also create a feeling of finality—that if you don’t take this opportunity right now, it won’t come around for another year and that year can never be regained. Even if students progress to playing a sport year-round, the year is full of mini-groups of activities like a 7-week weights class or “fall ball” versus the main season. This makes it easy to see the sport as a group of shorter activities rather than one long one. And since life seems to get crazier and crazier, I find as a parent I am just trying to take one day or week at a time. This results in, whether I mean to or not, making decisions for the here and now without thinking long-term. The faster life seems to speed up, the more this can become the default mentality.
Holding auditions where a select few get on to a team makes it feel like it’s an elite opportunity that is hard to pass up that may never come around again. It also leads to immense feelings of “I never thought I’d make it! I can’t let them down now,” and “I’m better than I thought I was! This feels so good!” Not just teenagers feel this euphoria, though. Parents get caught up, too, as they have spent endless hours searching for new ways to help their children feel like they matter and that they are good enough. It is a soothing confirmation to the parent’s soul.
Couple the feelings just mentioned with the act of signing the impressively detailed sports team contract that outlines what each party is expected to do and will receive from the other parties: team members, parents, and the coach alike. Now it really feels like something special that not everyone gets the chance to do. Now you really don’t want to let your coach or your team down. And you hear stories that if you turn it down, that will be remembered when the next set of auditions comes around and you want to try again.
So what does this mean for music teachers?
I’m not trying to justify sports being chosen over the arts at all. I am acknowledging the reality of what parents are facing and seeing how we can address those concerns in the ways in which we present music lessons.
How can I continue to place the studio semester “season” at the forefront of my families’ minds?
Do I mark the beginning and ending of a semester in ways that are memorable? Do I remember to include in the opening- or closing-of-the-semester emails thoughts about how far we’ve come or what we are looking forward to as a group? Are my recitals creating a feeling of finality to the current season? Will it feel like students are missing out if they don’t participate in this season?
How can I create a feeling that belonging to my studio is an elite opportunity?
Even if I am not super selective in my turning away of students, even if I don’t want the studio purpose to be teaching only high-achieving or serious pianists, what other ways can I create an elite group of studio families? Am I creating enough space for my students to use their skills in a venue where it feels like it counts? Do my students feel when they perform that they are doing something truly amazing? Do my students and studio families know that they all matter?
How can I enhance my contract so that it truly makes being a part of my studio a privilege no one wants to miss?
Should I wait to show my contract until after a potential student is accepted so there is already a sense of belonging before committing? Do my students have a list of what I will do for them, and do I sign their contract in front of them showing them that I treat this relationship with care and will do all I can to help them succeed?
I urge all teachers who are frustrated with what seems to be a culture of sports being more important than the arts to look for what we can control. Place ourselves in those parents’ shoes and find new ways we can move forward instead of being crushed about another cancelation. Maybe these parents don’t realize the responsibility and finality of their music season? Or maybe we can find a way to work together to accommodate both somehow? Whatever we do, it’s not a simple solution.
I also commit to doing a better job of placing myself in the role of a middle school or high school coach. I bet they are thinking, “They want me to turn this group of students into a functioning team in only a matter of weeks?! Yikes. What other practices and games can I schedule to meet what I said I would do? Will their poor performance be reflected in my faculty assignment for next year? We’re running out of time!”
Suddenly, I see a lot of similar feelings in myself with students who have been placed in my care who think they can learn to play piano in just a few weeks. I wonder if I should create a partnership with a local coach or two and see what else I can learn about how they create a feeling of finality, belonging, and responsibility, all at the same time.