Every piano teacher has had it happen: a young child or teen comes to their piano lessons and tells us that she couldn't practice because she was "too busy." She then proceeds to list all the activities that kept her away from the piano: homework, sports, dance lessons, after-school projects, community service, etc. The teacher often gets frustrated and wonders why her parents scheduled so many things in the first place(!)

Before we can begin to address the situation, it helps to understand exactly what's going on and why it happens. (My own perspective has greatly shifted on this in recent years.)

When I first started teaching, I was (silently) very critical of parents who "over-scheduled" their kid's activities. I compared it to my own youth when I literally had "nothing to do" after school, on weekends, and during long summer vacations. At that time, I literally left my house on Saturday morning and spent the whole day wandering around my neighborhood with my friends. We organized our own sports games, played music together, and spent hours sitting around doing nothing. It was easy to find time to practice piano since I had few scheduled activities outside of school hours.

But times have changed. No longer can parents in most neighborhoods let their children run around unattended. As a result (and this is the important point), kids don't get to create their own activities anymore. They don't play "sandlot" baseball. They don't knock on each of their friend's doors until they find someone at home, and then spend all day swimming in their pool ( I remember that one from my own teenage years).

So if our child wants to play baseball, for example, we have to sign him up for little league. And if he's also interested in chess, we enroll him in a chess club which meets Thursday afternoons. Pretty soon it's sessions with a math tutor on Mondays, baseball practice on Tuesdays with a game on Saturday afternoon, swimming on Wednesdays and an after-school computer club that meets Thursdays just before the piano lesson.

So far so good; the activities are necessary in the sense that they are just more-organized versions of what kids have been doing all along. (And I do realize that we as kids did some of these too, such as playing in sports leagues.) Nowadays though, since most kids lack the freedom to create these activities for themselves, we as parents need to sign them up for organized versions of these same activities. This does mean, though, that we have to commit to a regular time each week.

This will indeed fill up a child's schedule, but the real challenge for piano teachers is uniquely modern.  In the "old" days, a little league baseball schedule, for example, would be set far in advance. Every parent would receive a copy of the schedule and it wouldn't change (except in the case of rain, which we all knew was a possibility.) But now with email, coaches have the ability to change the schedule at the last minute and simply send out a group email to inform everyone involved. And boy, do they take advantage of this! Many of my students don't even know their weekend sports schedule until Thursday or Friday. I remember one parent who received an email one hour before a game, informing her that both the time and location of the event had been changed. One hour!!! How is anybody supposed to plan ahead when this is happening? It's crazy!

We're not going to change modern society, but I've found that it helps to clearly understand what's going on. I think that each of us, as piano teachers, have to look at the context of our students' lives as a whole to deal with this most effectively. While I still don't love it when a student's ballet recital has suddenly moved to the same time as our piano lesson, I do understand why this happens. I also have more sympathy for those parents who fill their kids' schedules with activities every day. In many cases, they don't have much choice. (Please note that I didn't say in every case. Yes, there are some parents who simply push their kids too hard, but that's another discussion.)

Each of us has to find the best approach for us and our students. Do you feel they need to pare down their schedules and make clear priorities? Then handle it that way. Do you feel that they need to pursue a full range of activities? In that case, you'll be more flexible when dealing with your students' shifting schedules.

The more you understand why your students are "overbooked," the better equipped you'll be to respond in an effective way when conflicts arise. Then both student and teacher will be "on the same page" and you'll both benefit!

Do you want to learn some basic improvisation to incorporate into your lessons? My video course will get you comfortable improvising in a way that you can use with your own students.