There is an attitude among many teachers that they should only teach students that have a natural aptitude and diligently practice. I hear parents say, “Well, maybe music isn’t their thing” after they’ve had an unsuccessful experience with music lessons. Having taught piano lessons several decades, I disagree with this premise. If the majority of students are not successful at learning and quit within months maybe the problem is not with the students but in how the subject is being taught. I’m going to say something radical here: Everyone can learn to play an instrument. There are a lot of benefits to learning and having music being part of your life. Music is universally powerful which is why almost everyone feels a connection to it. Not every kid is cut out to be a rocket scientist but we don’t just let them abandon math and say maybe it’s not their ‘thing’. It’s still worth learning for the benefits and skills it brings to their life even if they won’t make a career out of it. This is also true of music. I think not only a change in how music is taught is called for but also a change in attitude.
What attitudes do we need to change about teaching music?
- It’s okay that most people quit music lessons in the first year. This shouldn’t just be accepted as the way things are. If as a whole, teachers are failing to the get MOST students past the first crucial hump of learning, then some reflection needs to happen on what could be done better. We should be focusing on getting more successes and not only giving attention to ‘good students’ and letting the rest weed themselves out. This makes me sad when I think of how many students could have learned but quit thinking maybe they weren’t cut out for it. It shouldn’t be all on the student. Teachers are paid experts in the room that should be figuring out how to get learning to happen and how to help ease students past obstacles that can be common points where students give up and quit.
- Students quit lessons because they weren’t willing to work hard enough, didn’t want it bad enough or didn’t have musical ability. Most people are capable of being musical, learning and enjoying playing an instrument. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Lessons need to inspire students so they want to be there. Information and material need to be taught in a way that allows students to be successful in learning and able to play music that is satisfying to them. Unlike many other things, music has the reward of instant gratification built into it. You work on a passage of music which leads to being able to play the whole piece at the end. It also important to work on building skills that allow students the independence to learn and play new music. Once some basic skills have been learned it should be easier and more enjoyable to learn new things but if students don’t get past the first level they won’t discover this.
- Students would learn if they would just do what their teacher told them to do. Learning is so much more successful and profound when the student is on board with WHY they should do something. Teachers need to be salespeople for ideas. Students don’t always understand what teachers are asking them to do or aren’t sold on why it’s important. Teachers need to be prepared to explain things a lot of different ways and sell students on why those things will help the student do what THEY want with music. Even if a student wants to take something on faith, it’s hard to get motivated to do something if you can’t see it’s purpose.
- Students can’t learn or progress if they don’t practice.Most people are not highly disciplined or self-motivated. Especially young kids who don’t do anything on their own yet. It’s not logical to expect that suddenly they be “responsible” about this one thing. You can certainly hope to inspire practice by getting students excited about playing music they love or giving them advice on practicing, but nagging is not effective except in getting students to quit. It’s true that practice is going to make progress happen faster but lack of practicing shouldn’t make progress non-existent. It does, however, mean that how things are done in the lesson need to change. If the whole lesson plan relies on the student practicing on their own time and they’re not practicing, the plan is designed for failure. Teachers should focus on taking a few notes, concepts or chords and doing lots of activities and songs that use them. Build skills that can be used to do new things while giving plenty of fresh things to do so that it doesn’t get boring or feel discouraging. Focus on building a solid foundation that can be added to over time. Often times as things get easier, students start going to the instrument more on their own.
- Every student wants to be a concert pianist or performer. Students come to lessons for many reasons. Learning plans need to be tailored to what the student wants to get out of it, even if they don’t know at first. Sometimes, it’s a process of exploring until they discover what really excites them. The student may want to play and sing pop songs, play classical music, play jazz, learn to improvise or write music. They may or may not want to perform in front of others. Each of these goals and motivations have different skills and priorities needed.
- Anyone can teach. Teaching is a talent just as much as playing an instrument is. Teachers need to not only have something to teach but have the gift to teach it. Just like learning an instrument, teaching needs to practiced with the goal of constantly improving. It isn’t enough to want to teach, it takes the ability to communicate, break things down, explain things in many different ways, inspire, organize information, earn trust, relate to students, problem solve and lead by example.