Learning to play a musical instrument is hard. However, my experience as a middle school orchestra teacher led me to discover that most adolescent musicians believe that learning to play an instrument is easy. Many students thought they would become the next Lindsey Stirling, 2Cellos, or Piano Guys within the initial months of instruction.
What adolescent musicians do not understand is the large amount of practice hours those successful musicians put in over time. My students’ lack of understanding led me to begin each year with a conversation between myself, my students, and their parents. The topic was “Learning to play a musical instrument is difficult, but the musical and personal benefits are worth it if you are determined and put in the necessary work.”
Today’s adolescents live in a world of instant gratification and do not appreciate the amount of effort required for success. As a result, middle school-aged musicians commonly express frustration and the desire to quit when the “newness” of learning an instrument wears off, when learning advanced techniques are required to progress, or when real effort is required to thrive in a music ensemble. Common excuses to quit include a lack of personal success on the instrument, becoming bored with the music, falling behind their peers, a lack of family support, and the daily social drama that occurs in most students’ lives.
Regardless of the reason, I used to find any student’s desire to quit disheartening and took it personally anytime a student left my program. I assumed their lack of interest was a direct result of my teaching inadequacies and inability to make them love music. As much as we do not admit it, students who quit our music programs leave a scar on our soul. Some of those are small scars, but others are massive because we know the amount of musical potential that was wasted. I still remember the name of the first student who quit my orchestra program. Her name was Nina, and she was an 8th grade student.
Over time, I learned to accept that students quit music programs for various reasons and understood their continuation in music was not always in my control. Even though I took their departure less personally as I aged (FYI, the sting never goes completely away), I wanted to find strategies that kept my students from reaching the point of wanting to quit. More importantly, I wanted my students to experience success so they could grow from it, develop a positive work-ethic, and forget their desire to quit. I found that catching their waning interest early on was the best remedy to getting them back on a prosperous track. Below are some strategies I used to encourage my students who were on the road to quitting.
Make it Personal
Talk to your students about the musical and personal struggles you experienced at their age. With the current focus of addressing mental health and stress with adolescents, it is important for students to know that we also struggled at their age. I talked with my students about how I wanted to quit at various times during middle school, how I had to step away from my cello during practice sessions as a result of frustration, how I lived through good and bad cello days, and how I had to deal with non-music related family and school issues. We also discussed how people told me I was wasting my time with cello and how my response was practicing to prove those people wrong. I talked about the numerous times I begged my mother to let me quit and how she refused (side note—thank you mom). We discussed the importance of consistent practice over time, how some practice sessions ended with limited tangible success, and how difficult passages eventually clicked and motivated me to keep going. It is acceptable to share your past successes and failures with your students. In fact, I strongly encourage it. Those conversations will create stronger bonds between you and your students. It allows them to connect with you on a personal level. More important, I am hopeful it allows them to see part of themselves in you. I found this type of personal connection kept students in my class who were interested in quitting.
A fundamental step in helping students overcome the desire to quit is proactively holding conversations. I know we have limited free time as teachers, but it is important to find a few moments during your day to talk with students and determine what is decreasing their interest in music. The problem cannot be addressed if you and the student do not identify and acknowledge its existence. Permitting an issue to fester allows it grow into a larger problem or multiply into several confounding issues. As a result, it is important to identify and work on solving concerns as soon as they reach your radar.
I also found it advantageous to immediately communicate my concerns with a student’s parents if I observed a change in the student’s level of engagement or musical interest. Speaking with parents may provide in-depth knowledge about the student’s personality, their insights on what is causing the sudden change, possible solutions to the problem, or make you aware of home issues that are negatively impacting the child. As teachers, we sometimes get busy and overlook the issues our students deal with at home. Some of those issues are difficult to comprehend and would disrupt any person. We need to acknowledge the potential personal and family baggage our students may bring with them to school. In the end, students must know we care about them and parents must believe we have their child’s best interest at heart. If those two items occur, it creates a trusting, positive, and supportive relationship between you, your students, and their parents.
Assign Student Mentors
Assign older students as practice buddies for less experienced students. However, it is vital to know your students’ likes, dislikes, personalities, and hobbies to successfully pair younger students with experienced mentors. For this to succeed, younger students need to connect with experienced students on a personal level. Some of my most encouraging pairings occurred when the younger student had a technique issue the experienced student recently overcame. That personal triumph allows experienced students to share the tricks they used to successfully overcome the problem.
Another benefit to having student mentors is the bonding that occurs across grade levels. The music program becomes less about the individual and more about helping everyone in the program thrive. Organizing this type of mentoring program takes time and effort. However, the long-term benefits are well worth the energy since the mentoring program helps both the young and experienced students in the program. The experienced students gain ownership and pride in the program while younger students see what is possible with hard work.
Teach Them How to Practice
Do not expect your students to know how to practice without your guidance. Most less experienced students’ version of practicing involves repeatedly playing through a passage from start to end and hoping it improves with repetition. Similar to solving an equation in math class, developing musicians need a process for solving a musical problem. I focused on teaching my students to practice during their first year of instruction and started with a basic task—learn to safely take your instrument home and bring it back for tomorrow’s rehearsal. I know it sounds simple, but many of my students complained that they did not have time to retrieve their instruments at the end of the school day. To overcome that excuse, I spent part of class developing a plan for each student that included:
- How to get the instrument and music/method book from the rehearsal room at the end of the school day.
- How to safely get their instrument home.
- Locating a safe place to store their instrument at home.
- Identifying a distraction-free practice location at home.
- Unpacking and packing up your instrument in the distraction-free practice location.
- How to safely get the instrument back to school for the next day’s rehearsal.
Once the students demonstrated those skills over a predetermined amount of time, I began teaching my students how to practice. Teach them how to set a practice schedule, the benefits of consistent practice on a daily basis, how to break the piece into small attainable chunks, how to identify the problem, and how to isolate the problem. Once students could regularly complete those tasks in class, I taught them practice methods they could use to solve common performance issues (e.g. determining fingerings, reading notes, fixing bowings, bow distribution, articulations, and deciphering rhythm). Determining a well-defined practice process is a crucial step in creating positive musical experiences for your students. If they can solve musical problems and experience success on their own, that will motivate them to continue.
My last resort for unhappy students was to let them change instruments. I hesitated to offer this solution because I did not want students constantly switching instruments in my class. That persistent change would prevent the ensemble’s long-term progress. I tried other solutions before suggesting this to students and only offered to let them change instruments if I knew I would lose them as a student. Sometimes a scenery change was the remedy students needed to succeed. Some of my best instrument switches of all time were students who found their “instrument soulmate” after switching. In many cases, it was violinists changing to double bassists. Not everyone chooses the “right” instrument as a beginner, but we can keep students involved in music if we provide them with the opportunity to reconsider that initial decision.