Does anyone else out there notice their long time students starting to lose enthusiasm once they reach 12 or 13? Maybe even younger at age 11? Many teachers I speak with say the same thing. It’s a tough age. Many of those kids have been with you since they were very young. It’s really amazing, isn’t it? To see someone once a week from the time they’re 6 or 7 until they reach their teens is such a cool experience. Keeping them interested is a whole other challenge.
Last year, I said goodbye to my first college student. He had been my student since he was around 8 years old. I’ve been teaching for a little over 16 years, so this was the first time I experienced this. It was very emotional and also so rewarding. I felt good knowing I had taught him enough to go out on his own. He will be fully capable of teaching himself now, if he chooses to, or just coming home from classes to decompress with a little piano playing. I love knowing that when he gets his first job, he will be able to play music at night to wind down. What a wonderful gift to give someone!
But how do you make sure your kids last until college? This year, I have a lot of students going into middle school. They’ve all been with me since they were really young and very enthusiastic about everything I taught. Now they’re changing into young adults with their own opinions and feelings. They are less patient with things that bore them and they are yearning for a little independence. I want more students to end up like the one I just mentioned, so how should I do that?
I realized the answer is to let them go their own way musically. This was a hard decision. I’m one of those teachers who believes strongly in reading music and continuously working on improving this skill. At the same time, I embrace improv and songwriting as well as chord playing, so I’m not totally old fashioned. But a few of my pre-teens just seemed so bored with reading music, I knew if I didn’t open my mind I would lose them fast. To think of all those years of learning and teaching just going out the window… I couldn’t bear it.
So I brought over my POP REAL BOOK, which is just a nicer version of a fake book with pop songs. Both students chose songs they wanted to learn the chords to in order to play and sing along. They lit up like I haven’t seen in MONTHS. I believe this will be the direction they go into. I can’t blame them. I was once a teenager who only wanted to play in rock bands and didn’t have the attention span to learn difficult concertos. So I’m going to be flexible and make them the best rock, pop, and jazz players possible.
Not everyone will choose to go in the chord playing/improvisation direction. The student who I said goodbye to last year preferred to read music. He just had a specific genre he loved more than others: TV and Movie Themes. So that’s what we worked on. I didn’t push Jazz (even though I knew he would be SO good at it) or Classical (he hated it every single time). I just let him play the songs he loved and tried to teach him as much about piano technique and theory as I could.
If I think back to when I was a teenager, music was part of my identity. But not just any music. Specific styles of music. It’s how others identified me. Can you relate? It’s a silly concept to us adult music teachers, because really there’s only good music and bad music. Why would we identify so strongly with one genre? But being a teenager is it’s own unique experience, and having a musical identity is part of that experience for many.
If you have a pre-teen or teen who seems bored out of their skull in your lessons, do whatever you can to find out what music they love and teach that. One day, they may have a desire to play the music you would prefer to teach them. And guess what? All those skills they learn will make it possible for them to come back and learn how to play classical or become a better sight reader, or whatever area they refuse to work on at the moment.
Music is a lifelong practice, or at least it should be. We don’t want them to quite when they’re just beginning to enter the difficult life stages. They’re gonna need that music for when times get tough and stressful, so do whatever you can to keep them interested.