There seems to be a general consensus among piano teachers that, in the last five or so years, the number of boys in piano studios seems to have increased. Some teachers are telling me that they now have more boys than girls in their studios and that this was far less likely 10 or more years ago.
While I'm not exactly certain of the reasons for this, I do know that teachers sometimes find it harder to motivate and engage boys in piano, particularly as they get older. Teen beginners can be an especially hard bunch to inspire.
Right from the start, I'd like to ensure readers that I understand that an article devoted to teaching students of any one gender will necessarily involve stereotyping. Rest assured that I understand that not all boys (or girls) are alike: I've taught plenty of boys who like slow, classical pieces and don't mind titles like "Fairy's Garden" and "The Magic Princess", just as I've taught girls who like to play loud and fast and can't sit still. But these are more exceptions than rules, in my experience.
This is exactly what I have been searching for - thank you! I recently started teaching a 7 year old (my first male student) & he's been super challenging for me. I'm constantly trying to think of new things to do or ways for him to concentrate and your post hit the nail on the head regarding his attitude. He wants to sound cool - but being an absolute beginner I've been struggling for ways of teaching him and making that somehow happen. This is super helpful. Kym Mc, in response to my listing of repertoire on my related post: Teaching Boys Repertoire Ideas.
I find that teaching boys regularly challenges and tests the efficacy of my teaching methods and, in the process, makes me a better teacher.
Here are a few reasons why:
- Boys are often more particular than girls about the type of music they want to learn. This means that I tend to spend a large amount of time sourcing and exploring new repertoire which has benefits for all my students (and my own sanity).
- As they get older, boys sometimes become more and more sullen, moody and monosyllabic, giving teachers an extra hard job as motivators! This means that my engagement methods must be continually honed and developing new and exciting activities is often a priority.
- While I haven't yet done the research, I have a feeling that more boys than girls lose motivation and focus in their teens and eventually quit piano. This can be because piano becomes "uncool" in their developing adolescent identity and amongst their peer groups, making the job of the teacher even more challenging. I thrive on the challenge of re-engaging disinterested teenage students and relish the chance to try out new music and teaching ideas to recapture their enthusiasm.
- While of course both sexes play sport and video games, there is no doubt that computer games are a major focus in the lives of many teenage boys. Similarly, sport training and matches can take up a huge amount of many boys' lives, leaving little time for piano. Ensuring that they are learning things fast, with the most effective practice techniques and keeping goals and time-frames short, is one of the biggest challenges of being a successful teacher of boys.
The aim of this page is to be a go-to place for resources for teaching boys effectively in your piano studio. It has links to teaching resources, music, videos, research, articles and blog posts that I've compiled over the years and that will hopefully be of assistance in your teaching.
Keep in mind that resources like the ones you'll find on this page really come into their own when you have reluctant students, or students on the borderline of quitting. This is when having a few good tricks up your sleeve to refocus, motivate and excite your students can really work wonders. Also check out my list of "pupil savers".
Are boys really different?
We all know that boys can be a difficult bunch to teach and keep engaged, especially around the teenage years. I personally love their enthusiastic, action-oriented and no-nonsense approach to things they are learning and the way they always keep me on my toes. They won’t put up with things they don’t like for very long and they’ll be happy to question everything that you ask them to do.
"Through my thirty-seven years of training musicians from pre-school through graduate school I have can categorically state that women and girls learn very differently from men and boys. The challenges of teaching young men and boys to play the piano become obvious when one realizes that the small-motor skills and reading skills develop at a slower rate than those of young women, their attention span is often shorter, and not only is the energy level higher, it is more intense. The reason, of course, is that the wiring of the male brain is different from that of the female; men and women have physiological and psychological differences. Therefore, when teaching one gender or another, it is imperative that we approach them with a methodology and a psychology that understands those essential differences." John R. Stevenson, DJD. Excerpt from Teaching Boys to Play the Piano: Its Challenges and Rewards.
What I have found from well over 15 years' teaching in both co-ed and single sex boys' education, is that there are definitely some tricks, techniques and repertoire that work particularly well with the majority of boys.
That said, it goes without saying that one of the most important jobs for teachers is choosing repertoire and teaching techniques that suit each of their students individually, regardless of gender. You can check out great lists of pieces for boys below.
Boys work fibre-optic speed. I heard recently on a documentary that teenagers can sample information at seven times per second. For older people, it’s more like two times per second! This is why teens can be Facebook Messaging, Snapchating, doing their homework, watching TV and listening to music all at the same time (even if they aren't doing any of those things particularly well!).
One of the hardest factors in motivating boys at the piano is that the long-distance time-frames it takes to master an instrument don't naturally work in with their digitally-wired brains. It takes months and years to learn the piano whilst everything else in their lives seems instant.
So while our digital world has begun to rewire the teenage brain into accepting nothing less than instant gratification, we continue trying to teach in the same old ways which is often not that productive.
Given their action-oriented nature, boys will often struggle to maintain focus if achievements are 12 months apart; progress is too slow to maintain focus. One way to ensure interest in the long-term nature of learning an instrument is enacting short-term goals and rewards, much like boys find in computer games. That's where software like PianoMaestro (see below) is really carving out a niche.
Quality [computer] games are well sequenced, introducing simple tasks first and gradually building to complex skills. A variety of short-, intermediate- and long-term goals keep players focussed and motivated. Consistent and clear feedback allows players to monitor exactly where they are and what they need to do. These are all elements of sound pedagogy. - Pete Jutras, Clavier Companion.
THINK LIKE A COMPUTER GAME PROGRAMMER
ZOOM-IN ON LANDMARKS
CREATE LOTS OF TANGIBLE MILESTONES
Gamification: Repetition can be gratifying only if progress is rewarded. Gamification is engaged learning with the use of games. A gaming environment that drills concepts and offers pressure to succeed is a win-win situation. When you gamify, you solidify. Leila Viss from the JoyTunes Blog.
The 40 piece challenge is one simple way of forming landmarks for students, without overhauling your teaching methods. Through this method of teaching, introduced here in Australia by Elissa Milne, students are challenged to learn a minimum of 40 pieces in a year. Yup, that's right, 40 pieces minimum.
Not all pieces are at the highest level of the student's current achievement and not all pieces are learnt perfectly from memory or even recital-ready. Rather, a huge selection and range of repertoire at all sorts of levels (most often at least 2-3 grades below the student's current level) is explored in order to keep students motivated, improve their sight-reading and to give them a broad appreciation of music.
Students can be rewarded for every 10 short pieces learnt, or a week of sight-reading, or a performance or composition recorded or uploaded to YouTube. Studios can track individual progress with a wall chart or individually in student assignment books/diaries.
What's important for boys?
- Respect of their peers
- Sense of achievemenet
- Short term goals
- Positive rapport
If you want to make a positive impact in a student's life, you have to make a real connection.
Boys need to know that you have a genuine interest in them and that you enjoy spending time with them. They love humour and teachers who can make fun of themselves. They love having a say in what goes on in their lessons. Younger boys love movement and action and lots of shorter activities. Teens are happy to work on just one piece for a whole lesson if it's something that's meaningful to them.
Trevor and Adrea Dow at the Teach Piano Today blog list the seven key factors for motivating boys in the studio as:
- Get Him Off the Bench
- Begin with an Anecdote
- Be Competitive… But Not With Others
- Give Him a Purpose
- Incorporate Technology
- Provide Role Models
One really simple way to engage boys who might not be understanding the concept of practice (especially the point behind scales) is to compare learning piano with training for a sport. Find out what sport your student likes (to play preferably, or watch. If they don't play or like sport, then just use whatever sport is most familiar to you!).
Explain that when learning to play tennis (for example), people don’t just play matches, they learn to lob, volley, serve etc. These are normally known as "drills" and most students will be familiar with the idea (even if they don't play the sport) as it's common to nearly all pursuits.
You can then explain to them that it is the same with piano: it is just as vital to drill the technical aspects of playing, or or to practice small passages and minor details slowly and repeat them many times in order to learn a particular skill that will be needed in performance.
Then, just as in sport, when you've done all the drills, you can practice playing a full game (ie. playing the whole piece and performing). I've found this analogy really resonates with boys and can be a useful kick-start to re-invigorate a flagging practice routine!
4 Fun Resources for Teaching Boys
If your boys are into comics and adventure series, then check out the Fearless Fortissimo series by Trevor and Andrea Dow of Teach Piano Today.
The Adventures of Fearless Fortissimo (Piano Books for Boys) is a series of comic-based piano books for boys ages six through twelve. Each episode contains a full colour comic following the adventures of a young hero, Fearless Fortissimo, with accompanying piano pieces that serve as a soundtrack to the comic.
For the one payment of $19.95 you have access to all three levels of music (Early Elementary, Elementary and Intermediate), the full-colour comic, and the license to print as many copies as you wish for use within your own studio.
MY NO BOOK BEGINNERS
One thing we know boys love is action, so I created my own approach to teaching beginners using no method books for the first 10 weeks.
It's called my No Book Beginner Framework and it's perfect for those wriggly little boys in your studio.
Getting kids away from the books and moving around the room, composing, improvising, clapping, chanting, singing - these are the things that should form the bulk of the first lessons with any new student.
This framework will suit any style of teaching and is a pre-method book method, so it will flow nicely into whatever method book you choose to use to teach reading.
I guarantee if will get your kids motivated and enjoying themselves. Best of all, it sets them up perfectly for the rest of their music learning journey.
PianoMaestro iPad App
Are you having trouble inspiring boys who are trying to learn to read music in their teens? I've taught a number of students like this and it's really hard to engage them in the slow process of learning to read music when they just want to play something cool for their friends.
With PianoMaestro, students get to learn music by playing along to backing tracks while the software listens and responds to their playing, giving them scores and unlocking new levels, just like a computer game.
I've found my male students absolutely love it. It's great for sightreading for students at all levels, it includes heaps of music including music from method books including Alfreds, Piano Pronto and more.
12 Bar Blues and iReal Pro App
If there's one thing I've found that always resonates 100% with boys, it's playing the 12 Bar Blues. Not only is it great fun, students can learn heaps about scales, chords, progressions and form in music with only a few simple instructions.
In fact, it's what I tend to use when I start new students. While it's fun for the students, it gives you the opportunity to quickly assess their musicianship, listening, rhythm and learning style while they are engaged.
You can watch as I demonstrate exactly how I teach the 12 Bar Blues to my students in my teaching video and related blog post.
In order to make the process as fun and musical as possible, you'll want to get the iReal Pro backing track app for iPhone and iPad. This is a brilliant app that has hundreds of uses; read about why I like it here.
Music recommendations for boys
In my experience, boys feel a greater need than girls to study pieces which resonate with them early on and which will sound and look good when performed in front of people.
Boys love nothing more than being able to show-off to friends by playing cool stuff that other people recognise – the opening chords of a pop song, the piano riff from a cool dance track or a famous movie theme.
Although I’m generalising, I feel that girls are more content playing pieces recommended by their teachers and they don’t have the same concern about how their playing will be perceived by others (i.e. whether it’s ‘cool’ or not). Hence, I believe that finding repertoire for girls is probably a little easier than for boys on the whole.
Now to the music. I still find it fascinating how an engaging title can really capture (or a bad title can ruin!) a boy’s imagination, even if the music isn’t all that brilliant! Call a piece “Funnel-web spider”, “Train Crash” or “The Chase” and you have roped many boys in before they’ve even heard how it sounds!
On the flip-side and as I said earlier, I generally avoid giving boys pieces with titles to do with ballet, tea parties and fairies. The music might be brilliant, but an unappealing title may have a subconsciously negative effect.
Thank you thank you thank you! My 11-year old boy is practising and enjoying playing to the point I have to stop him (time to go to school, for instance) when he plays something he likes, and dragged crying to the piano by me to practise even 5 minutes when he has to play something indifferent to him. And I was running out of ideas. - Wenche, in response to my post: Teaching Boys Repertoire Ideas.
To find out more, please check out my resource all about Piano Repertoire for Boys.
What do you think?
Have you got some good tips about teaching boys? Perhaps you disagree with my thoughts that boys and girls learn differently? Perhaps you feel this whole resource is a waste of time and you should just tailor programs to suit students, not genders.
Let me know by leaving a comment below.