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Teens Quitting Piano: Surprising Reasons You Need to Know

By Tim Topham | Piano Teaching

May 20 2020

Is it just me or is it getting harder to stop teens quitting piano lessons?

No one has any time, teens are more stressed than they were ten years ago, and practice always takes a back seat to everything else that’s going on.

Teacher: “So how did your practice go this week, Luke?”

Luke: “I didn’t really get any time” (cue: sheepish look)

Teacher: “Really? Not even 30 minutes on the weekend?”

Luke: “Well I had to play basketball for school on Saturday morning, and then on Sunday it was football with my local club, and then my grandparents were down from the country, and we had to do things with them all afternoon and…”

You get the idea.

The real issue for students like Luke is motivation. If our students are really motivated to play, they’ll make the time for it.

So how do you motivate teens?

In my experience, teens drop piano study for three reasons:

1. You aren’t teaching them music they want to play,

2. You aren’t making music relevant,

3. You aren’t keeping up with technology.

So let’s sort through these three common reasons to understand the disconnect teens can experience in piano study, and find real solutions I’ve used with my students.

Reason 1: You aren’t teaching them the music they want to play

This might be the single most frequent offence of non-practising and then quitting: your teen student doesn’t like (or can’t manage) the pieces you’ve chosen for them.

Ask your student what they would like to play and be open to teaching it– even if it’s outside your comfort zone.

Listen to the music your students like together and work out an approach for learning it. Yes, you can use lesson time! I get really excited when students bring in new music that I’ve never heard of before. If you don’t let teenagers play at least a few pieces they want to learn, you’ll lose them very quickly. If they bring in a piece that’s way too hard for them, help them to simplify it. Even if they only learn the chord structure or the melody, they’ll re-engage in their learning and practice.

Make sure you have LOTS of cool repertoire up your sleeve.

Even if they choose a piece they want to play, you’ll need other options to keep them engaged in the middle-longer term.

For one, teenagers love choice.

But also, shy or bored teen students may choose the easy (or safe) answer of “I don’t know” or “I don’t care.”

Explore more about this mindset with the book — Not Much, Just Chillin’ by Linda Perlstein about how teens think about their worlds. One teacher described it as “an accurate view into the mind of a middle schooler.”

Have pieces in your back pocket before their lesson day: Plan A, Plan B, and surprise piece Plan X.

You may need to play/demonstrate/show on YouTube a number of pieces before they find one that clicks with them. Search YouTube for ‘piano tutorials’ – these are normally the most popular pieces, but you’ll need to stay current.

Admit that you don’t know everything!

Teaching has changed in this century, for the better. But that doesn’t mean you’re unqualified if you’re unversed in jazz band piano, improv pattern fills, or how to teach DAW and your student is keen to try it.

Share the learning journey with them as a facilitator. You’ll gain much more respect from students and a deeper connection with them and their music. In the process, you’ll grow as a teacher. Isn’t that what effective teaching should be all about?

Ps. I’ve found that some teens who start out wanting to play pop music often lose interest in it after a while when they realise that great piano solos and classical music can be much more fulfilling to play.

Use pop music as your “in” while you slowly introduce great piano solos into the mix. You’ll have them hooked!

Here’s a demo you could try instantly with teens:

Reason 2: You aren’t making music relevant

Teenagers need to see the relevance in what they are doing, and they need to be working towards goals that they set themselves (with your help, of course!).

If all they do when they come to lessons is to show you something they’ve composed, then teach them more about composing. If they always come to lessons having learnt something by ear, encourage it and give them a deeper understanding of harmony and form to enable them to make their own arrangements of melodies they can play by ear.

I’m not saying that just because Billy likes playing by ear that we should drop all attempts to teach him anything else.

Rather, use his natural style of learning to motivate and engage him in other aspects of music: e.g. reading, composing, improvising, etc., while you work on the thing that motivates him each week to play the piano.

Teens are much more open to doing the “boring” stuff like learning to read music, if it’s part of a lesson that’s based predominantly on their intrinsic motivation and musical passion.

How do you find out what motivates your teens?

If he/she is a new student, just ask. I’ve developed a questionnaire for incoming students so I can quickly learn the music they’re most motivated to start playing.

If the student has been with you for a while and is starting to fade, you might have missed the signals about what they’re really interested in.

A little research will go a long way!

Want to know what questions I ask my incoming transfer students so they’re playing music they love, right from the start? The new Teens & Transfers Course in TopMusicPro includes the checklists I use and the best repertoire out there for teens or transfers. 

Reason 3. You aren’t keeping up with technology

Piano as a hobby can easily feel embarrassing to teens (who hate to be singled out for doing something suspected to be uncool.) Modernising your studio and lessons experience with updated technology goes a long way in this department.

Here are easy ideas to incorporate better technology into your teaching:

This is quite simple, but start with upgrading your sound system. I recommend avoiding playing examples off of a laptop. Instead, buy something with a decent subwoofer like this Logitech Z623. The better sound quality will instantly elevate the sound level of whatever you’re doing in the studio, and teens love it.

Try my must-have apps. Here’s a shortlist of apps I love for teens specifically:

  • ForScore – mark up and organise their music.
  • SuperMetronome Groovebox – put away the stodgy metronome beat and use drum & bass instead.
  • AmazingSlowDowner – highly useful when you’re trying to get a handle on a hook from a pop song or video game clip.
  • iRealPro – play lead sheets with backing tracks from an open-source library, from jazz standards to 12-bar blues to praise band chart hits.

Watch a demo I’ve made about my favourite metronome-alternative choice here:

Consider using a method or supplementary music with backing tracks. The list is ever-growing, but here’s a starting place.

Conclusion on why teens are quitting piano

Part of the reason TopMusicCo came into being is to stop the tide of teens quitting piano, and help teachers find solutions that save and motivate those great students.

Did you ever quit piano yourself as a teen? Or almost quit? Tell me what it was like in the comments below. What made a difference for you to return to playing?

I hope some of these tips will help spark an idea the next time you have a teen on the rocks in lessons. Check out our Teen Course in membership and let us help you further.

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Tim Topham

About the Author

Tim Topham has one mission in life: to stem the tide of children quitting music lessons by helping teachers maximise student engagement through creativity, technology and innovation. Tim hosts the popular Creative Piano Teaching Podcast, blogs regularly at topmusic.co and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as pedagogy, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, Californian Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.

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