The Real Reason Teens Are Quitting Your Studio – Part 2 - Top Music Co
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The Real Reason Teens Are Quitting Your Studio – Part 2

By Tim Topham | Teens and Adults

Mar 29 2014

Why write about teens?

I decided to write a short series about teaching teens because there seems to be a lot of teachers out there for whom teaching teens is becoming a bit of a struggle. You might have read their posts on piano teaching groups, wondering aloud why teenagers don’t want to have lessons any more:

“I let them learn ‘The Entertainer’ but they still want to quit. I don’t get it – isn’t that a ‘cool’ piece? All my students start with Alfred’s Primer Book A – why should teenagers be any different? Who doesn’t get their students to learn “Dozen a Day” every week? What’s wrong with Baroque music – that’s all I learnt when I was a student! Why can’t they spend 30 minutes a day practising scales? Why do they want to play this video game rubbish? I can’t possibly teach pop music! Playing jazz isn’t as important as classical music anyway…”

Thankfully, it only takes a few simple ideas and resources to change your thinking about teens and to keep them motivated in their studies and your studio.

Part 1: Teaching students the music they want to playpiano teaching teens

In the first part of the series, which you can read at Wendy Stevens’ fantastic Compose Create blog, I discussed that teachers of teenagers have to be open to teaching the music their students want to play.

I gave readers three tips in Part 1 that they could immediately try in their studio:

  1. Ask your student what he/she would like to play and be open to teaching it – even if it’s outside your comfort zone.
  2. Make sure you have LOTS of cool repertoire up your sleeve.
  3. Admit that you don’t know everything when it comes to music!

In this part of the series, I’ll be talking about the second reason that teens quit piano: You aren’t making music relevant.

Part 2: Keeping things 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 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.

Andrea Dow, in her article, “How to rescue the unmotivated teenage piano student“, calls these kinds of piano lessons “functional piano lessons”:

What are “functional piano lessons”? They are lessons based on meeting the interests of your student; giving them the specific skills they need to use the piano in a way that motivates them.

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: eg. reading, composing, improvising, etc., while you work on the thing that motivates him each week to play the piano.

teaching teens pianoTeens 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. Not all teens will know what they like and some will say, “I don’t know – I’ll just let you choose”, but soon enough you’ll get a feeling for what they like to practice versus what turns them off.

If the student has been with you for a while and is starting to fade, you might have missed the signals: what are they listening to on their iPod when they wait for their lessons? What do they teach themselves when they are “mucking around” at the piano? What YouTube tutorials have they been watching without telling you? What concert did they most recently go to? Are they in the school band/orchestra/choir/play?

A little research will go a long way!

Here are my top 3 tips for keeping things relevant for your teens this week:

  1. Be “functional” in your approach to lessons. Keep activities short. Teen attention spans are generally pretty short (excepting anything with a screen). Beginner teens in particular are impatient and don’t often know how much work learning piano will take. While they are learning things like music reading and theory, use other techniques to keep them interested: playing pop by ear, using backing tracks (see my article about iPad apps for Piano Teachers), learning pieces from YouTube tutorials, etc. Even 5 minutes on these activities at the start of a lesson will boost their motivation for the week. Try mixing up your lesson content this week and encourage one activity that you don’t normally support.
  2. Teach more than just the notes. Give teens the tools they need to understand music as well as just read it. Teach them about form, harmony, chords, structure, improvising. Listen with them to the music they like and work out how to play it together. Experiment with how to arrange music they like for piano solo. In my opinion, students who really understand music, know how it’s constructed and are able to compose/improvise, are far more likely to play for life. Use every opportunity during music reading to explain the chords underlying the musical structure. Discuss what key the piece is in and what chords form the basis of the composition (refer to the Circle of 5ths). Ready my article: Strategies for Teaching Improvisation to Beginners for more info.
  3. Use metaphors to make connections. Ever wondered how the hours kids spend at sport practice can improve their piano playing? My students in particular seem to understand practice better when it’s related to sport. Questions like, “How was David Beckham able to ‘bend’ the ball into the net? Did he just play games or did he stand in front of the goal and kick 1000s of balls into (and past) the net?”. Of course, the answer is obvious – he isolated the technique before putting it into practice in a game – and that’s directly related to piano practice. Students who need to work on their ability to play fast runs might need to practice scales rather than playing pieces. Need to work on your trills? It’s just like hitting 100 backhand tennis shots in a row before playing your game on Saturday. The opportunity for metaphor goes well beyond sport, of course (actors reciting lines, artists blending colours, pilots using simulators), but in all cases, using metaphors enables teachers to make connections to students’ ‘real worlds’. Try using a sporting metaphor to encourage one of your teens to practice more this week.

I understand that if you’ve never taught students to compose before, this could seem like a daunting challenge. Similarly, perhaps you don’t refer to chords, harmony or the Circle of 5ths when teaching reading. Don’t stress! Just take it in small steps. Set aside perhaps 1 hour per week to research teaching ideas on blogs/Google and try them out in your studio the following week. Click here for a list of what a search for “chords” uncovered on my blog, for example.

Good luck and I look forward to hearing how it goes!

In Part 3 of this series next week, I’ll be talking about the final piece in the teen motivation puzzle: why it’s important for teachers to keep up with technology.

We’ll discuss:

  • Using technology to enhance lessons, not waste time
  • How my favourite app can be a real teen pupil-saver
  • How to make use of a student’s own technology to help with their practice

To ensure you don’t miss the final Part 3, make sure you subscribe to blog updates. If you’re looking for more ideas on motivating teenage students and can’t wait for Part 3, you can also check out my free eBook: Teen Teaching Toolkit – there’s a link to it in the menu at the top.

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Tim Topham

About the Author

Tim Topham is the founder and director of TopMusic. Tim hosts the popular TopCast show, 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, California Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.

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