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.
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:
In this part of the series, I’ll be talking about the second reason that teens quit piano: 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 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.