Today I’d like to introduce you to Anita Kohli who teaches in Mumbai, India and writes for us about a topic that readers will appreciate is very close to my own heart: teaching boys. Teenagers of either gender can be a challenge to motivate at times and Anita gives some great tips for dealing with difficult students. TT.
Teenage boys in piano class
Consider the musically-talented teenage boy who is learning the piano because he loves to play. He’s enthusiastic, but there’s just one problem. He does not want to practise daily, and has little or no interest in anything that leads up to good playing: note reading, theory, practice techniques, piano technique or interpretation. All he has going for him is raw talent.
He has a lot to learn, and it’s all new to him, so he often has difficulty remembering all of the finer details that are taught in piano class. He’s at an age where he’s slowly growing into his own personality and has not yet learned how to be responsible for himself.
At times, piano class risks becoming a battle of wills. He attends class regularly without practising, knowing that practise is compulsory, and routinely gets scolded for this. This makes him feel disheartened and he slowly loses interest.
If you talk to his parents, you’ll may find that he’s driving them crazy at home, because he won’t do anything he’s supposed to – practice, study, tidy his things, pack his school bag or leave for school on time. They understand that they need to let go, and let him stumble a little, in order for him to grow up. It’s that ‘waiting for it to happen’ that often leaves them frazzled.
When students have firm ideas of what the teacher should teach
I’ve had some experience teaching students who have definite ideas of their own. They changed over to me from other teachers, and were very clear to tell me in the first few lessons that they did not want to learn what was being taught, as they did not understand the relevance.
For example, practise techniques and piano technique did not interest them at all. They could not hear the difference this made, and felt they could play perfectly well without it, and just wanted me to ‘get on’ with the rest of class. The parents of these children had different opinions.
Why I encourage questions and the freedom to argue
The large school classroom size in Indian schools (usually 50 students a class) often puts teachers under pressure to get students to accept what they say, without questions. The result is many many Mumbai kids are hesitant to ask questions.
Children who are overflowing with ideas often get into trouble at school. I think it’s a combination of 3 things. Some school teachers see the idea of questioning a teacher as a sign of disrespect, they often simply lack the ability to cope with questions in large classes and the students don’t know how to ask questions and express contrary opinions while still being respectful of the teacher’s authority.
I had some young boys who argued a lot in piano class, and were constantly in trouble at school for questioning authority and I made a choice to allow them the freedom to say what they wanted to me in piano class. I used this as an opportunity to teach them to be assertive and respectful, over time.
I learned all of the techniques mentioned below after struggling to find something that worked with these particular students. I now use them regularly with many of my students.
How my students see these measures
My students and parents are quite comfortable with all the measures mentioned below. They see them as part of a teaching approach that is understanding and sympathetic towards students. They understand that it’s an approach that enforces discipline in a pleasant way, eliminating the need to lecture and shout.
One student, who I was exceptionally strict with, actually told me that I was very understanding and nice.
So, without further ado, here’s what piano teachers can do to help teenage boys focus and start practising.
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How to get teens on-side:
- Set an evaluation deadline after talking to the parent. The parent needs to know their son is capable and talented, but also needs to know that it’s simply not worth continuing class without practice. Classes need to be stopped if the student cannot cope with practise expectations, because this puts too much pressure on a student and he can lose confidence. It’s much better for the student to take a break and resume class, than to push ahead becoming more and more negative about the experience. If the student is keen on learning, he’ll find a way to cope and will meet the deadline.
- Use a sympathetic an understanding tone when talking and explaining. The teacher needs to be able to see the student’s point of view, as well as the parent’s, and speak with patience and understanding.
- Explain, explain, explain. Be prepared to repeat explanations when the student takes time to accept or ‘get’ something. Let the student question you as much as he wants.
- Always communicate with the parent in the teen’s presence. Teachers take a lot of trouble to explain things in a positive way and the student will understand this when the teacher’s communication goes to him directly. When teachers talk only to the parent, there’s always a risk of the parents of teens (who are often already quite frazzled dealing with their teenage sons budding personality) reflecting their emotions, rather than the teacher’s positive reinforcement, when telling their child what the teacher has said.
- Assign short homework assignments. When assigning a piece or demonstrating a technique, set clear standards of achievement. Metronome targets work well, as they help the student assess his achievement at home.
- Record assignments. A video recording preferably. Either record the homework assignment in class after giving the student a chance to try it out once, or ask the student to record the assignment and bring it to class
- Listen to the recording along with the student and evaluate it. The student has visible proof of what he did well. Also, if he’s a student who is unable to tell that he’s made a mistake, looking at a recording helps him assess his playing and clearly see and hear his mistakes.
- Let students record small sections of class practice on their phones. This helps students recap at home, with more retention.
- Leave the room for a minute. If you have a student who argues, this technique can help. The student does not need to know that the teacher’s taking a break. Walk out of class to get a glass of water, breathe deep, relax and get back in there, keeping your cool.
- Use the ‘Walk-out’ (after you’ve got parent approval). If practice is not done at home, give the student 1 minute to recap what he needs to get done, telling him he’s capable and can practise without you. Set a target that can be achieved in a single practise session, and walk out of class, asking him to call you back, only after he’s got enough done. If you don’t have anywhere to sit outside class, do something which keeps your focus elsewhere. This seems to make the student more aware that lack of practise means learning less new stuff.
- Allow rescheduling. Only one class like this is generally required for the student to understand that practise is compulsory. Teachers will benefit from allowing rescheduling when he needs a little leeway. It helps the student to know that the teacher cares and is willing to help him by being flexible. I have a flex day in my schedule each week and allow students to reschedule, rather than attend class with homework not done. It makes my work so much more enjoyable.
This worked with my teenage boys, as well as with some younger boys. I use some of these techniques for students of any age or level, when practise does not meet achievement levels that are necessary for progress.
What are your tips with difficult teenagers?
I would love to know your thoughts on this post and what you do to get your teenage students practising. Leave your comment below.
Any student who has a hard time finding interest in practicing note reading skills, rhythmic pattern execution, and key signature identification should immediately try playing the exciting video game NoteBlaster.
Here are two videos demonstrating the game:
Great to read some truth about these problems to solve in the piano room!
In the Netherlands basic lower education is experimenting with letting the
pupils learn by making movements while learning for instance while learning new
words or during counting etc. and the results are much better! The brain is
more involved. As a folk- and caractère dancer myself I already had experienced
myself I was sitting much better behind the piano while studying after dancing.
And now I start especially with the young boys to integrate movements in the
lessons in alternating concentration in studying at the keyboard with making
rhythmical dance movements together with playing Orff-instruments and just
clapping away from the piano bench! There is more challenge the boys like and
it is even better for your own condition and concentration as a teacher too
while teaching! Of course this needs some improvisation and creativity to get
them back to attention for learning at the piano but the alternations are
Just want to let you know.
Best wishes, Siebert
Thanks Siebert. There’s certainly plenty of research about how boys learn best when activity duration is shorter and changes regularly including physical movement – well done 🙂
Thanks for reading. Movement as a part of early childhood education is a wonderful idea!
I’ve been experimenting with body percussion over the past year, and the challenge is fitting it into a 1 hour piano class, in small levels of difficulty so it’s relevant to theory. Yes, getting back to the piano requires quite a bit of creativity and effort 🙂
It’s really interesting to hear about the Netherlands experiment.