It’s a common request. Parents contact a music teacher to ask if their child can try out a few lessons to see if they take to it. Nothing too serious, no hard work, we’ll see how they get on and maybe buy an instrument if they enjoy it.
A reasonable and sensible enough approach, you would think. But nothing seems to cause as much contempt among music teachers as this “dipping a toe in the water” approach. Let’s take a look at why that is, and whether the teacher’s approach is justified.
The teacher’s point of view
The philosophy among many teachers is that music is a serious study. It takes commitment and hard work before you can get to a standard that music becomes “fun”, but the rewards are worth it when you do. If you don’t approach it with commitment, discipline and the willingness to do daily practice, you’ll get nowhere and it will be no fun at all, so “having a few lessons to see if it’s fun” is impossible, and “focus on lessons until it becomes fun” would be a more appropriate approach. It’s fun once you’re good at it.
The “tryout” lessons, reluctantly agreed to on the part of the teacher, show this to be true (or to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, depending on whose side you’re on.) Progress is much slower than the teacher wants or is used to. The teacher spends lesson time going through things which they feel should have been done in practice time and starts to become visibly frustrated with the child. The child will react with some combination of resistance and introversion, and the atmosphere starts to sink. Lessons become a battle of wills and practice becomes a miserable chore. The lessons have failed, because the student did not have the right attitude.
As a consequence, many teachers try to get students to commit to half an hour a day’s practice before they even begin. The parents of one of my students told me that one teacher they contacted wanted them to commit to one year of lessons before even having the first one. Teachers want to know that their students are going to work hard and take it seriously, so the lessons will be worthwhile. After all, if the student isn’t going to take it seriously, there’s really no point at all, and lessons will only serve to frustrate the teacher, demotivate the child and waste the parent’s money.
The Parents’ Point Of View
For the purposes of our example, a non-musical parent has a child in the 5-10 year bracket, which is typical of most of my new students.
At this age (and indeed up to adulthood) children are discovering their interests in life and seeing what the world has to offer. They are forging their own identity, character, opinions and tastes. Not knowing what their child will enjoy or take to, parents are generally keen to expose them to as many different activities as possible. Not only does it give the child a broader experience of the world, but it helps them to forge their own tastes and discover who they are. Even the activities they don’t enjoy will help them to be able to express their own interests through articulating their dislikes, and thus a step towards finding out what they do in fact enjoy.
Naturally music is one of the activities parents want to offer to their children. Being able to play an instrument is fantastic. It is a fulfilling hobby or an exciting career, it’s social, expressive, and brings people together in all kinds of ways. All throughout our society music is associated with fun and enjoyment and generally considered a cool and exciting thing to do, so naturally parents want to give their children the opportunity to take up such a rewarding activity.
Given they’re trying out lots of different activities to see what their child enjoys, the parent doesn’t want something high pressure with lots of work which is likely to put their child off from the start. They don’t want to invest a lot of money when their child might not carry on, they just want their child to do some fun music activities and see if they like it. If they do, the interest will grow from there and they will be able to take it seriously further down the line if they want to.
But no, says the teacher, you can’t approach it like that. You have to make a commitment. Parents often reluctantly agree, it doesn’t work out, and we are back to square one.
What’s the solution?
Who’s right? I come down on the side of the parents. As I see it, the teachers are wrong. It seems to go against the very ethos of teaching to try to adapt the child to suit the way we want to teach and to project our own goals onto them. Instead, we need to adapt the way we teach to suit the child, and reassess what we consider “results” and “progress” in lessons for young beginners.
Think about the way we develop interests and passions in our lives. You might have some friends that like cricket. You go along to a game with them and quite like it, so you go to some more games. Then you start playing with friends for fun. Then you decide to take it more seriously and join a club. You start training hard and after a couple of years make the team. Now cricket is really important to you and you work hard at it. But you didn’t suddenly go from having no thoughts of cricket in your head to buying all the gear and training for hours every week. The interest, passion and self-belief grew organically over time.
If this is true for adults then it’s ten times more so for children, whose interest in any given activity will naturally wax and wane over time as they discover other new interests and explore the world, as well it should. It’s putting the cart before the horse to jump in with serious lessons and half an hour’s daily practice before the interest is there on the child’s part to sustain it. We’re just going to make music seem a dull and pointless chore and put them off.
What we need to do first is develop the passion for the activity, then their interest will be self-sustaining. This developing of interest in the activity and the self-belief that they can do it is for me the most important function of the music teacher with young children. Once they both enjoy lessons and are confident in their abilities then we can start to take it a bit more seriously and the benefits of regular practice will be self-evident. That’s not to say they won’t occasionally need to be motivated, cajoled or bribed into practice, but it’s to keep them on the track that they have chosen of their own accord and are on the whole very happy with, not because we as parents and teachers have unilaterally made the decision for them.
For me then, “ability”, as we generally see it, is a poor measure of success in music lessons for young beginners. We can force our students to achieve a certain technical level without them really enjoying it, but as long as we are still forcing we are not developing the enthusiasm and self-determination which will keep them interested in the longer term.
I don’t really care if a child has made very little progress in the first few months of lessons, my measures of success would be whether they enjoy and look forward to the classes, whether I’ve made them see music as a big, exciting fascinating world with a myriad of paths and styles they could choose, and whether I’ve made them believe that whatever path they want to take in music, they can do it, both in terms of “having it in them” and trusting that I will be keen to facilitate them in developing their own musical interests.
If in a few months I can wire a child’s mind to think of music and music lessons as a joyous, exciting thing where they are autonomous and respected, then we have a solid foundation for musical progress for life. Not only does it mean that we can now start to make some actual progress in the lessons and look at taking things a bit more seriously (if this is right for them) but more importantly, it means this first impression will stay with them. Even if they don’t continue now, I want them to believe that should they want to learn an instrument one day, long after I am off the scene, that they have the ability to do it and that it doesn’t have to be a slog. That is a massive and meaningful achievement. Pushing a kid to grade 1 in super-quick time only for them to give up immediately afterwards hasn’t achieved anything, it’s just created obstacles to them doing music in the future.
Well that’s some lovely rhetoric, but how do we actually put this into practice with real children and the real challenges they bring? What strategies can we use to allow this mindspace, this paradigm, to develop? For me it breaks down into two things which I’ll discuss separately: firstly what activities we do in lessons, and secondly, my manner as a teacher in delivering those lessons.
Filling lessons with fun activities
Kids have a limited attention span. Kids aged 5-10 have an attention span of about 15-25 minutes before we’re wasting our time with anything difficult. Also, if we’re working on anything that takes some real brain power (as learning to read music and play an instrument does) then their attention for that particular activity will wane sooner then their overall attention span starts to fade.
So we dive in with the “meat” of the lesson, if you like, which is generally working through a tutor book or on the particular tune they happen to be working on. This is concentrated, focused time where we work on the tune they’re currently playing, and it’s the hardest thing we’ll do.
Usually after 7-8 minutes, I will notice the attention start to fade. They become a little restless, look around the room, conversation starts to digress, and so on. At this point I wrap that activity up and move onto a different activity. We might look at another song, clap some rhythms or do some sight reading. I want an activity that backs up the learning objectives of the first activity and still requires some concentration, but which allows them to relax a little.
At 15-20 minutes we simply can’t get the same level of focus out of a child so I move on to lower pressure activities like familiar scales, aural skills, Italian terms, asking questions about what the different things on the stave mean and so on. The last 5 minutes (or more if necessary) are fun activities like playing music cards or talking about music and me showing them things on YouTube or showing them some fun tunes by rote.
I won’t force a child to do any activity they don’t want to do. Obviously I’ll push through any token resistance to doing hard work instead of chatting, but if they don’t like what we’re doing I might ask them to do it for 5 more minutes or we might just move onto something else. The thing is I have a stack of different activities to cover any particular area of learning so it doesn’t matter. If we’re practicing the notes around middle C we can do that with the tutor book, with flashcards, with my own book, with them writing down a tune that they watch me play, playing back a tune that I sing and so on. Your imagination is the only limit. I could easily change activities every 4-5 minutes in a 30 minute lesson without running out of ideas and constantly working with the child’s level of energy and attention (although my student would probably end up quite bewildered). It’s a very different prospect to slugging through the same activity long after the child’s attention and energy has faded.
That’s a typical lesson, but it’s not set in stone. On a day when I get more attention I’ll do more serious stuff, and on another day when there’s no attention I’ll have to settle for less. Like all of us, kids have good days and bad days, serious days and frivolous days. It’s important to roll with that, to find activities suitable for the student’s level of attention rather than locking horns and trying to force them to concentrate when they’re frazzled.
At the end of the lesson there’s a prize, either a sweet from the sweet jar or one of the toys and trinkets that I’m constantly scouring Amazon for. It’s not a reward or bribe and there’s no “if you’re good” conditions attached. It’s a thank you for doing some music with me and a congratulations for doing the lesson.
How to actually make music lessons fun
The real key to making lessons fun though, isn’t what lesson you give, it’s how you give it. The real key is me, the teacher. If I am fun to be around and interact with then the lesson is fun, and if I’m not, it’s not. My priority in early music lessons is nothing to do with music. It’s not what the child learns, it’s what they feel and think about music and the associations they make with it. It doesn’t matter how many exams they pass if the feeling that pops up every time they think of music lessons is of being told off, criticised and made to feel small.
I have three priorities regarding the way children feel in my lessons. They are that they feel safe and confident, that they can speak freely and spontaneously, and that we are following their interests enthusiastically. We’ll look at each of these in turn.
We assume (and hope) that a child’s physical safety is a given. By feeling safe I mean not ever having to feel on the defensive. Not feeling like someone is angry, frustrated or disappointed with you, trusting that the teacher will always be kind and not get angry with you, criticise you and tell you off. Everything we do in teaching will be from a position of positive regard and approval.
This is safety. It allows our young students to relax. It’s the safety you feel when you’re with a close and supportive friend, as opposed to a job interview or being cross-examined in court, where you feel people are there to challenge you and knock you down. We need this dynamic. We simply can’t work with a child who is nervous around us, we need them to relax and be happy if we are to get anywhere.
Safe and confident also means I’m not going to start dictating to my student. We come from the position that music is there for the child to enjoy and explore. Our job as teacher is to be their guide and facilitator on that journey. We don’t set conditions and obligations for them or get angry when they don’t do this or that because it’s for them to decide their level of commitment. If we want a student to try harder, we need to kindle the enthusiasm rather than simply demanding more. If a child doesn’t practice we might discuss it with them, encourage them, reward them and so on, but getting angry, punishing and laying down the law are ultimately self-defeating.
Through our consistent behaviour over time, children begin to trust that we are not going to get angry with them or be difficult, that they can relax and that the lesson environment is a safe and supportive place. One angry outburst can ruin all that hard work, so we have to be on guard in our weaker and more stressful moments. We treat criticism very gently and focus on positives and praise, celebrating every small success. It’s not enough to talk the talk, we have to live this approach and demonstrate it in every single lesson so our student can build trust.
After several weeks or months of seeing that you’ve always been cheerful and friendly and everything you’ve said has been to make them feel good about themselves, children start to relax, let their guard down and be themselves because they know they don’t have to worry about you judging them or flying off the handle. Now they feel safe and confident, and we have ticked off our first objective.
Next I want children to be able to speak freely and spontaneously. Some kids are chatterboxes anyway so that’s easy, I just have to keep the balance right so we chat but still get the lesson done. When kids are a shyer that’s obviously fine, but I will still be chatty with them. I tell them funny little stories about my day or whatever and let them listen, dropping in the odd little small-talk question like did they have a nice day at school or get wet in the rain earlier. I have conversation starters on the piano; my transparent metronome, Mr Tickle toy, neon erasers, model snails and violin rosin all have little anecdotes behind them which I can tell. The point isn’t the stories I am telling, the point is that I am demonstrating I am coming from a relaxed and free-speaking point of view. If I am relaxed and chatty the child can relax and chat, and that sets the tone for the lessons.
The chatty atmosphere is important because as children become secure in the knowledge that they can speak freely and spontaneously in lessons, they will be more ready to ask questions and discuss things they don’t understand, and feel they are able to articulate their own tastes and ideas without judgement, both of which makes it possible for me to pitch my lessons to their level of understanding and better direct lessons towards wherever their interest lies.
The chattiness also makes it easy for me to go off on musical tangents and tell them about different musicians, instruments and so on. Children need a broad view of music to understand what they like and don’t like and to be inspired. So it’s important that in those low-energy minutes towards the end of the lesson I can tell some funny stories about the composer whose music they’re learning, or watch someone play their music on YouTube. I particularly want to show them children or young musicians in their teens and twenties. I’m constantly trying to make the associations that music is fun, music is cool, and you can do this.
This brings me to my last objective, which is that the child feels we’re enthusiastically following their own interests and not forcing them to do what we want them to do. I give them choices in repertoire and what songs they want to learn, encourage them to bring their own song choices to me, and give them choices throughout the lesson. As mentioned earlier I can have many different activities to practice one thing, so it’s easy to give a choice of activity. It allows the child to pick what suits their way of learning best, but more importantly it backs up that I am there to facilitate, to allow them to choose their own musical direction and co-direct what they want to do in the lesson rather than dictating everything regardless of their wishes. Even if I’ve given the choice of three similar activities, the point that they’re doing something they’ve chosen to do makes a big difference.
At the end every lesson, the child’s experience is that they’ve come to a safe place with someone who’s nice to them, done a range of interesting musical activities while chatting and joking, learned some fun things about music, been praised for doing well and gone away with a toy or sweet.
There, now wasn’t that fun?
But does it work?
This can all sound a bit too wishy washy, too much power to the child and this hands-off, child-led approach does bring new challenges. I still have to deal with behavioural issues within the framework of not telling a child off or labelling them good or bad. And although my principle aim in the beginning isn’t musical progress, equally I don’t want to be in a situation where after a year of lessons a child has had loads of fun and learned next to nothing. So the great challenge with this approach is in its application, and in future posts I’ll cover things like practice and dealing with negative behaviour within this framework.
But yes it does work. Often we make little tangible progress for some time but then kids suddenly take the ball and run with it. They practice of their own accord and music becomes very important to them. They are making the choices and doing what they want to do, they own the activity rather than being obligated to it. It takes patience to get there but once we do they simply fly. Once we’ve got the foundations right, the sky’s the limit.
Parents seem to understand too. I always used to feel pressure as a teacher to deliver tangible progress so the parents would see we were doing well. But now when I take time to goof around and to consistently build the child up without complaining about lack of practice or telling them off for this and that, parents seem to feel more comfortable with my approach. Also it is in step with what they are trying to do with their child, to build their confidence and self-belief and to expose them to as much as possible of the world.
I think the biggest obstacle to this method of teaching is leaving our pride at the door. Many teachers, having studied for years to achieve their instrumental standard, like to be the omniscient oracle who must be respected at all times during the serious study of music. The way I teach involves constantly capitulating to six year olds. It may be frustrating and insulting to you that they’re not really in the mood and won’t do what you ask, but you have to roll with that, change the game and try and get their attention another way rather than getting angry and saying why aren’t you listening to me, do what I say and so on. The atmosphere has to take priority. That’s not always easy when a kid is being difficult to work with, but if your ego is so big that you can’t handle not having total authority over a small child, you’re in the wrong job. We’re not mere lecturers who sit and dryly impart information. We swallow our pride, we get inside the heads of our students, we roll our sleeves up and we teach.
So can you try a few lessons out and see if it’s fun? Please do. In fact, it’s exactly what you should be doing.