I remember it as though it were yesterday. The song was called “Moonlight and Roses.” I hated that piece. I still do!
With tears streaming down my face, try as I might, I was getting nowhere. My mum patiently sat with me, trying to coax me to work through my frustration but to no avail.
Things just went from bad to worse. As my progress on the song deteriorated, frustration turned to anger. “I HATE this song!” “I HATE my music teacher!” “I want to QUIT my music lessons!” “I GIVE UP!” I screamed, red in the face, anger exploding from every fibre of my 8-year-old body.
What happened next was my mum’s worst and finest hour of parenting! In hindsight, she should have stopped me to take a break. Things would have cooled down but no, she insisted we carry on! As I rumbled like a volcano, she helped me to break the song down and kept retorting with words like, “You will NOT be giving up your music lessons!”
Now, I look back and smile. I’m eternally grateful to my mum, who, in my moment of crisis, had the fortitude to help me succeed. Failure was not an option. And as I look back on the wonderful life of music-making that I’ve enjoyed, it’s amusing now to think that I so nearly gave it all up because of a song called “Moonlight and Roses!”
From time to time, our pupils face challenges in their lives that make them want to stop having lessons. How can we help them though to overcome their frustration and enjoy a life of music-making too?
1: Be observant
Over time, we get to know our students personality. Carefully observing any changes in their non-verbal communication can be really informative. Acting quickly can be all important. Here are some things we might watch for in a pupil:
• Routinely arriving late for their lesson (they used to always be punctual)
• Enter the teaching room with their head down and shoulders slumped
• Poor or no eye contact
• Excessive time spent looking for music in their bag
• Some books left at home
• Either tries to keep you talking instead of doing the lesson or very little talking at all
• Poor practice over several weeks
• Crying! (Pretty obvious that one)
Every human needs a “shoulder to cry on” but we must be very careful to keep it professional at all times. Don’t be quick to offer solutions. Listen. Really listen. Be careful not to interrupt our students as they share their frustrations with us. We can earn their respect if we give them good eye contact at this moment. Try and understand what has led up to the crisis. Sometimes discernment is needed to really understand the situation. Take any angry words with a “pinch of salt.” If they are under tremendous strain, they may say irrational things that they don’t really mean. Tactfully ask meaningful questions to better understand the issues.
3: Change direction
Too often, teachers can be rigid in their approach. “But this is how I’ve always done it.” “It worked for me.” So! Let’s try something different. If they’ve been preparing for an exam, maybe some non-exam pieces will give some light relief. Put scales on a two-week “holiday!” What song would they enjoy learning? Try something easy for a while! Maybe they simply need some extra help from us with a particularly challenging task.
4: Involve family
Pupils whose parents sit in during the lessons definitely progress the best. Sometimes a private chat with mum can work wonders. If siblings have lessons too, trying to build some healthy competition can be useful (or not) depending on the personalities involved.
5: Have fun!
Maybe the lessons have just lost their edge. Perhaps practising has become a bit stale. Can we think of ways to inject some all-important fun back into the equation? Many pupils enjoy playing duets. Or how about getting some sheet music with a backing track? What about trying some music learning apps? There are loads available. PianoMaestro has gone down a bomb with my students, adults alike. So many teachers share imaginative ways of teaching on their blogs; a quick google search can do wonders for finding some inspiration.
6: Support and encourage
As I look back on my musical education, I’m extremely grateful for all the support and encouragement that my parents and teachers gave me. Students can sense sincerity in our interaction with them. Creating an open and honest atmosphere where they aren’t frightened to express themselves is really important I think. This can be nurtured by openly sharing with them our own experiences, good, bad and ugly of the challenges we had of learning to be a musician.
However hard we may work to help our student through their moment of crisis, there is still the chance that they won’t make it through to the other side. Music is not for everyone and as long as we try our best, even the most experienced of teachers will have to accept that not all their students will continue as musicians; other interests may take over their attention. As sad as it might be, sometimes we just have to say goodbye. We mustn’t take it personally. Hopefully, we can part company on good terms with the door left open for the future perhaps.
How do you help pupils in crisis? Please feel free to share your tips, ideas and opinions in the comments below.