Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Teaching mature students











Every adult is good at something. As people get older, they often build their sense of self-worth on the skills they’re good at. So when an older adult decides to learn an instrument from scratch or after many years of not playing, they can feel pretty vulnerable.  The teacher’s agenda may therefore need to be flexible.

There are no sure-fire devices or formulas for teaching anything to anybody, but the more you understand a student’s goals and personality, the more adaptable and helpful you can be as a teacher.

I should probably explain what I mean by “older”.  Mostly I’m thinking of seniors, people who are retirement age picking up an instrument or revisiting one they used to play.  But much of this article could also apply to students in their 40s and 50s — it all depends on the student’s self image.

Some older beginners set a time limit for themselves, figuring that they’ll invest in learning the instrument for, say, two years, and if they’re not good enough by then, move on to another project.  While it can be fun for people to try out new things for a few years each, aiming to “get good” at something within a time limit is a false goal.  Part of a teacher’s job is to set expectations.  In that vein, I like to make it clear that “getting good” at an instrument is purely in the eyes of whoever happens to listening at any given time.  The only thing a student can truly aim for, week to week, and year to year, is to get better.  Of course, another part of a teacher’s job is to set no limits and allow a student to go as far as possible, hopefully defying all expectations!

Some older students take on a new instrument because they have always loved music and are thrilled to participate in making it.  They need to learn to make a good sound so they can enjoy working on any melodies they may attempt.  Criticism needs to be always constructive.  Older players know quite well when something doesn’t sound good; what they need most are specific goals for improving each element of their playing.

I mentioned the improvement of “each element of their playing” — this is probably the key point.  Many students, of any age, are discouraged by the slightest bad sound or “mistake”.  It’s the teacher’s job to help them maintain perspective, and balance intonation vs continuity, timing vs sound quality, expression vs precision.  If they succeed in playing a phrase of music in time, for example, they should be made aware of the importance of that accomplishment.  Playing a note out of tune could be quite a minor flaw by comparison, and yet that’s the kind of mistake older players often focus on, sometimes to the point of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  There are some adults who are very quick to say they “can’t play” something, but it may well be that they simply missed a few obvious elements while doing very well with basic music and technique of it.  To such students I joke that if I ever hear them say they “can’t” do something, they’ll have to do 5 pushups!

Learning an instrument is often quite different than anything some people have ever done.  Whereas much of an office job is about checking off tasks on a to-do list, music is never about that; it’s more of an appointment calendar, where you have to get to your next measure on time regardless of whether you finished the previous one.  People have to accept that playing a beautiful sound in time is worth more than playing a string of correct notes out of time.

Above all, older adults have to come to understand that music is not played by the eyes or brain, but by the hands and ears.  Their eyes and brain can’t control everything.  Knowing how to do something is not equivalent to doing it.  Practicing involves giving the muscle memory a chance to sink in.

Much of this is true of all students, but particularly older students can be self-conscious about memory gaps, and may fear seeing their hands be uncooperative or fear not being able to remember some of the music or finger patterns.  It’s essential that the teacher point out that these problems are no different for students of any age.  Memorizing strings of individual notes instead of learning patterns and phrases of music is no more effective for young students as old; it’s just that the older ones might fear that it’s their age that’s keeping them from remembering everything.

In the end, learning music as an older adult is beneficial for people’s mental abilities, expands people’s understanding of themselves and how they learn, and is a pleasure in and of itself.  It’s great to give older students a chance to play with others in a class or in a music party, and while pursuing your own agenda to help them improve musically and technically, it’s an excellent idea to allow them to learn their favorite music, even if you have to work on one measure or two a week on top of their other work.  You may need to simplify the music to make it easier to learn, but they’ll love making progress on it.  Even the most difficult music can be broken into manageable pieces.

There are many retired people who wish they had taken up music, or wish they had continued it instead of quitting as kids.  It’s a pleasure and a life skill that they should not deny themselves, and neither should any teacher!


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Ok, this is going to be controversial!

It is competition season where I live. We just had the Southern California Junior Bach Festival (read my previous blog), and last weekend we had the Temecula Young Artist Piano Competition. I have established a reputation of being a teacher who prepares students for competitions, so obviously for me the answer is yes – I believe in competitions!

Here are my reasons:

  1. Provides motivation – This is the biggest reason. Just like preparing for exams, competitions motivate students to practice more. They put in extra effort because there is the potential to win something. Kids love medals and trophies, and teenagers love cash! Money motivates!
  2. Opportunity to learn – Listening to others perform in competitions can be extremely beneficial for a student’s growth as a musician. Sometimes a fellow competitor may play something they learned in the past – they learn to critique and form an opinion on whether they did a better or worse job. Sometimes they hear someone play something that they don’t know and they are inspired and want to learn it, too. They can also learn a great deal about stage presence and expression from watching others. 
  3. Life is a series of competitions – Whether we like it or not, competition is a very real fact of life. Most people have no problems with sports competitions. Think Super Bowl. When it comes to music competitions however, many people frown. “Competition is for horses” they say. Getting into a good college is a competition. Getting a good job is a competition. If we shelter students from competitions because we do not want their feelings hurt, well they are going to get the shock of their life eventually. 
  4. Reality check – Sometimes, students or parents have a different perception of how good they are. Competitions can open their eyes and ears. The world is full of very talented and hard-working students!
  5. I learn, too – I learn a great deal from attending my students’ competitions. Especially when other competitors play a familiar piece, it is good to hear a different interpretation than the one I have taught my students. It also opens my eyes to some amazing performances by other teachers’ students. 
  6. Dealing with unfavorable results – Sometimes the results of a competition is strange. We can never understand the judges! For the most part, they do a great job selecting the winners, but sometimes, it is very different from our own selections as to who the winners should be. Oh well – that is life! Music is subjective. Don’t let one competition result destroy your faith. Here is an open letter I wrote to my students about dealing with competition results.
  7. Keeps us all humble – No one wins all of the time. This is good for students to learn. We can never take success for granted. If we are not successful this time, it is ok. Try again next time!

This does not mean that I think every student should do competitions. I also have students that don’t compete at all, and I love teaching them just as much! But certainly, if a student wants to compete, or if I feel they are ready and will benefit from competing, I will not hold them back. 

What are your thoughts regarding competitions?

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Are your studio policies where you want them? Do you have policies?

If you run a school of music, a studio, or teach in your home, then you are a professional. You are an independent music instructor. A business person. You offer a vital service to your community. Your policies should reflect a level of respect for yourself as such. As a result, others will respect you. They will appreciate that your policies protect their interests as well.

How I came to believe in policies

I taught out of my home studio successfully for fourteen years with no written policies in place. I took a five-year break while my sons were young. When I started up again, it was with a greater need to help our family’s finances. I was surprised to find the landscape had changed. After-school activities had mushroomed, making the competition fierce for time and commitment. Parents or sitters taxied children from one activity to the next, barely having time to grab a bite to eat.

With increasing frequency, I’d wait for students who never showed. Sometimes I’d get a call earlier in the day. If we couldn’t find time to schedule a makeup lesson, I lost the income. The rare times we did reschedule, it always cut into our family time. How frustrating. I sent out notes asserting the importance of consistency. It did not help. My income was cut nearly in half!

One day as I waited for a talented young lady to arrive, her mother called, flustered.

“She has an extra dance rehearsal tonight, to prepare for the recital.” Then the mother flipped the switch that lit my understanding for good. “We really have to be there. We paid for all the lessons in advance, and there are no makeups.”

Wow. Why should I sit here in an empty studio while these other organizations, earning money from a few hundred students compared to my thirty, tapped my source of income?

I turned to other teachers online for counsel. In the process, I learned about running a business in a professional manner. This changed how I pictured and valued myself. I hadn’t given myself a raise in years. I was nervous about launching policies and a pay-raise, fearing I’d lose clients. But my fellow teachers encouraged and bolstered me.

I took a few months to sift through and study others’ policies. I chose the ones that fit me best. When I finally sent them out to families, holding my breath, the response was tremendous. Parents called to congratulate and thank me. They sent their registration fees and first tuition checks promptly. Only one backed out, and honestly, I think the family would not have continued anyway.

Benefits of instituting policies

Immediately and increasingly, my families and the community viewed me as a local studio as opposed to someone “who taught music to a few students.” If a child took lessons with me, it was something they could add to their portfolios with pride. Parents referred others to me. Many paid the full semester in advance, but some gratefully paid the tuition in four equal monthy installments. No more counting and billing one, two or five lessons in the month, every family different. Within a few months my waiting list grew. Gradually other teachers came to me for counsel.

I grew more serious about myself as an educator as a result of my policies. I attended more continuing education courses. I found ways to offer students more. I reviewed my past experiences as a musician, and included them in what I offered.

Now I teach knowing that if a student doesn’t show up, I’m covered. I don’t get bent out of shape with the family. But truthfully, they seldom miss a lesson anymore.

What items should policies cover?

Each private music instructor’s policies are as individual as fingerprints. So I encourage you to do your homework. Read others’ policies. If you associate with teachers who don’t post theirs publicly, ask to see them. Private music teachers are, by and large, a giving bunch, willing to offer a hand up. If you worry that parents will feel your policies are too strict, this might help.

Here’s what I include 

What I offer in lessons

I place this near the front, because it illustrates what makes me unique among my local colleagues. I always start with a mention of the lifelong benefits of music instruction. Then I tell them what lessons with Steinweg Studio of Music will include.

Tuition concerns

I explain that students enroll in a course of study similar to a school, with a semester tuition as opposed to a per-hour rate. The tuition ensures that their lesson time is reserved for them each week.

In addition to regularly scheduled weekly lessons, they have opportunities to attend at least two Master Classes per semester, and to perform in one recital per semester. Other performing opportunities may arise but are also not mandatory.

There is no credit for missed lessons. However, I offer a swap list to make it easier to switch lesson times with other students if conflicts arise. I ask them to try to avoid scheduling other appointments during their lesson time. If a true emergency or contagious sickness arises, they can be put on a 3-week cancellation list. If someone cancels during those weeks, they will have opportunity to take that time.

Payment Options

By giving families options, fewer feel excluded, even if my rates are higher than some in my town. They have seen that I offer more than many others.

I teach 30, 45 and 60-minute lessons. I reserve the final say as to whether students are ready for longer lessons. I wouldn’t want to end up babysitting a 5-year-old student with a 5-minute attention span for a full hour. Students can pay the full semester of x lessons per semester in advance, or make four equal monthly installments. Tuition is due no later than the s

econd scheduled lesson of the semester. Payment after that point will include a 10% per week late fee.

You can decide whether to accept cash or check. Alternatively, if you have an online bookkeeping service such as Music Teachers Helper, families can pay online. They can also be sent email reminders of scheduled lessons or recitals, birthday greetings, and so much more.

Using Music Teachers Helper means families can pay online.

Registration fee

I debated long about whether to charge an additional fee and how much. After I added up the amount I spent on extra items, I realized I wasn’t earning anywhere near what I hoped. I list some of these extras in my policies so families can  see how reasonable it is.

I have raised the fee a couple of times, and am considering raising it again this year. I make sure that if I do, I provide added value for the student in some way.

This fee is once per school year per student. This is the only time I give a discount for more than one student in a family, since it’s partly to cover bookkeeping, and I do that by family. The fee is due along with the first tuition payment. It remains the same whether or not they start lessons in September.

I explain that it is a nonrefundable fee to help defray the cost of such studio expenses as legal photocopies, Master Class materials, computer software, incentives, instrument maintenance, bookkeeping, recital programs, refreshments and supplies, travel and/or time spent searching for music and materials.

Next month’s policy article, Part II

Next month here on the Music Teacher’s Helper blog I’ll discuss such things as makeup lessons, practice expectations, swap lists, communication and creating registration forms.

If you have further questions or would like to share how you handle your teaching policies, I welcome your comments.

Our policies can provide protection and relief for all concerned.

Happy teaching!




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