For many young people, the early teen years are an exciting time of self-discovery. Their parents are letting them pursue their own interests and choose many of their own activities. And for teens who have been studying a musical instrument since they were very young, this often means stopping lessons and putting the instrument aside. (Of course, some teens do pursue musical study. But a parting of the ways does occur at this time, with a few teens intensifying their musical pursuits, and the vast majority letting it fizzle out and never returning to their instrument.)
Is this a good thing? A bad thing? Well, experience has shown me that most of them will later regret it. Not only does playing a musical instrument have benefits that go far beyond the instrument itself, such as increasing our attention span, learning to solve problems in real time, and increased pattern recognition abilities, it can be a lot of fun! In addition, many adults intuitively miss the emotional and physical aspects of playing and regret that they can’t pass this along to their children directly. A piano in the living room can be a joyful, multi-generational family experience.
What reasons do so many piano students give for why they stop lessons from the 6th through the 9th grade? Here are a few of the explanations I’ve heard:
1. Their friends aren’t playing anymore.
2. The music they hear on the radio doesn’t sound like their piano music.
3. They love music, but somewhere along the way, piano got “hard” and practicing became a chore.
4. They have more homework than when they were younger, and piano is just “one more thing I have to do.”
5. They are so involved in other activities that they can’t find time to practice every day. And without daily continuity, they can’t improve with their pieces.
Well, piano CAN be a fun and fulfilling activity for teens. When I taught piano at a K-12 school, I became known as the teacher “who could keep kids interested in piano for a few more years.” I found that if I could keep them with piano until they were 16 or 17 years old, most of them would rediscover their musical passion and would start to enjoy it again. A wonderful moment!
Here are a few things we can do to help teens stay interested in playing piano:
1. Be enthusiastic in every lesson. And I do mean EVERY lesson. (Even if you're overworked and tired.) Share your passion for each piece, and for how much fun it is to make music. This will help them stay interested, because they DO love music. They’re just overwhelmed.
2. Give them encouragement at every step, and continually remind them how much fun will result from their efforts. “Boy, what a beautiful passage that is. You’re going to really enjoy playing that in a few weeks when it’s become easier!”
3. Move laterally. Piano teachers tend to always be pushing towards more technique and harder pieces. This is well-meaning, but sometimes unrealistic. If the student has worked hard and learned a difficult piece, why not take a step back and assign a short, easy and “fun” piece. Or a whole year's worth of fun, musically-interesting pieces at the same level? (Because teen's brains are still developing, they will continue to improve with experience. If they learn 10 pieces at the same level, it will start to come very easy for them and they'll naturally be ready for something mare difficult. We don't always have to force this.) If we always pile on more and more and more, many students will eventually say “enough!” Imagine a soccer player who wins the game with a 40-yard goal. Does the coach say “Great shot! Now, next week I want to see 2 goals, each from 50 yards out.”? No, of course not. Yet this is exactly what our piano teacher instincts tell us to do. Music is not always about hard and harder. Even professional musicians play easy pieces as well as difficult ones. We need a mix of levels as well as styles to keep us interested.
4. Work with them, and their parents, to fit practicing into their overall schedule. Sometimes teens are so busy that even 5 minutes per day seems overwhelming. Some of my students have found that they can practice for 5 minutes every morning before school, after they’ve put on their coat and are waiting for their siblings to finish packing their backpacks. Others have found that 5 minutes at the piano makes for a refreshing study break. (Once I suggested that a teen try to practice at least 5 min per day, even though she claimed to "have no time to practice." At the next lesson, she said, "I wasn't able to do it. It always turned into 15-20 minutes!")
5. Ask them what music they like to listen to, and see if they want to play that music. Do you know what your students’ favorite songs are? Students respond well when we ask them questions about their favorite music. Share their enthusiasm and follow up with “What in particular do you like about that song? What do the lyrics say? Does it have a compelling beat? Does it have a cool piano part?” Even if they don’t end up playing that song, it’s wonderful to connect about music in general. Piano lessons can be MUSIC lessons. After all, they love music!
6. Watch a video together. I often watch a quick music video with my students. Usually something by The Piano Guys or something similar that bridges the gap between classical and pop. Since hardly anyone goes to piano concerts on a regular basis anymore, it's essential that they see pianists performing on the instrument. If they enjoy the performance, it will help keep the spark alive for them.
7. Speaking of The Piano Guys, there is a lot of music now that’s bringing classical music into the pop mainstream, and students LOVE this stuff! Check out The Piano Guys, as well as any pop song that has a beautiful piano part. Alternative rock, too. Like it or not, classical music isn’t mainstream anymore and I personally can’t find any reason to restrict anyone’s musical experience to only classical (unless they prefer this). “The more the merrier!” (After all, even Mozart didn't restrict his experience to only classical music.)
8. Expose them a wide variety of musical genres. There's so much great music in the world that never gets heard on mainstream anymore. Your student may love jazz, or Celtic music, and not know it, simply because she hasn't heard enough of that style yet. How about samba, blues, classic rock, bossa nova, show tunes, and gospel?
9. Learn how to improvise (at least a little) and teach your students how to do so. It is musically freeing, joyful, and more fun that you might imagine. Just take away any pressure to “get it right” or even sound “good.” You and your student both have good ears, so with practice, you'll get better at improvising. The real challenge, and the real reward, is to become more comfortable with it. In this respect it's just like learning a new language. If you haven’t improvised before, here are some lessons to get you started: http://keyboardimprov.com/lessons/free/ (And if you want to hear how Beethoven improvised, listen to his Fanstasia, Op.77. His student Carl Czerny wrote that this piece sounds just like how Beethoven actually improvised!)
So these are just a few ways that I’ve found to be effective in keeping teens interested in the piano. I sometimes say “I don’t teach piano. I teach the student.” Each person is different, and we owe it to them to connect with them in an individual way. A way that takes both their love of music and their whole environment into account. We need students, our students need (and want) music in their lives, and our culture needs active musical participation.
I’m sure you have your own experiences, challenges, and insights. Please share them with us in the comments below. Thanks, and good luck!
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