A few months back I was stuck in a difficult situation with a student – Jeff. Every week he would come to lessons underprepared or not practiced at all. It’s easy to just look at a kid and think they’re lazy, don’t care or have an addiction to YouTube that rules their life. I already talked to his parents, nothing improved. Do I let him go?
Jeff was different from the standard non-practicer. He complained of being tired and couldn’t focus well in lessons. Did he have a learning disability, insulin problem, or maybe he was just busy? One day I decided to ask Jeff a simple question.
“What do you do besides piano?”
His answer that day forever changed my interview process for students and parents. I no longer accept students like Jeff.
Jeff went on to tell me all the activities he does. I counted 12 including piano.
On top of private school homework and the 12 activities, Jeff could barely be a kid. I’m not a child psychologist, but as a child developer I always endorse “less is more”.
Should kids just be kids?
In 2012, Finland led the world in education rankings. They are still the only western country to remain in the top 5 in the world ranking of education systems. Their model consists of self-discovery, no high-stakes tests, grades from 5th grade, understanding of topics and performance-based work portfolios. Teachers undergo rigorous training and are culturally equal to doctors.
A major problem music educators face in the US is a result of the failing state of education in our country: overburdened children. Parents are aware of the low performing education in the US and as a result they supplement school with tutoring and activities. Sometimes these additional classes add up to unbearable amounts of work.
This brings me back to Jeff.
How can Jeff develop his piano skills with only 5 minutes every other day and a lesson once per week? How will doing poorly at recitals and lessons effect his confidence?
By not teaching Jeff anymore or accepting students like him, I see it as a favor to his parents and him. I also believe as you progress as a teacher and develop a wait list you should cultivate a studio where students earn their spot in your studio – it’s a mutual priviledge. Fill your studio with students you love to work with and who love to work with you so that they can improve at every lesson and encounter. By auditioning students, the ones who get in feel as though they have an exclusive membership based on their earned ability and continued commitment – not just another purchased class their parents buy.
More often than not, students you reject that do belong in the studio will work hard and re-audition. Two of my best students were rejected two times before earning their spot. I love teaching them and give them my best every lesson.
This is a real challenge that so many of us music educators face and starting a conversation about it will improve our ability to help kids and guide parents. How many of your students have more than eight activities and classes a week? How do you over come this challenge?
This is an important topic. Kids need to be kids! Despite their boundless energy, there’s a limit to how much they can absorb. It’s tempting to want your children to learn “all the things”, but they need limits in order to devote their full attention, stay healthy, and produce their best work. We generally let our boys participate in two arts-related activities and one sport at any given time… and that is plenty.
My students sign a contract (or their course syllabus) confirming that they understand my expectations for practice time, progress, and performances. If they don’t meet their end of the deal, they know that they risk a lower grade or being dropped. On a more practical level, I ask students to schedule their daily practice time(s) as non-negotiable events, just like they would attend a mandatory soccer practice or math class. If they put it on their calendar, they are more likely to be consistent. I also encourage some students to find a friend to meet at the practice rooms, like a workout partner, for extra accountability.