How can piano teachers keep their students’ interest through the “difficult” teenage years, and stem the pupil drop off that seems to be such a worldwide problem?
This seems to be widely recognised as one of the big educational challenges of our time. The suggested answers are many and varied. But one thing is for sure: if we can retain our students through this phase of their lives, the potential rewards are great indeed.
The Adolescent Brain
For those involved in teaching, parenting, or interacting with teenagers and young adults, ‘Harnessing the incredible learning potential of the adolescent brain‘ by Katrina Schwartz is a must-read article, throwing light on some hugely important findings.
Katrina starts by acknowledging the challenge:
“It has become a cultural cliché that raising adolescents is the most difficult part of parenting. It’s common to joke that when kids are in their teens they are sullen, uncommunicative, more interested in their phones than in their parents and generally hard to take.”
But she goes on to dispel this negative image with a positive challenge:
“This negative trope about adolescents misses the incredible opportunity to positively shape a kid’s brain and future life course during this period of development.”
Here are some compelling points made in the article:
“Because the brain is still developing during adolescence, it has incredible plasticity…
“The adolescent brain is exquisitely sensitive to experience. It is like the recording device is turned up to a different level of sensitivity. That’s why humans tend to remember even the most mundane events from adolescence much better than even important events that took place later in life…
“It also means adolescence could be an extremely important window for learning that sticks.”
While Katrina Schwartz’s post has special significance for understanding adolescence it also gives us much to consider in terms of adult learning. And in turn this can strengthen our resolve to persevere in our work with teenagers and young people.
I teach a lot of adult students (more than 30 at present), and have generally found that those who participated in some form of music making during their adolescent years (not necessarily piano) do seem to find it much easier to learn the piano later in life, whether as beginners or returning students. On the other hand, those who had no musical experience as adolescents often report to me that they are finding it difficult to progress, even with a lot of practice.
This is one of the many reasons that I believe we must do all we can to support secondary / high school music teaching, both through practical involvement where possible and through advocacy.
We should not only be concerned with an adolescent’s current attainment, but recognise that if neurological pathways aren’t formed during this crucial time in their lives, their efforts later in life might well be disadvantaged and limited.
Imagine your are in a forest and headed in a certain direction, but there is no pathway. So you have to cut a fresh one through the thicket. You might use that fresh path for a while, until it becomes a permanent established pathway.
Suppose you then start making new pathways to other destinations, and don’t visit the first path for several years. That path might now have become overgrown through lack of use, but once you revisit, it should be easy enough to cut back any overgrowth and reuse the path.
In much the same way, if the brain can connect “new” learning paths to existing ones, with only minimal clearing, then progress will be quicker. If however there are gaps in learning where neurological pathways haven’t previously been established at all, there might well be difficulties, and progress is likely to be noticeably slower.
It helps if we understand that an adult student’s effort, commitment and time spent practising are not necessarily the decisive factor in their progress (or lack of it).
As teachers, we should look out for those familiar old pathways which we can use as a basis for fresh learning, while also being particularly sympathetic to the fact that if connections need to be made from scratch, the going might well be hard. A whole lot of patience and perseverance will probably be needed by both teacher and learner.
Helping Teenagers Stay on Course
Many teenagers will not be aware of the lifelong benefits of “harnessing the incredible learning potential of the adolescent brain”. But here we can offer friendly advice.
I believe that by considering the lifelong benefits of learning an instrument during adolescence, we can encourage our teenage students in two ways:
- Those who stay the course are likely to multiply their long-term musical learning potential by doing so, adding considerably to fulfilment in later life.
- Those who – for whatever reason – decide to stop lessons can be encouraged to know that returning as an adult will enable them to build on what they have already learnt, so that their work has not been for nothing.
Recognising the benefits of their learning, and considering the broader context of their ongoing fulfilment, many teenagers will feel that piano lessons have renewed purpose and urgency. And for some, this will be sufficient to help them move forward positively as learners, leaving behind any doubts they may have about the value or relevance of piano lessons.
This can also mark the moment at which they start to take greater responsibility for their own learning, and contribute more constructively to developing ongoing learning goals.
We are constantly reminded that today’s young people face unprecedented challenges, functioning in perhaps the most competitive society in recent history. Excessive testing at school and (in many places) a narrowing curriculum are changing the complexion of “learning” in a formal environment, while the internet has changed the rules of socialisation.
“Giving up” piano lessons is perhaps, for some, the easy option in a difficult balancing act. But it surely doesn’t hurt to discuss the impact that their decision might have in later life. Those who have wanted to learn the piano today are likely to return to their interest in music tomorrow – and it surely makes sense to maximise the value of learning during adolescence.
With a sympathetic teacher, piano lessons through the teenage years can be a fabulous outlet for creative development – and for some young people this might be an important oasis in an otherwise fairly “dry” spell.
Did you know that adolescence is now regarded as lasting from the age of 10 to 25? No, me neither! This is a wide age group, during which such a significant proportion of all instrumental tuition takes place.
I would suggest that music and creativity are among the very best ways that we can encourage positive outcomes for young people. So whatever our role in this process, let’s be positive and do all we can to embrace the challenge!
With special thanks to Louise Eales RMN for her expertise in Child & Adolescent Psychology and helpful input during the writing of this article.