How do we stop students quitting?

Guest Post by Karen Marshall

These days when I catch up with teaching colleagues, there is often a common theme:

“I need to recruit some new students as I’ve got X amount leaving (especially in the summer term).”

The numbers vary from just one to as many as twelve.

As most are self employed with bills to pay, adverts are out, websites are being updated, and they are doing their very best to fill those gaps – and fast!

We will always have some students leave as families move out of the area, or a student leaves for work or University. However increasingly (from anecdotal evidence) it appears that students are giving up in greater numbers. With lots of other activities going on, children heavily tested with demanding national examinations along with technology distractions, instrumental learning can suffer.

In my own teaching practice, I have tried to become much more conscious about any signs that perhaps I need to adapt a little in order to keep a student coming through the door…

What are the signs a student may be disengaging?

The pretty obvious one is that they simply stop practising.

But there are others:

  1. They forget their books frequently.
  2. They miss lessons due to lots of other commitments.
  3. They look at the clock rather too frequently and yes, yawn a little.
  4. They compare themselves with others (siblings and friends) who are making faster progress.

Here are a few thoughts and ideas I’ve gathered in my teaching. Hopefully there may be something that could be helpful. 

Creating meaning and purpose

Music is like anything else. We feel more motivated to do it if we feel it serves a purpose. Creating meaning with our students can be done in a number of ways.

Recently I’ve been asking my students more why they are learning. Actually getting them to think about it has, I believe, been helpful. And I’ve been able to provide a curriculum that suits what is driving them.

Here are some of the things that they’ve been saying:

  • “It’s a good thing to put on my UCAS form personal statement, as it shows that I have other hobbies and interests.”
  • “I really love music! Playing the piano always cheers me up when I’ve had a sad day.”
  • “I like to see myself making progress. It takes some time to do that on the piano, but that makes it even more worthwhile.”
  • “My music is totally different to my school work, and gives me a break from homework and revision. It chills me out.”
  • “I want to teach the piano when I get older.”
  • “I like to play music I know, so I can play it to my friends.”

As a teacher it’s always valuable to explain ‘what’s in it for them’. From developing ‘life skills’ of organisation and grit, to talking about other benefits mentioned in Susan Hallam’s research commissioned by Music Education Council, The Power of Music.

The value of community
…and the teacher pupil relationship

A Student Concert can really motivate, as can pairing students up with a duet partner, band or ensemble group to encourage one another. Not least, they are able to compare notes and realise the other person has similar frustrations at times, and they can problem solve together.

Group activities also produce a fuller sound (stereo does feel pretty fantastic when performing).

Do check out if your local EPTA group has a non competitive festival, new for 2020. Huge numbers of children and adults are already embracing these none competitive performance opportunities.

The TED talk by Rita F Pierson ‘Every kid needs a champion’ has some excellent advice for teachers on the teacher pupil relationship. Most importantly students need to feel you like them

Showing progression

Learning an instrument is a slow burn! 

Some students can feel they are not making progress. I have begun (with signed permission) to start to record students at the beginning of a piece and then again at the end.

The progress also from an easy piece several months earlier to a harder piece later gives evidence of achievement.

Providing material that motivates – not demotivates

I have found that the material I offer is a balance. I cover core repertoire, but also music in the moment.

Following the recent film, Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen was one such recent hit.

I have learnt over the years that I have perhaps given too much material, or that it’s been hard. I now regularly ask what the student wants to work on. That way, they also tend to take more responsibility in what they practice.

Other things to motivate include:

  • Topic-based teaching, so you can provide a student with a much deeper understanding of what they are playing. When we understand something we can enjoy it more. I often pick a style to focus on in a month and cover all aspects of it from repertoire to history, composing to listening activities.
  • Diversity in lessons: what opportunities are there for composing, improvisation, playing by ear, ensemble playing, or even listening to some fantastic performance (by you the teacher or on You Tube)?

Encouraging independent learning

We must remain continually aware of the need to help our students become independent. If we intend on giving lots of new repertoire we must work at note reading on an ongoing basis so a student can tackle it at home.

We can encourage further independence by 

  • Getting students to source their own repertoire.
  • Asking them to source good performances of their piece on YouTube, even marking it using an exam board criteria.
  • Asking them to research around the music they are playing.
  • Encouraging live performance attendance and working with other musicians informally through ensembles, bands and duet playing.

Karen Marshall

Karen Marshall is co-author of ‘Get Set! Piano’ and  ‘The Intermediate Pianist’ with Heather Hammond, and The Foundation Pianist with David Blackwell. She teaches students of all ages and abilities as a peripatetic, private and classroom music teacher (primary) in York. She is a specialist in Music and Special needs.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs Keyquest Music - his successful independent music education business, private teaching practice and creative outlet.

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