Mar 8, 2011

Practice makes hard things easy...

"I can't do it!"
"It's too hard."
"I don't like this song."
"Are we done yet?"

These words have been uttered in some form or another since the dawn of music.  I have heard them!  I remember uttering them.  It happens, no matter how fantastic a teacher you are, or how talented and naturally motivated the child may be.  How we handle these hurdles is the thing that can make or break how the child will move forward.  Every child is different, and so my responses to these statements vary, but here is my basic approach:

"I can't do it!"

Yes you can!
Um, no, that's not what I say.  If a child says that, chances are that they really can't.  At least not yet, but they don't know it.  If you respond with a counter-argument, you have started an argument.  A better response would be to say, "Yes, you can't do it yet.  I couldn't at first too, but I did learn how.  It will be hard work, but it will be worth it."

"It's too hard."

"You're so talented, this should be easy for you!" 

Again, no.  As the title of this post suggests, Practice makes hard things easy.  A good follow-up may be to share a brief personal story about how you overcame something that was hard.

"I don't like this song."

My response to this one varies from student to student, and from the circumstance.  Some students soar through their books, and get caught on one piece.  It will not mar their whole musical education if they skip that one.  In fact, giving them the power to veto a number can be very empowering for the student.  They have choices!
However, when a student says this to me, I have to wonder what is motivating this statement.  Do they really not like the song?  Fine, let's move on.  But what if they are just stuck on a specific measure?  The left hand has to change positions while the right hand has tricky fingering.  Challenges like that are not going to go away in the long run.  If the student repeats this statement at every lesson, it is probably more than a distaste for the melody that you are dealing with.
What do you do then?  Music should be fun, and the joy of music should not be choked by the need to overcome difficult phrases or challenges. 
Eat your vegetables, but make room for dessert.  Assuming that the method book that you are using really is a good one, stick with it.  But end the lesson with a fun activity (I try to do this anyway).  Make a deal that you get to pick some of the music, and they can pick a song that they want to learn.  Disney songs are often an appealing "dessert" for children.

"Are we done yet?"

First of all, don't take it personally.  Children are children, after all.  What is the attention span of the child?  A half-an-hour lesson can be a L-O-N-G time for a six-year-old, or even an adult.  It took me a few years of teaching to learn this, but a good solution is to have an "activity bag".  Inside were rhythm manipulatives, flash-cards, aural training exercises, and reward stickers.  Granted, if the child says this five minutes into the lesson as soon as they get to a tricky spot, you need to address that first.  But if the child is getting bored and the lesson seems long, as a teacher, maybe you need to shake things up a bit.  Incorporate movement into the lesson.  Let them stand up and stretch.  Let them stomp the beat and clap the rhythm.  Listen to a musical recording and let them dance.  Play with music manipulatives on the floor.  Yes, you can have a potty break, but come right back!

The truth is, maybe the child just isn't ready for a half-hour lesson, and that is really okay.  You may need to talk to the parent about doing a shorter lesson.  I taught one family that had a 4-year-old who REALLY wanted to take lessons like her big sisters.  Our arrangement was to shorten her 8-year-old's half-hour lessons by 10 minutes, and give it to the 4-year-old.  This worked remarkably well for both of the girls.


Being a music teacher or parent with an unwilling child can be difficult and frustrating.  There can be a fine line between pushing too hard and not challenging the student enough.  Every child is different, every teacher is different.  I admit that some of my students have quit piano.  Some parents have decided that I wasn't the best teacher for their child and found a different one.  One mother wanted to find a man to teach her boy.  That's okay, I truly hope that it worked out for them.  I teach as well as I can, and that is what is important.  For some children I was a perfect match, and our personalities worked well together.  Other relationships didn't work out as well.  If you find yourself wanting to find a different teacher for your child, a good music teacher will understand, and even agree.  Ask them if they have suggestions for alternatives.  Band?  Choir?  Orchestra?  Music competitions?  What instrument would be a good fit for this child?  Never let a teacher bully you into continuing lessons.  Do what is best for your family, and don't feel guilty about it.

As a parent, if you have a child who is struggling with music, I invite you take the time to step back and ask yourself what is motivating that struggle.  Is the teacher pushing them too hard, or just expecting them to do their best?  Are you pushing them too hard?  Maybe buried frustrations from dance class or soccer, or school are rearing their ugly head during music lessons.  Is music the offending party?  This can be very stressful for everyone.  Address the needs of your child.

Music is so beneficial for children, but maybe piano, trumpet, singing, or violin is not the best choice for the student RIGHT NOW.  It's okay to take a break.  It is okay to quit lessons.  It is okay to let your child drop out of orchestra.  Really, it is.  But it is also okay to reward your children for sticking through it.  It is okay to talk about the importance of learning music (it is important!).  It is okay tell your child that they don't get to watch TV until they have practiced.  Finding that balance will vary from family to family, and child to child.

Good luck finding that balance for your family.

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