How to Tackle Your Biggest Music Teaching Problem

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Piano student and teacher

by Lara Levitan

Despite being awesome and rewarding, teaching music to kids has its challenges. One of the most common is working with the disinterested student. You know, the one who takes lessons only because her parents make her?

In this situation, shifting the focus of your teaching from technical accomplishment to simple enjoyment of playing can make a big difference.

“[For the student, it should be like] learning to do a card trick or saying something in another language,” says Piano Power instructor Dominic German.

Here are ten tips for engaging students who would rather poke out their eyeballs than take music lessons.

1. Be enthusiastic.

Or, in the words of Piano Power teacher Audie Lomboy, “hype it up.”

“Even if it’s the most boring song in the world, the way you approach it can make a huge difference,” Audie says.

Look at what you’re teaching through a fun filter, and your interest becomes contagious. Did you know Beethoven still wrote music when he became deaf? Or, Wow, this song has pedal in it! You finally get to use pedal— that’s so awesome. Or, This is my favorite song out of the whole book — it sounds fantastic!

2. Be interested in your student.

If she doesn’t enjoy learning the guitar, then what does she enjoy? What shows does she watch? What music does she love? Showing interest in your student not only builds rapport, it may give you ideas for integrating her interests into her lessons.

3. Get away from the instrument.

For some students, just approaching the piano may fill them with dread. Instead, play some music related games. (Susan Paradis’s site is a great resource.) . Carry a small whiteboard to draw up reading exercises, and when he completes them, reward him with a few minutes to draw on the board.

“Once there was a blackout and the student had an electric piano,” Audie says. “So we went outside and did some rhythm games with a basketball. Don’t be afraid to think out of the box.”

4. Incorporate the internet and apps.

What kid doesn’t love being online? Luckily there are tons of great, kid-friendly websites that explore musical topics and ideas. Check out Hear the Music Play for comprehensive advice and information about instruments and gear.

A whole world of music-teaching apps that kids love is available for free— here are some of our teacher favorites.

5. Teach pop music.

The average preteen might not feel a soul connection with Johann Sebastian Bach. But ? Now that’s another story.

Piano Power’s philosophy centers around teaching kids to play the music they love, thereby fostering a lifelong love of music. It works. When kids learn to play what moves them, they’re more likely to enjoy playing– and to keep at it.

6. Teach by demonstration first, save the note-reading for later.

Note-reading can be tough. And you don’t want to further dishearten a student who’s already not feeling it. Instead, let your student imitate what you play.

“Teaching via demonstration and imitation at first can help spark interest while avoiding the discouragement that often accompanies the difficulties of beginning note-reading,” Dominic says.

7. Let small mistakes slide– in moderation.

Remember, our focus is helping the student enjoy himself. If he’s continuously making a mistake that could derail his understanding, then correct it. But ignoring minor errors for the sake of encouragement can pay off in the end.

8. Do an instrument inspection.

Have your ever opened the piano lid during your lesson? What a chest of wonders to behold! Sometimes looking at how an instrument works can spark interest, especially for a student with mechanical intelligence.

“Realizing that each key actually activates a hammer that hits a set of strings can be pretty darn cool to younger students,” Audie says.

9. Use incentives.

Ah, incentives: a classic tool among parents and teachers alike. There’s a reason so many people use them. Especially with younger students, promising an awesome sticker, a dollar store toy, or a few minutes to get up and dance after achieving a small goal can work wonders.

10. Be generous with encouragement.

Everyone needs it, especially a kid whose negativity affects their playing. Create small victories for your student by setting achievable goals, and then dole out the encouragement. Then breathe. And take one lesson at a time.

Want more? Check out Piano Power founder Abraham Levitan’s advice on How to Inspire a Bored Music Student.

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