One of the most common problems in any field of education is how to deal with students who simply don’t want to learn what you teach.
Some are easy to convert with a little shift in perspective. Others are intent on simply not enjoying anything you have to offer.
It’s frustrating: I certainly want all of my students to be passionate about music, to leave lessons feeling like they made real progress and have a clear path to becoming better. But it doesn’t always work out that way.
I’ve made the mistake of letting the students take charge of where lessons should go when I should be the one guiding them. However, experience has taught me that 1) a student who wants to learn will quickly learn to ask the right questions and 2) a student who does not want to learn needs to be guided to become better while feeling open to providing feedback when the time is right.
My personality type makes me want to put a ton of effort into students who don’t like lessons, to somehow “save” them from their boredom. I was in their shoes. I hated lessons for many years.
But I have to keep reminding myself that there are students who are passionate, who work hard, who love their interactions with me. Those are the students who I should be investing in. I’ll still work hard with the ones who don’t want to learn in hopes that things will turn around, but I can’t burn myself out chasing unattainable goals.
In my heart, I still believe that there’s a way to reach every kind of student, but there’s only so much that can be done with weekly sessions and the drag of reluctance.
The other day, I had a voice student who began the lesson with a question: “What do you do when someone says something bad about your singing?”
This is a topic that many performers will confront at some point, and I thought I’d share my thoughts here. The answer is threefold:
1. It’s part of the job. It’s part of life.
People will say hurtful things. Sometimes they won’t be justified. Sometimes, people unintentionally hurt you, but the fact that it was an accident doesn’t change that you’re hurt when you’re hurt. For example, if someone accidentally runs over your foot with a Mack truck, the fact that it was an accident doesn’t change the fact that your foot is hurt/pancaked.
However, we as humans have to accept that sometimes, we get hurt. Part of putting yourself out there includes running the risk of being at the receiving end of both due and undue criticism. It doesn’t mean it’s right or that it’s fair, but it’ll happen. By accepting that it happens, we emotionally prepare ourselves for what’s to come.
2. Use the pain to fuel you.
When you’re hurt, you’re hurt, but we can choose how the pain affects our lives. If we allow hurtful words to stop us from doing the things we love, we’re the only ones who lose out. I explained that I’m a hypersensitive person and can get pretty upset over things like this. So what I like to do is to remember the person who hurt me and how they made me feel. That person becomes a symbol for why I need to work harder.
Internally, I’ll be thinking, “I’ll show you!” or whatever gets me motivated. Externally, I’ll practice harder and work on my weak spots. The idea is not to ever let the person know that he/she got to you but rather to repurpose the negative feelings into positive fuel to ward off laziness, inefficiency, and bad practice habits. When I don’t feel like practicing, I remind myself of the face, the feeling, and the purpose.
Everyone’s different in how they are motivated, but by finding a way to use negative comments to help you work harder will make sure that hurtful words never set you back more than it needs to.
3. Write a song
So many great (and lucrative) songs have been made in response to someone hurting the songwriter. Great songs are tied to strong emotions, and being hurt is something we can all relate to. There’s no better way of “getting back” at someone than to become ultra-successful or to at least make lemonade from bitter lemons. Inspiration is tough to find, so if something truly moves you, use the opportunity to really get your creatives juices flowing.
Ultimately, the message I tried to get across that revenge and discouragement is not the answer. You can never find the relief you want by saying or doing anything to the person who hurt you. However, there’s a lot we can do for ourselves to improve ourselves, our crafts, and our emotional outlook.
It’s been over a month since my last lessons with my students in Pennsylvania. Recently, I received an letter from a parent about the recent success of her daughter who was a multi-talented voice/piano/guitar/songwriting student of mine. The article she linked to commended my student for her passion, originality, and strong audience response.
My immediate response was pride. Pride in Sarah, her work ethic, her passion, and her dedication toward music. However, as much thankful as they might be for my hand in Sarah’s success, it ultimately was Sarah herself to truly earned it. More on that in a moment.
I recently taught a band of students who frustrated me. I was simply substituting while their usual teacher was out. The frustration stemmed from several sources. Their behavior was mostly of teen-aged horseplay and acts of defiance. They were clearly trying to get a response out of me and test my patience: intentionally playing and singing poorly, criticizing every critique I had for them, questioning my musical abilities, mocking my “elevated” vocabulary, hinting ethnic slurs, and doing everything except trying to work on music. They clearly weren’t interested in taking any direction from anyone, let alone some guy they were seeing for a day.
So I let them goof off. And they got nothing from me.
Here’s the sobering reality: teachers are paid to have students fail.
Whether a child is learning piano or arithmetic, the teacher will get paid regardless of the student’s success. That said, it’s not a sustainable business model to do nothing and fail all students. In my experience, most teachers want to see their students succeed and thrive. However, our living doesn’t depend on that success necessarily.
As a teacher, I don’t think I can inherently teach anything. My role is to guide students down one of several paths of my expertise. However, if the student’s destination is opposite of mine, I can’t guide them. I can lecture. I can spout facts. I can demonstrate. Yet, if the student is not receptive, nothing is heard. Nothing is learned. Nothing is taught.
That said, it would be completely irresponsible of teachers to do nothing every time they meet resistance from students. Yes, part of our role is to be babysitters. For those poor souls teaching a public school class filled with students unwilling to learn, their role is simply a government-sanctioned babysitting service. The teacher can try to teach in class, but his/her ultimate job is to make money to support his/her family.
But beyond babysitting, parents rely on us, our training, our experience, and our expertise to help think of creative ways to frame the lessons in ways where the student becomes willing and able to learn. After all, a large part of being an adult is doing things that you really don’t want to do. Kids have to learn that lesson some time or risk staying in a state of arrested development. (Or they can become musicians.)
I’ve had many students like Sarah. I’ve also had many students like the band. Most students fall somewhere in the middle. In my experience, many lean a little closer to Sarah. I’ve had many students go from being apathetic or even hating music to becoming music lovers. I was one such student. All it took me was the right guidance, the right way of framing music, a way that made the lessons relevant to me.
I feel sad and guilty that in the short, single lesson I had with the band, the parents wasted their hard-earned money. I feel sad and guilty that the students didn’t even appreciate what their parents were trying to do for them. Even more sad was that the students were talented and capable of doing great things with some guidance.
Yes, I’m paid to see my students fail, but I want to see them succeed. They don’t have to become musicians, but I don’t want them to be among the millions of people who say, “I used to take lessons, but I was never any good at it. I wish I stuck with it.”
Students like Sarah make my job easier. They also make it rewarding. They help me grow. Progress can be seen with every small effort made on both the part of teacher and student. The teacher’s experience becomes an open well of wisdom and ideas rather than a dousing hose to get misbehaving students to cool off. Parents are happy because their hard-earned money is going towards guidance that helps make their child’s life more full, rich, and fulfilling. Kids are happy because they realize they have a talent that empowers them to be active parts of their communities.
There’s only so much time in the day, so many calories to burn, so much emotional investment I can give. And as much as it hurts me to say it, I would rather devote that time, attention, and energy toward those who want my guidance than to let lessons with the willing suffer for the sake of those who actively resist my efforts. I would rather.
But a flaw in my personality makes me want to try harder with the difficult students. To try and reach them. I mull over these things (even write blog posts about it to process my thoughts!).
So what happened to those students in the band? The ones who got nothing from me? They ran out of energy. There was only so much fooling around they could do. Once they got it out of their systems, they played. They practiced. They got better. And they didn’t need me. Then they hit a wall and needed some help. And our time ran out.
We’re a culture obsessed with punishment. “Bad” behavior is returned with punishment. The original intent is to deter the undesired behavior, but soon, the focus becomes finding the right punishment/avoiding punishment, often on technicality rather than doing the assigned task.
Many religions have this idea of the afterlife where one’s ethics and values throughout life are measured and assigned appropriate judgement balancing punishment and rewards.
It’s a metaphor for how life is. We can be terrible, selfish, cruel people, but it catches up with us. After all, who wants to be around a person like that, let alone help them? Those who choose the path of kindness, love, generosity, mindfulness, gratitude, and diligence find great rewards in life.
Three years ago …
For the past three years, I’ve had the privilege of teaching for the Meridee Winters School of Music. The job offer came at a rough time for me. I was overwhelmed with the amount of band and freelance work in my life and wasn’t able to focus on truly honing my craft as a composer. My relationship with friends and family was frayed for various reasons. Emotionally, I was not in a great place. I was busy but far from thriving, and I felt like my career in music was stagnating. I was maintaining rather than moving forward.
I needed a change.
The school and methodology
The acceptance of the job offer started me down a path that’s helped me thrive not only in my solo music career but also as an educator. The school’s goal is to transform students into people who are free and able to express themselves creatively in whatever manner is meaningful to them. Furthermore, the school’s founder, Meridee Winters, has developed a methodology to help students learn by alternating between left brain and right brain approaches. She’s constantly researching pedagogical methodologies, new approaches to teaching, and breakthroughs on how the mind learns and using that knowledge to keep her methods up to date.
It’s pretty incredible stuff, and the results show.
Even the recitals are far from your stale, run-of-the-mill music recitals. There’s always a theme and a drive by families and teachers to put on a truly inspiring and entertaining experience rather than a long wait for a 3 minute performance followed by zoning out. It’s amazing how students talk to each other after the show, complimenting each other about their accomplishments. No one has to tell them to do it; it just happens, and most of the kids had only met each other for the first time at the show.
I’ve seen the methodology and approach completely change students’ outlook on music. Many of my students were kids who had taken traditional music lessons but were feeling bored. Parents came to the school hoping that they could make music fun for their kids. The loyalty of the families that work with the school really shows.
Which was why it was really difficult when I told them I wouldn’t be teaching there anymore.
Building relationships through understanding: my teaching approach
In my mind, teaching music has little to do with bestowing knowledge of chords, theory, scales, and “the proper repertoire.” Music lessons have everything to do with building a strong relationship between student and teacher. Do you remember what it’s like being a child? How misunderstood you felt by adults? How little grown-ups would listen to your wants and needs? By necessity there’s a clear line of separation between kids and adults, but it’s still an obstacle to overcome for any child.
Now imagine being a child and having access to an adult who’s there to listen to you for the entire time. It’s an adult who knows the same music you do, is savvy to the latest pop culture trends, watches the same movies, plays the same video games, empathizes with how busy a schedule can become. Now imagine having that access on a consistent, weekly basis.
Kids idolize. Adults envy.
I can’t teach discipline, hard work, passion, patience, collaboration, humor, kindness, or humility, but I can model it. I can also embrace the things that make every student unique, things that they may not know about themselves, things that maybe other adults ignore or discourage. Hyperactivity and a seeming inability to focus isn’t a flaw just the same as shyness and reservedness is not. They’re personality types. While a teacher in a classroom might not have the time to tailor lessons to each and every student, a private music teacher does.
For example, pretty much all of my hyperactive students were able to concentrate on playing when I engaged their bodies in lessons further. I was a restless kid (and still am judging by leg that shakes like a wagging puppy’s tail). What’s the worst feeling if you’re feeling hyper? Being forced to sit and stay quiet. Solution? Try playing the passage while standing up. On one foot. With your eyes closed. While jumping up and down. The body is engaged leaving the mind to be focused. Most kids can’t keep up that level of exertion for 45 minutes (most kids). Eventually, they’ll want to sit back down or try something else.
Too shy to even talk to the teacher let alone play music? Then don’t talk. Draw. Come-up with a story. Then we have material to work with. We can write a song to the story. I can be the one playing music. The student can direct me by showing me drawings for loud, quiet, fast, slow, happy, sad, simple, complicated. As they get more comfortable with me and open up, then we can work on making music together. As an intense introvert, I understand the feeling that the world predominantly seems to favor extroverted behavior which can be overwhelming. Music is my safe place, and it can be theirs too.
And for all of my students, I’m confident that music will remain a safe haven for them for the rest of their lives.
How I feel now
Yesterday, I woke up at 7am after a long day of working until 4:30am. I rolled into the recital hall at 9am and didn’t get back home until 10:30pm. I left exhausted and returned home completely energized. Each and every one of my students made me so proud. Save for a couple of exceptions, I’ve had them all since I began teaching through the school, so I got to see their musical growth over a long period of time. Sure, the three years went by quickly for me, but imagine the changes you go through from age 5 to 8. Or 7 through age 10. Or 13 to 16.
It doesn’t take much to make me cry. But I managed to stay strong for the kids and their families as I said my goodbyes to them. For many of my students, it’s their first time saying goodbye to a music teacher because of circumstance rather than a desire to quit. I was there to listen to them and to help them improve week after week through some pretty important developmental periods in their lives. (For perspective, they got to spend more one on one time with me than they have with their grandparents.) Some hugs from them felt like desperate pleas to not go away. Some parting looks were of sadness and confusion. Some goodbyes sounded more like questions than statements.
I had wonderful kids and wonderful families. It’s a two-way street. I spent every week with each and every family, heard about what was going on in their lives, things they’re excited about, things that they’re worried about, things they were curious about, and things they were frustrated about. It’s going to be a huge change to not have that in my life anymore. But I’m invested. I made it very clear that I’ll always be their teacher and that I’m always there to listen, answer questions, vent to, celebrate with, and talk to. Just because I’m moving on to a different phase in my life does not mean that communication ends upon my leaving. Not unless they want it to.
I’m excited about what my future holds. However, that excitement couldn’t have come without the support of my families. They helped me put out both of my full-length records, finance my touring, become a better workshop teacher, and cheer me on through all of my successes. They were happy for my for my engagement, enthusiastic when I got a puppy, frustrated when my car got destroyed, concerned when I was sick. It melted my heart when my families unanimously told me that while they’re sad to see me go, they’d suspected that I’d eventually move on to find more success.
They believe in me far more than I do myself.
What does the future hold?
To be perfectly honest, my future is a lot more vague than I thought it’d be. I know what I’d like to be doing. And I’m taking a leap of faith in hopes that my efforts will help me soar both personally and professionally. But it’s okay. The uncertainty is okay. Uncertainty isn’t a prison, it’s a blank canvas. It’s endless opportunities.
What is certain is that I have a wonderful family, wonderful friends, and a ton of wonderful people who support what I’m about and what I do.
As long as I have that to anchor me, I will thrive.