We, as music teachers, believe that what we do is important to the development of young people.
We look for those moments when the music suddenly grabs the student and they show glimmers of that passion we see in ourselves.
Instead, we repeatedly see students whose music seems to get progressively lower on their priority list.
We know they are playing video games, spending time on Snapchat, building massive things on Minecraft, but, “you didn’t have time to practice this week?!?!?”
Maybe we should just cut them loose.
But—This is our chosen profession. Or, it chose us.
So how do you keep the joy in teaching when it seems your students have joy in everything else but learning?
1. Focus on the big picture.
Not every child we teach will choose music as a career. How many of your childhood friends did?
It’s not really about grooming the next concert pianist or headlining soloist. It is really just about teaching them to love music.
Music is awesome. It will still be awesome if they only look at their music in the car on their way to you.
So instead of stressing about their upcoming recital, stress over making it an enjoyable experience.
2. Small victories are important.
Celebrate the little accomplishments they get with you.
Watch them carefully as they tackle a difficult passage in your presence.
Look for the sparkle in their eyes when they accomplish something. Look for those moments when they are searching for your approval.
When you see those eyes: the sparkling or searching eyes, you can leave the lesson knowing you reached that student.
3. Teach your students to practice.
They aren’t putting in the work at home, use their lesson time to teach them to practice.
Teach them your method that you use to get through difficult passages.
Go over a few measures the way you would practice and say, “Do you know what that was called? Practicing. This is what you do at home. Let’s go through these step again. I know how much I struggled in the beginning learning how to practice.”
Then, go through the same steps again to remind them how to do it.
We focus so much on the results of the practice time, we forget to teach our students how to practice.
They don’t have the tools in their belt that we do to overcome difficulties.
Too often, we have forgotten what it is like to be a beginner. They do not realize that playing from the beginning to the end is not practicing.
They do not know how to isolate measures. They do not know how to identify the parts that need work. Instead, they look at the parts they already know.
Most importantly, they do not know how to overcome frustration.
Teach them how. One note at a time.
4. Remind your students (and yourself) why it’s important to practice.
Do they even know why they are supposed to practice?
What’s your answer when someone asks why they are supposed to practice?
We practice to develop muscle memory so when nerves kick in, the hands know what to do.
We practice reinforcing what we learned in our lesson.
We practice so our teacher can instead focus on making real music-dynamics, phrasing, articulation, making the music speak so that we and our audience become breathless.
5. Give grace to your students.
Sometimes your students need your forgiveness without them actually earning it.
Sometimes music just has to take a backseat in your student’s life. They may not tell you everything that’s happening at home.
Their one respite from the world’s judgment and difficulties may be sitting in your studio.
Make that time count.
Show them that in your studio, there is no judgment. There is simply expression without words.
Give them that.
6. Realize that it is not about you.
Students are not skipping practice because of some issue they have with your teaching.
They are not setting out to offend and insult you.
While you spend much of your time thinking about music, they simply do not. They have not gotten there yet.
It is not about you or me.
Teaching music is about teaching students that some things are worth working for.
There are no shortcuts in music.
If they aren’t going to put in the time to be the best they can be, you just have to let that go and teach what walks into your studio.
One final thought…when was the last time you really practiced?
About the Author: April O’Keefe is co-founder and current Associate Director of SoliMusica Academy. She graduated from Georgia State University in 2002 with a Bachelor in Music Performance with a focus on cello performance. She taught at East Cobb Middle School from 2004 until 2014.
While teaching at East Cobb Middle School, the orchestra program grew from 120 students to over 275 students. Under her direction, the orchestras consistently received superior ratings at local and regional Large Group Performance Evaluations. Many of her students participated in select ensembles such as the Cobb County Middle School Honor Orchestra, Georgia All-State Orchestra and the Georgia Youth Symphony Orchestra. Mrs. O’Keefe has been actively involved in the Georgia Music Educators Association serving as District Twelve Honor Orchestra Chair and District Twelve All-State Audition Chair. She also actively serves and clinician and adjudicator throughout the metro-Atlanta area.
Since 2008, April O’Keefe has served as music education assistant for Kennesaw United Methodist Church. While in this position, she has worked with and organized children’s choir, children’s handbells, and various summer camps. She also created a barbershop ensemble, taught an adult violin class, and served as interim Music Minister directing adult choirs and adult handbell groups.
Mrs. O’Keefe lives in Kennesaw with her husband, Paul, five-year-old Carson, and two-year-old twins, Logan and Molly. Paul is a violinist, Carson is just beginning his musical journey on violin, and the twins are enjoying watching – for now.