For anyone who has attempted to teach music to young people, one thing is clear: the job can be difficult. Not only is teaching (and understanding) musical concepts hard. But so is trying to keep the attention of any young person, especially in today’s world of TikTok, animated movies, and desired screen time.
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But fear not. Here, we have culled tips and trade secrets from music teachers who know what it’s like to try and engage younger students. Here we have five crucial tips for teachers who are trying to keep their students’ attention and display the beauty of song.
(Special thanks to Ezekiel Lords from Mode Music in Seattle.)
1. Encourage regular practice schedules
Help your student set aside a recurring amount of time every day or two to focus on music. Ensure a distraction-free area is selected to allow uninterrupted study. If your student needs help interpreting the material, offer as much as necessary without being overbearing (whether that means playing the song on YouTube or offering more specific musical instruction). Of course, students will make mistakes as they grow their musicianship but as you monitor their progress, reinforce good habits so poor performance techniques don’t develop. Younger students will need the most guidance during practice but try not to burn them out with lengthy intervals (keep them to about 20 minutes max).
2. Continually expose students to new and different music
Variation is key. To keep a young student’s attention means to sometimes play on their penchant for needing new stimuli. So, instead of giving them a new television show to watch when it seems like their engagement is waning, put a different piece of music in front of them. It can be a fun song, a familiar song, or something a bit more challenging, depending on how they respond to the work. But switching gears within the musical education landscape can go a long way. Try the Tetris theme song or the Super Mario Bros. soundtrack. It doesn’t have to be highfalutin, it just has to be music.
3. Find students their age who are also learning an instrument and nurture a relationship
Community is important. Kids like to bounce ideas off one another and grow together. If they feel like they have a peer or a partner in the effort, that can go a long way. So, see if there are group classes that might help foster their interest, or bring a friend into their lesson so they get can learn together. Kids are human beings but they’re also at particular developmental stages, and learning stages, and having someone their age by their side during the effort can be helpful. Plus, collaboration and camaraderie are the foundations for starting bands and bands are fun.
4. Consider picking up and learning the same instrument to help them develop, or a different instrument to accompany them
Similar to the idea above, if your student (or child) is learning a new instrument, it can be helpful for them to see you working at it too. You can trade tips and things you’ve learned. Or it can also be meaningful for their development to see that adults can struggle to learn, as well. It may demystify the process and show them everyone experiences hardship when working on something new. It will make the whole process seem normal, taking the edge of anxiety off of the work. And if you learn different instruments, accompaniment can be a joy.
5. Allow students to freely experiment with different instruments and sounds—don’t force your tastes on them
Music is a language and everyone speaks differently. It can be important to introduce good songs, concepts, and instruments to young people, but don’t force your own tastes onto them. Let them have creative space, let them learn. This is the kindling that fosters the fires of lifelong learning, and lifelong musical expression. Don’t snuff them out by being too overbearing or by putting too much pressure. Let them explore sounds and musical spaces. That will engender genuine, personal affection toward the art form. And we can ask nothing more from our students than that.