What should you do if a student is not enjoying playing a piece? 

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As a music teacher we will encounter many different students all with different tastes and musical preferences. However, it can be very easy to get stuck in a rut with the pieces we choose. 

Often, many teachers start out by using method books that they were taught with and can often even end up choosing repertoire that was offered to them in their lessons as children. We can also find that exam syllabuses end up dictating what repertoire we play and even worse than that, the books prepared by the exam boards. These books only offer a small range of the pieces on each syllabus and although for some students may be perfect for others may not have enough options. For ABRSM, this is literally three pieces from each list, when sometimes there are between 10-14 pieces on each list! 

The fact of the matter is, there is a wide selection of pieces each student can choose and still achieve grades, if that is something that they want to do. 

However, you may also find that students have no interest in taking exams and prefer to measure their success with other ways such as performances or aiming to learn a piece that they have always admired. 

Having a student not enjoy a piece is by no means a reflection on your teaching and it should by no means be taken as such, this could very easily lead to resentment in the lessons. 

Here are a few things to consider if a student announces that they don’t like the chosen pieces:

Involve them in the decision making 

Ideally this should be done before choosing the piece as it can save time. If I have a student wanting to do an exam I will take them through the options on the syllabus, if I have the music I will play the pieces for them or use youtube videos or tracks to give them an idea of what the pieces sound like. If students feel that they have been a part of the decision-making process they will feel more inclined to commit to the chosen piece. If after this they decide they do not like it, you can question why the change of heart more easily. 

Of course, if a student does not want to do exams you have a wider range of pieces to choose from so it may help to discuss what kind of piece they would like to play and for you to narrow down a selection. 

Don’t make them play it!

If a student comes to a lesson and announces that they do not want to play the piece that they have been practicing, the simple thing to do is not make them play it. There is no point persevering with a piece that they genuinely are not enjoying. We play music to bring joy! 

However, this does come with a few strings. It is important to discuss with the student why they now do not want to play this piece, particularly if they have had it for a few sessions. If their reasoning is that they believe it is too hard for them, you need to discuss this and figure out how to break it down for them to make it manageable to learn. I would argue that this is different to a student simply not liking the piece! However, if you can see that the student should easily be able to learn the piece and it just isn’t happening then it could just be that their enthusiasm for it is so low that it will be impossible to learn. 

Explore different ways to improve technique 

We usually choose scales, exercises and pieces that gradually get harder as the student progresses. All of these things are extremely important if your students are going to progress and improve. You cannot be completely student led in lessons as at the end of the day you are the trained professional and responsible for the progression. 

With this in mind, you need to find different ways to include all these essential building blocks. Find pieces that utilize scales and other important aspects of technique, use backing tracks so students can improvise over the top… again, find out what your students want to play and go from there! 

Are you aligned with your student’s needs?

As a teacher, it is important to ensure that you are aligned with your students wishes. Leading a student down a path that they don’t want to go down can lead to curbing their enthusiasm for the instrument and at worst could cause students to stop taking lessons. Although as a teacher you will need to, at least a little bit, guide the student, it is also your job to get creative and find ways to achieve results in a way that the student will enjoy!

Learning an instrument is ultimately something to be enjoyed and unlike math’s in school, it is something each individual chooses to learn. Having music lessons is unfortunately not a luxury that all people have the opportunity to enjoy, which makes it even more important to ensure that each lesson is tailored. As a professional music teacher, you will have your certain methods and techniques that you know work to improve a student’s playing but there is no need to stick to these exactly for every pupil. 

Ultimately, each student is different and each situation should be treated individually. This article gives you a framework to view these discussions and the things that you should focus on in order to have successful students and happy teachers! 

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