The Young Student

There are several perspectives regarding the young student, and I will aim to address all of them. Indeed much of this information is applicable to most students, young, old, experienced and inexperienced, but my main address is to the young student and the teacher.

Within the young student there lies a fantastic opportunity to succeed and do well, regardless of whatever so-called “natural talent” they have. The truth is that with hard work, application and a desire to play, they will indeed play. Now, the level at which everyone settles is absolutely unique, as is the time at which they reach this level. This is why I believe that teachers have a duty to the student; you are in the unique position, as a teacher, to really invest in your teaching and give every student the chance that they deserve, however, you can drag through your job as if it were a chore, to the detriment of the student. Let’s examine some crucial aspects of teaching and there reasons to act in certain ways. There are so many variables within this subject I will try to cover the big ones, and the ones which I have encountered on both sides of the subject, then I will try to dissect them.

Teachers can:
Be organised, keep regularity for the student, give the student a desire to learn, enjoy their own lessons and learn from them, try to do everything to make the student surpass them when the time comes, teach sympathetically to the needs of the student and accept the responsibility of teaching someone who *could* be the next Nakariakov.

Sadly teachers can:
Be tardy, only bother with their star students, drag their feet through for a pay cheque, give their students no sense of drive or desire, ignore students, frequently dep out lessons and change times, hold back when a student starts to show signs of becoming great, forget the age and nature of younger students and treat them as adults and demean, dishearten and disrespect the student, even insulting them.

Students can:
Work hard, be driven, have a flair for the instrument, develop later than others, hit a wall and seem never to improve, enjoy music, practice (imagine that), improve faster than their peers, begin to threaten the teacher through their playing and take initiative through home study and the searching for new things.

Sadly students can:
Be annoying; children can be just a little much sometimes, but they deserve patience, adults can be annoying students too. Students can lie, they can have egos, be arrogant, forget their instruments, forget their music, never practice, be pushed into playing by parents and therefore hate lessons, they can be terribly rude and have no sense of propriety, they can be self-centred and they can anger teachers.

There are many factors at play when we look deeper into the reactions of teachers to students and vice versa; on a base level they will probably respond in a way in which they were taught. A very simple exercise to see this is to ask your student to teach you for half of a lesson; this will show you any fundamental gaps in their knowledge – they may just have forgotten something or they may be missing something, but do try it. In your next lesson please ask your student to teach you how to take a breath and play a bottom C or middle G. I will probably write an article on what I believe proper breathing to be (it won’t in the slightest be controversial if you subscribe to proper breathing, and I feel founded in my knowledge as I have been taught what I know by some very respected players and by their books – I digress). It will be interesting none the less to see how your student teaches you; you will be amazed at how their mannerisms mimic your own. They will have some of their own personality – especially the shy ones, but you will see largely a young student emulating yourself. This outlines one of the large responsibilities of a teacher; your teaching will in some form be emulated, consciously or sub-consciously, so to help perpetrate a generation of capable teachers we must assume that role.

The role of the capable teacher encompasses many criteria, I will outline below what I think the most important ones are and in no particular order.

A friendly, approachable and helpful teaching environment.
A willingness to endure testing circumstances and situations.
Sharing enthusiasm to help the student regardless of ability; not showing favouritism.
Engaging the student on issues they enjoy and working to meet at least some of their own musical goals; some students are somewhat directionless and need grades to work towards.
Bringing a wealth of diverse music to the ears of the student; showing everything that is possible with the instrument.
Appropriately challenging a student when necessary; giving them tricky music to work on, extra-musical projects, listening, transcribing etc…
Now that we have some precepts to strive towards we have to engage the real world somewhat, as we are all prone to fault, student and teacher alike. If we can spot the areas in which we are weak, we can become better teachers and people. We clearly do not live in some utopian society, so we have to learn to adjust to our circumstances.

Firstly; any teacher has a breaking point. It is simple. We all have a student that we know could push us over the edge given enough time. We all do, right? It isn’t just me, is it? Ok… Well, maybe I have a student like that. Maybe I don’t! For the sake of argument, we know someone who could do that to us. How do we cope with that? Firstly, I/we need to address the issue, we need to think and temper our response. Are we over-reacting because we have not had 10 cups of joe that morning? Is the student acting more annoying than usual? Can we diffuse the situation? Knowing how to diffuse different situations requires a lot of experience and so every teacher should be given some grace in this respect; they/we are maybe still learning this skill, however, we should know how to relate to our students well enough to diffuse irritation.

What may irritate us could be very disparate, and I will offer some of my ideas and techniques for helping the lesson and student. I will now list some potential areas of stress for a teacher:

Rudeness, hyper-activity “ants in pants syndrome”, “I want that” followed by grabbing something that you own which more often than not is expensive and easily broken, no practice in the week, no focus, not paying attention, arguing with your teaching, asking repetitive questions, talking too much etc…*disclaimer* This not about any specific student, nor is it about any specific irritant to myself as a teacher; I have merely sketched some ideas down from what I have seen. Given the nature of the article, and indeed my knowledge of my teaching so far; I have diffused any irritant to the student or myself and constructively continued teaching. I am not a teaching genius, but I do take pride in my work; I apologise for any air of self-centeredness involved.

There are some very easy ways to “trick” a student into working in the lesson as opposed to disrupting. The most obvious way is to bring new music out and generally most students are curious enough to try and play it. You can do the same by playing new music to the student, or asking them to suggest music for you to listen to. Another method, which is akin to steering a car on ice, is to gently talk them in a better direction. Engage them in what they enjoy; sports, games, computers, maths (hahaha, not) etc… and lead the conversation towards playing. At the onset of rudeness or egoism the best route of action is to address or ignore. If the rudeness demands attention, respectfully do so. Egoism rarely deserves attention, but respect is a bigger issue. Finally; as this is regarding young students, please bear in mind that age has a lot to do with their behaviour and that they should be cut a wider birth than an adult. There is no need to be terribly formal and strict. There is a time for that, but the discipline of the child is for the parents to tend to, and as long as nothing serious is happening, it is rarely the case for the teacher to do so. A certain precedent of order needs set in lessons, but that can be done with a smile and some care. Here are some ideas to try: long note competitions – challenge them to improve every week; I saw a student go from 25 seconds to 50 seconds over a month or so! Challenge them to loud and soft competitions. Ask them to teach you how to do a certain aspect of playing that you had recently been studying with them. Ask them to try and play theme tunes that they will know, or to identify tunes if they don’t know many notes. New music to listen to, ask about their own listening habits etc…

Sadly there will at some stage be a student that will be so difficult to teach that you have to stop teaching them. This is not a case of getting a “get out of jail card” for your guilt; the student must really in all senses present themselves as impossible to teach. I would imagine that a student of this nature will last only one lesson as opposed to developing into this student. If they change, it is still a person who can be worked with in most cases, but if they come to a lesson in a state in which you cannot teach them there is no onus on you as a teacher to teach them. Remember at this stage, even if you are broke; the student deserves to be taught music, and not to be that person that is ignored for 30 minutes a week to take some money from them. Even the worst are still people, and deserve the same respect, and in my opinion that respect is in the decision not to teach them. This has happened to me once, and in retrospect I let that lesson last about 15 minutes too long (it got to 20 minutes before enough was enough), and as I learned he had been through about 7 teachers and only lasted one lesson. This is probably the case for a lot of that type of student. I felt pretty bummed that it had happened, but after learning that it was not uncommon I felt a bit better. It is strange how we learn sometimes.

Now on a positive note, we can, and do frequently encounter students of all abilities who are just so happy to be playing. It is our duty to teach them equally well and not according to their ability. It is also important that we do not push the students who are struggling and that we do not under-teach those who are frequently back with all of their assignments completed. There is a balance to find in each situation, and as with the knowledge of handing more difficult students, this comes with experience.

Our students can probably do some more work; at least most of them can (as long as TV and computer games exist), but can we do some more? In a somewhat related and respectful manner:

“…ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” – Kennedy.


About Michael Barkley

Trumpet player/tutor, luthier, jazz enthusiast, coffee addict.
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