Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Joys and Challenges of Teaching Children

How many of you teach music to children? I currently have 5 kids: two girls, ages 11 and 14; and three boys, ages 6, 7, and 8 (or thereabouts). I'll be focusing on the three youngest for this discussion. I’ve never taken an elementary ed course, though I did sit in on quite a few when my mom taught it. But I mainly go on what I’ve observed over the years—I’m a people watcher so I observe behavior and how people interact and save the good stuff in the back of my head. I also go on instinct and my own interaction with children, usually at church or family gatherings (I've never had a babysitting job—crazy, I know).

Over the years I’ve learned several important lessons about children. First, they are more sensitive than I thought. Such generalizations won’t apply to every child, of course. But I’d say my kids definitely fall into that category. One student—we’ll call him T—gets upset and frustrated fairly easily. I'm not a "meanie" or a slave driver by any means but he has teared up a couple of times in his lessons. He once missed a lesson with no advance warning and the next week his mother explained that he got so overwhelmed when looking at what he had to practice that he didn’t practice at all. She asked if I could lessen the amount of homework I give and I happily obliged. I don’t wanna give this poor child an ulcer over Mary Had a Little Lamb!

This leads to my second realization--children are resilient. I kind of knew this already, but it's amazing how quickly then can bounce back from a low point in a lesson. I worked with T a couple of weeks ago on things he can do when he gets frustrated during practice time. I gave him three options: He can 1) take a deep breath and try again, 2) play a song that he likes or can play well, or 3) put the violin down and do pinky pushups with his bow (he's really good at them). There are many variations on this, of course. Last week was awesome because if a lesson went downhill I just had to mention Harry Potter coming out on Wednesday. Then I played a bit of the theme on my violin and they thought I was the coolest ever.

Last, I’ve seen evidence of something else I already knew: Kids are fast learners. They really are like sponges and if you have their attention you can teach them so much! The possibilities are endless when a child is truly excited about learning something. Another student, D, began his study with a friend of mine. She’s moving and she referred his father to me. D is my youngest (6 years old) and he’s very bright. He shied away from using the bow so my friend let him focus on pizzicato. I start kids on the bow as soon as they know their strings and understand common time (read: count to 4 over and over). I let them pluck first before going to arco for a while but moving on to the bow is very important.

So near the end of D’s first lesson I asked him if he would like to play a song with his bow. He explained that he didn’t like it so he had plucked, and I asked him to just try it. I have learned that this is a huge risk—we were only 5 minutes away from finishing and the whole thing could’ve gone terribly sour. I want kids (all my students!) to leave their lesson feeling like they’ve accomplished something, you know? But I took the risk and decided that I’d let him pluck his favorite song if the bow didn’t work out. But it did work out and he didn’t even need much coaching! Of course the bow wasn’t straight but he got a decent sound and—the best part—he enjoyed it. His little face lit up and suddenly it was as if he could see the world of potential he’d just discovered! Cutest thing ever.

When teaching children I have to remember all these things I've mentioned plus their attention spans! I could go on and on and tell more stories but I’d really like to hear from you all. What are some of your experiences with younger students? Methods and approaches that worked, ideas which backfired horribly, etc.? Leave a comment so we can all share in your learning experience. Thanks!


  1. One thing I learned from my school teaching days is that you cannot be sarcastic with children. This was tough for me then, because I'm a very sarcastic person. :)

    Another thing is breaking up the lesson into three parts. If we have a half hour lesson, I'll hear what they've been practicing for 10 minutes. Then we'll do a 10 minute activity (with visual aids, manipulatives, etc). Finally, we'll work on new material for the last 10 minutes. At the end of each part, I leave time for them (or their parents) to ask questions. Some of the more confident ones ask questions as we go-- I love this!

    For very young students, I start them off with 15 or 20 minute lessons to see how their attention span is. My youngest right now is four years old, and this is about right for her. The really tiny ones enjoy general music stuff too: movement activities to show loud/soft, fast/slow, high/low etc; tapping steady beat; listening activities.

    The best thing any music teacher can do is learn what concepts are developmentally appropriate for certain age groups. It's going to be a while, for example, until my four year old student will understand the concept of parts (beats) that make up a whole (measure).

  2. Yes! Breaks are very useful with the young ones.

    Encouragement goes without saying. Or does it? Some little ones are so afraid of making a mistake and that freezes them from trying. Try a little 'Exedrin Headache No 3' (make any noise you can with your viola) to loosen him up.

    A little attention to harmony can help with flagging interest. You play an open G and he plays an open D, just to listen to that fifth.

    Different strokes (haha!) for different students. A beginning teacher needs to remember that there are different learning styles, and some students respond magnificently to moving around (dancing), while some students find that too distracting.

    Kudos to all who take up teaching. The profession needs you!