First off, thank you, Anya, for inviting me to post a guest blog here on Notes of Joy.  I asked readers of the blog to identify what they would like to see in my post; the question posed was this — how to keep teenagers engaged in piano since they have so many activities competing for their time.

I have been teaching in Northern Virginia since 1997; during this time, I have attended many of NVMTA’s important competitions as a judge or as a teacher presenting students, and over the years, I have consistently noticed that the number of students entering these competitions in the high school divisions always is considerably smaller than the numbers in the divisions for middle school and elementary school.  On a completely different level of teaching as well, that of our typical non-competitive students, I find that teachers are seeing a similar trend. Many years ago, a teacher friend of mine noticed that in her experience, if she could keep a student in piano lessons through eighth grade, then that student would more than likely graduate high school having continued in piano lessons through his or her senior year. This is no surprise; we are talking about the transition from middle school to high school here when discussing this issue. I am proposing several strategies for keeping our students engaged in lessons through this particular critical time; of course, this kind of discussion could really take about a month’s worth of daily postings, and even then we would only perhaps touch the tip of the iceberg! But I will present five ideas that I have put into practice myself and have observed clear success by following these strategies.

  1. Be pro-active in student retention – as in six to eight years pro-active. Teach your VERY YOUNG students to read well, and start teaching them a very proficient piano technique from the moment they walk through the door to your studio. The easier it is to read, the less stressful it is for them to learn and of course they can assimilate what they are learning faster. The better they learn to play, the more likely they are going to be to continue as a teenager because this will be something they are VERY good at doing, and students enjoy doing things they do well.
  2. Again, be pro-active: be 100% energetic and engaged in EVERY single lesson – even if it means you are simply acting the part. How many days have we taught when we have had a lot on our mind and yet we still must be an effective, engaged teacher – even though we may be worrying about a health issue, a financial setback, or some other problem, big or small? Have we come across as distracted or disengaged as a result of being pre-occupied? We must make a supreme effort to pass on our love of music and our enthusiasm for our students at all times; if we are not 100% committed, engaged, and as inspiring as we can be, how can we expect our students’ enthusiasm to catch fire, sustain, and grow? Make every attempt to make your students fall in love with piano with your own energy and excitement! Perhaps then piano will be one of their highest priorities as they enter their teen years rather than something to do that they fit in when they have time (which, if that is their mindset, will most likely be almost never).
  3. TEACH ARTISTRY to every student. This is related to my first response, item number 1, because teaching piano is more than teaching reading and technique- it is teaching your students not just to play the piano but to give them the possibility of becoming pianists. Again, if a student plays well (and this certainly includes teaching your students to strive for the beauty of tone that is the hallmark of great pianists), he or she is much more likely to continue in piano for the long haul. Students enjoy doing things they do well. This is my mission as a teacher, and this has been the most requested topic for when I have given seminars and workshops as a guest speaker.  Teach great sound and teach your students to play with beauty and passion ALL the time (even the students we may consider to be difficult to teach!)
  4. Choose shorter pieces; they take less time to learn, less time to perfect, and less time to maintain (obviously, since they are shorter!) There are literally millions of works for piano; no matter what level of work a student has accomplished, there will be a multitude of pieces that will be a bit more challenging for your time-strapped student for the following school year but that will be SHORTER and therefore less intimidating to him or her. The more advanced level will make you feel as if your student is in fact achieving a higher level of accomplishment, yet the fact that the pieces are shorter will encourage your student who may be worried about having enough time to successfully learn the music.
  5. Start early! I teach summer lessons as well. DO NOT let your students take the entire summer off!  Summer is a great time to get some repertoire learned, memorized, and sounding good before the school year starts and time vanishes into the blur of play practices, soccer games, gymnastics, homework, and lost productivity from lack of sleep. Notice what I said – learned, memorized, and sounding good; basically, get some things performance-ready in the summer before the school year starts, because it ALWAYS takes less time to maintain or, if necessary, to  resurrect old repertoire that has been put in cold storage than it does to learn that same repertoire in the first place.

In conclusion, you may feel that my first three answers are not quite what you expected; they are not bandages or quick fixes once you have a problem. Rather, they are long-term teaching concepts to keep the attrition rate at the absolute minimum! For those who do need a practical, immediate solution, I offer the fourth and fifth ideas because I have found these both to be the most effective ways to encourage students of all levels to continue study if there is any concern or worry about finding time to practice.  But I want to say as well the following: as teachers, you must accept the fact that, regardless of how well you have prepared them, regardless of your enthusiasm, and even if they achieve a high level of accomplishment, some students will quit taking lessons or will slowly become less engaged and produce far less of quality than they did in the past – no matter what.  This is not necessarily the result of failure on your part as a teacher or a shortcoming on their part. And it certainly does not always mean a diminishing love for music in that student. It is simply life; we all have shifting interests and priorities but only a limited number of hours in a day to accomplish everything we want to do. We certainly cannot expect that all of our students will become teachers or performers.  We can, however, hope that as a result of our teaching, our passion, our commitment to them during their time of study, and as a result of the accomplishment they have achieved under our guidance that they will become lifelong lovers of great music, lifelong concert goers, and in the future, pass that love and enthusiasm on to their kids and grandchildren so that this great art never becomes extinct.

©Narciso Solero 2010