Ten Tips for Teaching Teens
Natalie is sprouting blackheads. Ethan feels a sudden need to be cool. Sophia was flat-chested last month but today is wearing the bra she definitely needs. Kit shot up four inches over the summer and none of his pants are long enough. Rich has the beginnings of dark fuzz on his upper lip. Annette keeps crying. Not about anything in particular. Just crying.
It's easy to spot the start of the teenage years.
What about piano lessons? How does being a teen show up in piano lessons?
Suddenly, often in middle school, piano lessons can become a minefield. As tweens (kids who aren't quite teens yet) begin to assert themselves they try to change things. When my son was in elementary school he always wore an electric orange fleece hoodie. I must have bought eight or nine or them in increasing sizes. (It made him easy-to-spot at the playground!)
One day he wouldn't wear one. He was suddenly a tween.
If a child started piano lessons as a child, around age ten or eleven they'll almost always say, "Mom, I want to quit piano!"
My Mom was pretty wise. When I started on, "I want to quit piano!" she'd say, "Hmm...that's interesting. Let's see how you feel next week."
By the next week I'd usually forgotten about quitting piano. I was busy trying to change something else. And so it went. Every so often I'd say that I wanted to quit piano. Every so often I wouldn't.
Sometimes I practiced a lot, sometimes I didn't. I practiced my classical music piano, but there were days I played and sang nothing but the songs from Carole King's Tapestry album. I played the guitar. I sang in the school choir. I played flute in the band. In junior high, much to my piano teacher's horror, I was on the gymnastics team.
I vividly remember these wild discrepancies in feelings even now - forty years later. Today's teenagers are just as intense. What's a parent or teacher to do?
The most important thing anyone who deals with teens to remember is:
Most of what they say they'd like to do will never happen.
The second most important thing? You will rarely have to do anything to keep it from happening.
Say "Yes" as often as you can.
Say as little as possible the rest of the time.
Most things will work themselves out.
This isn't to discount what teenagers are saying. They're completely invested in everything they say. It's just that they're changing on a minute-by-minute basis. Simply validating their feelings is essential. This doesn't mean you're agreeing with them, only that you're hearing them.
The worst thing is to try to persuade a student they really DO want to play the piano by talking at them.
If a parent or teacher tries to bargain, bribe, threaten or push a kid to "stick with it", it almost always backfires.
Teens want to be independent. Why would they want to do something their parent so clearly wants them to do? The more one pushes the more the student will be convinced they don't want to do it. It's a mathematical equation. You push, they pull. It's their JOB to create oppositional force. Occasionally a parent can offer them (what they think is) a brilliant bribe and get a specific thing done. (My former student Brianna, for instance, whose investment banker father gave her twenty bucks to learn "O Holy Night" so she could play it for grandpa at the family Christmas party. She learned it. She took the twenty bucks. Then she quit.)
Here are Ten Tips for helping teenagers feel good about their decision to keep playing the piano:
1: Interesting Repertoire.
The first and foremost is giving your teenagers fabulously interesting pieces to play. It's easy to take shortcuts or just give up on a student, but don't. Just because I like something doesn't mean my student will. It can take a lot of trial and error to find the right pieces. And I'm not talking about resorting to a "student saver" mentality. I never feel like I need to save my students from anything. I just want them to keep making music if they'd like to. If not, that's also fine. At the end of this post I'll list some of my favorite teen music.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that banal music that requires no effort will make a student interested in playing. Challenging music requires effort and engages students.
2: Give them choices. Real choices.
Let your tweens and teens choose between pre-selected level-appropriate pieces. This is where well-graded Repertoire Series are a god-send. Elissa Milne's Getting To Series, unfortunately only available in Australia, is fabulous. (I'm particularly fond of The New Mix books which combine popular music in brilliant arrangements with standard and unusual classical pieces.)
3: Expect their practicing to be inconsistent.
Teenagers have a lot vying for their attention. If they're in a high-stress academic environment, expecting them to practice copious amounts during finals week is setting both of you up for disappointment. Sometimes they are just growing or having problems. Sometimes they'll practice two hours a day every day for a week. There's not much rhyme or reason to it. Just be there.
4: Practice with teens at their lessons.
Unfortunately, many piano teachers have come from a heritage of thinking their time is too valuable to be spent actually practicing with their students. Uh, no. In fact, that's what most of my lesson time is spent doing. Practicing with and teaching students how to practice. Teaching teenagers means doing more of this kind of practice because they may not have time outside the lesson.
5: Play duets with them.
Good playing rubs off. If I play tennis with someone who's far better than I am, my playing rises to the challenge. It's the same thing with duet playing. The stronger player has a positive influence on the weaker one.
And besides, duets are fun. There's nothing wrong with stopping everything and just playing duets for a week or two or seven. It's delightful and can be just what teenagers need to remind them that they love to make music.
6. Sight Read.
When all is said and done, I want my students to be independent. They won't be very independent if they're not good sight readers. Time spent sight reading is never wasted.
Here are some specific ways to sight read with your student.
Play the right hand part of a piece while they play the LH part. Then try it the other way. When doing this, I tend to play the right hand part. I have several reasons for doing this:
- I want to get the melody into the student's head correctly.
- Most students can use a bit of extra help in bass clef reading.
- I'm usually sitting on the treble side of the piano so I don't have to move.
Sight read duets.
This is the very best thing of all. You get the benefits of both in half the time. But playing both lines in bass or treble clef can be difficult at first. Do it in stages - playing only right or left hand alone while you play the other part. It doesn't have to be all or nothing.
7. Build community.
One of the worst things a teen can feel is alone. "I'm the only one who plays the piano. I'm sure everyone else is doing something much better," plays inside many a teenager's head.
- Have group classes.
- Have master classes.
- Take your teenagers to a concert.
- Schedule your teenagers so they meet each other.
- Have them play for each other when they meet.
- Help them play easy duets with each other that make them feel good and like making music is a social activity.
- Have them play the teacher part on duets with your younger students so they can be the expert.
There are millions of ways to create community and every one of them is worth your time and energy.
8. Be interested.
You don't have to become your teenage students' therapist, but being honestly interested in what they're doing goes a long way with teens. With any student, frankly. My piano teacher through middle and high school was the only adult with whom I interacted on a regular basis who treated me as anything close to an equal. That in an of itself is powerful. I can't tell you how many students I've had who've had difficulty stopping taking lessons because they "loved" me, even though they didn't really want to keep taking lessons. I think more than anything it's the intense one-on-one communication with an adult that makes students feel that way.
9. Mix it up.
One of my students told me the other day that the thing she loves piano lessons because, "I never know what's going to happen! Sometimes we do sight reading and sometimes we look inside your old piano and sometimes we play a game and sometimes I have a new piece and sometimes we play with the dog. I never know what's going to happen. Sometimes we even get to sing fairy songs."
I'll admit that this little girl isn't quite a teen, but most of my students enjoy an out-of-the-expected lesson.
Make piano lessons a surprising experience. Unless your teen is the kind that needs every lesson to follow exactly the same routine, (and there are those students!) try mixing up the order in which you do things. There's no law that says that everything has to be covered at every lesson. It can be more interesting to do things in bigger and less predictable chunks. (Lots of duets one week, lots of sight reading another, a more "serious" lesson the next week.)
10. Let them take a break.
This could take many forms. They might take a week off from theory. They might get to play nothing but pop music for a months. They might play only duets for a few weeks.
They might even take a break from lessons.
If they need to take a break of any kind, let them save face about it. Reading more about saving face here. I know that we are teaching to make a living, but we are also dealing with the fragile egos of teenagers. Kindness is the most important thing and it's also the best thing for business. Pushing students to do things they no longer want or need to do will never help you have a successful piano studio.
Here are a few sheets and collections that have been particularly successful with my teens: