The Saving Face Agency

"She's not that cool but she has mega-agency."

I wondered what my son Bryce meant. He's 19 years old now and he wasn't using the word "agency" in any way I'd ever used it.

Eventually I understood that by "agency" he meant leadership. It meant someone with connections and an ability to generate results. But most of all, it meant a sense of individual power.

I started thinking about how this related to my teaching. Was there a way to increase my student's sense of their own agency? Their own power? Their own control over their learning and their lives?

When a student feels powerless, she checks out. If she feels like she's on a conveyor belt, doing a pre-ordained series of tasks, she'll become disinterested.  If she feels she has no choice, even if the subject is something she wants to learn, she'll act like she doesn't care. She'll look indifferent.

This happened yesterday in my lesson with Charlotte, usually an active, engaged and spunky kid. She's ten-years old.

She was playing a delightful piece by Elissa Milne called Shenanigans, from her Little Peppers book. It was her third lesson on the piece, and she'd hit a brick wall. The tempo was unsteady and there were several passages where she'd omitted the right hand notes.

"Did you practice it with the metronome?" I asked. She was supposed to have done it.

"No...," she said uncertainly.

"Why not?" I asked. Stupid question.

"I forgot."

Then I remembered. Charlotte was feeling lost. The rhythm was tricky and she had some notes left to learn. She felt embarrassed. 

When it might be helpful for a student to say something like, "I'm feeling quite out-of-control today. I'm struggling with my burgeoning hormones and overwhelming sense of exhaustion. My sense of self is being particularly challenged today and also, I didn't understand the rhythm in that piece. I couldn't figure out that part where the clef changes - what does that mean again exactly - and could you help me understand the meter? I suspect that I'm having some basic coordination problems, too. I may be experiencing mild left hand/right hand confusion. And my subtle dyslexia is as yet undiagnosed. Could you please help me?"

They will not say this.

They will try to save face.

They will say something like:

  • "I forgot."
  • "You never said I was supposed to do that."
  • "I did practice it."
  • "I lost the music, (the metronome, or my assignment book.)"
  • "You didn't write that down."

This may morph into something uglier, especially if it's met head-on with lots of negative energy. If you're sure that you in fact DID ask them to do it, does it really matter? Clearly they weren't able to hear, understand and take action on your direction. Arguing about whether or not you gave them information they weren't able to process won't help either of you.

Arguing with a young person who needs to assert themselves often results in an unintended battle over something you neither of you may even care about. Attempts at persuasion without changing the quality of the conversation are usually unsuccessful.

Why not help them save face before they even need to? Why not empower students with the ability to ask questions, break down a task and ask for help?

When I hear teachers talking about how their students quit when they hit their teens, I suspect that more than wanting to quit taking lessons, the students simply need to assert themselves. 

This week I kept track of some ordinary lessons.Here's what agency looked like this week in my studio: 

Sabine has struggled with reading - mostly because when she gets a little melody started, she likes to play whatever comes into her head. Which is great, but it's also wonderful to be able to read music. We've been using my Sight Reading Flashcards (which were originally inspired by her) and she's been using her AGENCY to write in the fingerings, the starting notes and highlighting the eighth note beams to help her see them more easily.

Peppermint Trees (a whimsical name for a little Czerny piece) got a lot of fingering - to help her recognize the different chords, and a giraffe sticker to help her remember to move her hand up in the third measure.

Sabine, three years ago, age 5, writing in her own fingering.

Sabine at her lesson this week - circling the thirds and writing in her own fingering.

Iliana was completely absorbed making a memorization chart for her Kuhlau Sonatina. We decided we'd make a line-by-line chart, giving each line of music a letter. She was thrilled when she realized how much of the piece she'd already memorized. 

It's never too early to start helping a child experience their own agency. Here's Ella, age 6, making her very first practice plan.

Her entire plan consisted of noticing (with help) that there were two similar but different phrases in Jingle Bells.

By using washi tape to mark them and check-off boxes to fill in when she played each section correctly, she could focus on the task of playing Jingle Bells - and soon could do it without any problem! This eliminated the need for writing letters. Notice that almost all the fingering written in was written by her. I take great issue with the teachers who think that writing in fingering is a bad thing. If the student does it themselves, it's a great decoding skill. It puts them in control and gives them agency.

One of my students recently wrote an essay about me which included this paragraph:

Diane has ignited my passion for music and taught me important skills which I will use throughout my life. I comfortably complete all my assignments by breaking the work into multiple steps and doing some every day.

I was so proud when I read that. Life skills that are transferable from music to anything else he wants to do. Just what I hope to teach.

When I look back on the many blog posts I've written, this theme emerges time and again. 

Here are seven of my favorite posts about ways to give your students agency. Take your time and explore:

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