Six Ideas to Prevent Music Students from Quitting

Music teachers, especially teachers of beginners, deal with the constant awareness that a certain percentage of students are likely to quit at some point in their first few years. Parents and teachers often ask “What can I do to keep my student from quitting music?” Here are a few ideas:

1. “You’re not allowed to quit.” To an adult, this phrase might not make complete sense, much like “You can’t fire me; I quit!” But elementary students may hear this from an adult and really take it to heart. For junior high or high school musicians, they need to be aware that quitting will affect their grade and their GPA.

2. “If you quit now, you won’t be allowed back into the music program.” Some students want to quit because rehearsals get too hard, expectations get too high, or the music calendar gets too boring or too busy. Some students might just need a reminder that they can’t do the fun things at the end of the school year unless they put in the effort all year long.

3. “If you quit, you’ll give up your school instrument for good.” In my district, a high percentage of students depend on the school to provide an instrument. I make clear to kids and their parents my policy that that quitting means giving up your school instrument for good. When demand is high for borrowing school instruments, I can’t afford to assign them to students who have a history of quitting.

4. Remind them of the short-term benefits of being in music. For example, music students may get to be excused from classroom time to come to music lessons. They wouldn’t get to participate in music events with their friends. Younger students may tend to quit just because the music is getting a little tough, and they may not be considering the other aspects of participating in the music program.

5. Remind them of the long-term benefits of being a musician. Students might need to be reminded that being a musician goes way beyond just playing at school; it can be part of your life forever. This is where having other adult musicians work with your students can pay off. When students see other classroom teachers, parents, or community members playing music, it helps reinforce the concept that you don’t have to be a professional performer or music teacher to keep music part of your life.

6. For private students, if they decide to quit, they forfeit their lesson time slot. Some families may want to take break from lessons because of a temporarily busy schedule or some other trivial reason. But parents should understand that there may be other students who want the their time slot, and you can’t promise to reserve it.

This list is just the beginning. All you music ed bloggers must have a ton of other great ideas and strategies. Voice them here!

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5 thoughts on “Six Ideas to Prevent Music Students from Quitting

  1. Steve-

    Great post. I have found that sometimes adults are to blame for kids quitting. Kids need to have adults who will encourage them on their journey of starting an instrument. It drives me crazy when parents say: “You want to play an instrument? Alright, but this is your decision. If you don’t practice everyday and stick with it, I’m not going to help you…” Oh brother! Thanks for the encouragement. It also bugs me when parents say, “I don’t want my son/daughter to hate music for the rest of their lives…maybe I should let them quit.”
    The streets are littered with adults who say “I wish my parents would have made me continue on the piano/clarinet…” you name it.
    Another final thought: In her great book, “Your Musical Child:inspiring Kids to Play and Sing for Keeps”, Jessica Baron has this great analogy in a chapter called “Parents as Musical Partners” she describes the Braid Model, a model that strives to be developmental, pragmatic, and realistic. A child’s musical development is like a 3 stranded braid. One strand is the experiential strand: music kids experience at home, school, entertainment, the stuff they are exposed to everyday. Another strand is the instructional strand: private instruction, lessons and rehearsals at school, formal music learning. The final strand is the self-discovery strand: what children discover and gain on their own through music play, making up songs alone and with friends. Baron states: “When we make a braid, we drop one strand to pick up a different one. The braid itself embraces the dropped strand, holding it in place just where we left it until we can pick it up once more. The braid continues to grow as we cross the strands one over another…” This, she contends, is the same with musical development. Sometimes our kids may be more inclined to one strand or the other as they develop musically, but as long as parents who are musical partners encourage the other strands along a child’s musical development, they should be enjoying music for a lifetime. “As long as we keep two strands in hand and the third in view, our children will be making excellent musical progress.” Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

  2. Uhhh… that’s what I meant to say.

    Wow. Seriously, great thoughts. I especially agree with your thoughts about parents not having their kids practice. This year at parent sign-ups I actually had a parent tell me “I don’t want my kids playing anything loud. What do you have that’s not loud?”

  3. Wow, what a big topic. Books have been written on this, and more books will be. Step one- recognize that every student is unique, and that you can only keep them in Band by sitting down with them and listening to everything they have to say. Step two- recognize that the totally unique concerns of most “quittists” fall into one of these categories: (1) big/uncool instrument, (2) thought it would be easy/doesn’t want to practice/looking for instant gratification, (3) is frustrated in rehearsal because their parents don’t play the stereo at home and they didn’t go to an elementary school with music class starting in kindergarten and they are missing some essential piece of basic musical development like children who are locked in closets by abusive parents until the age of ten after which they never really master speech and language, or (4) it was my own darn fault that the kid doesn’t like my class because I talk too much or yell at the class when I’m frustrated or spend too much time with the clarinets and let the percussionists get bored.

    I certainly have the problem of attrition. I try to attack it before it happens. I try to (A) structure the lessons around small chunks of content that is only barely outside their prior knowledge so that they feel like Band is easy/fun/krunk/gnarly/tight, (B) give them lots of opportunities to show off, no matter how simple the performance repertoire, how small the event or how young/old the captive audience, (C) involve every adult in the child’s life, starting before they even take the horn home, much as churches and car dealerships use follow-up reinforcement to ensure your satisfaction after the deal.

    In any case, I try to talk to every student who is thinking about quitting and every parent of every student who is thinking about quitting, as soon as I hear about it. I listen to all of their concerns and ask what could be different for them to stay in the program. I try to avoid talking about logistical, philosophical, or educational details like grades, schedules and lifelong happiness (regardless of their truth or merit) because these details-in my experience-usually are not the issues the student sees and are not on the student’s radar screen.

    At least, that’s what I’m trying this week!

  4. I agree with you about the top reasons students quit. My experience with elementary age beginners is that they almost always quit because they thought playing an instrument would be easier. In this age of Guitar Hero and instant gratification, it’s becoming more challenging to teach kids the discipline they need to see something through for the long haul.

  5. Stengel – This is a great post, with some great discussion following.

    I hate to be pessimistic, but from where I sit, I see public school performance programs doomed to failure precisely because of some of the points made here. In many public school settings, students are retained purely due to the power of the teacher’s personality. I know what you mean when you make mention of elementary teachers saying “you can’t quit”: many of us do that, and it does work temporarily. However, each one of those students will eventually move on to another program with another teacher who may not care to persuade the unmotivated student to continue.

    Make no mistake about it: preparing for performance is hard work. Students who excel at it are usually gifted with a lot of outside support (private lessons, quality instrument, materials, space and time at home where they are encouraged to practice). In my estimation, these mechanisms of support are dwindling, and it is very difficult to maintain a quality program without numbers of children without access to such help.

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