Many parents would like to introduce their kids to music. Music is a great outlet, a chance to develop creativity, and has a slough of well-documented health benefits. And on top of it all: Music is enjoyable for the players and the listeners.
Of course, anyone who has kids or remembers being one knows that listing off the great results of musical therapy treatments and long-term enjoyment gets less persuasive the younger you are.
Many of us had the experience growing up of taking music lessons against or in spite of our will, and eventually left music by the wayside when the lessons stopped. Here are a few things that can get young students excited about music, and increase the chances that they’ll stick with it.
Play Right Away
Kids naturally have shorter attention spans than adults, but also usually bring a lot of enthusiasm and curiosity. These factors point to an easy solution: Having kids learn to play simple songs right away. There are dozens of great guitar songs for beginners, many of which are playable after only a few minutes of prep. It’s also incredibly motivating to feel like you’re progressing so quickly, going from never playing a note in your life to an entire, recognizable song.
Keep It Simple
One of the most common mistakes teachers make is trying to teach too much too soon. You can understand why: When you know something well, it seems relatively simple. Why not condense everything you’ve learned and save your student all the years it took you to learn this material? Unfortunately, human beings have a hard time learning this way. Not only is it difficult to learn too many pieces of information in one sitting, but we won’t understand or remember it if we can’t put it into context with what we already know.
This is true with all people, not just kids. It’s better to cover a few things well than a lot of stuff badly. There’ll be plenty of time for advanced techniques and theory later.
Give the People What They Want
Probably the second most common mistake guitar teachers make is teaching material that the student isn’t into. It’s one thing if we’re talking about a serious student trying to play in a jazz ensemble. It’s another if we’re talking about a kid who is a beginner and wants to try out the guitar. It baffles me why some guitar teachers refuse to teach songs a students wants to learn, just because the teacher personally doesn’t like them. Teaching songs a student enjoys is one of the easiest ways to get them interested and having fun.
Get Up and Go
By the time we’re adults, we’ve been trained to sit for long periods of time—often to our physical and psychological detriment. It’s tough for kids to fight this natural urge to move around after a few minutes, and so it’s a great idea to include some motion in the lessons. This is easy with the guitar: Try playing standing up, dancing while playing, doing a dancing or clapping exercise to work on rhythms, or take a moment to teach playing over the head and behind the back. Moving around while playing naturally reduces tension, and helps you get more into the music, both of which will help anyone’s playing and performing.
Patience, Flexibility and a Sense of Humor
It does take a certain personality type to work well with kids. Kids can lose interest or veer off course very quickly, and you’ll have a difficult time if that upsets you every time it happens.
I treat it a bit like a game: If a young student is losing interest in what I’m teaching, I see it as a sort of creative exercise or challenge to figure out how to make it interesting for the student. Can I help the student relate to the material? Is there a more fun way to approach the material? Can I use the material as a stepping-stone to a reward the student really wants (e.g. learning the I-IV-V chord progression so the student can play his or her favorite pop songs)? Does the student just need to reboot with a different activity that involves other areas of the brain?
It may sound silly, but this challenge is fun for me, and I think even seeing me enjoying myself helps students get in that same frame of mind. Just like with performing, if you’re not having a good time, the person listening to you probably isn’t having a good time. If you can laugh, get excited, and get curious about what you’re doing, it’s easier for your students to do the same.
Getting Kids to Practice
Instilling good practicing habits is hard for anyone, and kids sometimes can’t see the future payoff as well as adults can. But here are a few things to make it easier:
- Make practices short. If you’re instructed to practice one hour per day, the mere thought of that commitment makes procrastination likely. But what if you just had to practice 10-20 minutes per day? It’s not so daunting, and easier to follow through.
- Tie it to another routine activity. For example: Practice for a certain length of time before dinner, or after school. Linking a new activity to an established one makes it easier to become routine.
- Watch and make sure the kid is practicing. This one is more difficult, but it’s how my mom got me to practice piano when I was young. She sat next to me or behind me while I played. There was no escape! Of course, she was a flight attendant, and when she was working I seldom practiced.
- Use events or projects to motivate. This is more in the hands of the teacher than the parent, but by organizing recitals, jam sessions, song circles, recording or songwriting projects, or having the student perform for a school event or project, it’s much more motivating to practice and prepare.
- Encourage. When I was a kid my practice time nearly doubled for a few weeks just because someone gave me a genuine compliment about my playing. Not only are compliments nice for the ego, they make us feel like we’re doing well and making progress. That in and of itself is motivating.