What To Do When a Student Wants to Quit

Mar 15, 2017

by Scout MacKay.

Miah collapsed on the floor in a pile of tears and frustration. “I do not want to have a music lesson, I do not want to practice, and I do not want to play guitar!”

As a second grader who is a year into guitar lessons, Miah had got quite good. She had mastered all the basic chords and various strumming patterns. I didn’t want to see her give up. From playing her favorite songs to even writing one of her own (featuring the daily routines of her pet rabbit) — listing all of her accomplishments didn’t help.

Miah was overwhelmed with the idea of another half an hour lesson consuming her free time. She was not budging from the leg of the table she was so desperately clinging to, no matter what her parents and I said to her. She loudly made it known that she’d had it with scheduled time and wanted only to curl up with her cat on the floor and do nothing.

Her mom and I stepped outside onto the doorstep while her father patiently coaxed her out from underneath the table and helped her dry her tears. She explained to me that Miah was overwhelmed by witnessing her younger brother and his extensive hours of play time, while she had increasing responsibilities and heavier homework load after moving up a year in the vigorous Seattle Public School system.

One thing we forget easily as adults (who often cope with too much on our plates) is that kids get stressed out too. They not only belong to the same society that underestimates the importance of free time — they’re being raised by it. In order to continue lessons with an overwhelmed student, music has to become the tool to unwind and let go. Music has to become alone time, free time, a time for introspection and play — rather than a perfected presentation for the outside world.

I left the situation in Miah’s parents’ hands for the week, and wrote her mother an email suggesting that we take a different approach. Miah, strong-willed and determined to do things her own way, showed up at my house a week later with two recorders and a blank notebook. “I want to learn recorder instead of guitar,” she said. I hadn’t played a recorder since I was in elementary school when the music teacher had put on a humiliating performance, where we squeaked our way through songs no one had ever heard of about recycling and water conservation.

As a result, I scarcely regarded the recorder as a real instrument. But, after Miah and I watched a few impressive YouTube videos of the world’s best recorder players, my opinion changed and I was intrigued.

So, as Miah refashioned her feelings towards music lessons, I adapted my feelings towards the recorder. She was incredibly natural and enthusiastic, and within a few months she’d learned the Harry Potter theme song from sheet music, with all the sharps and everything. I realized all along I had been teaching a wind instrumentalist a string instrument, and what she had really needed was to express herself her own way.

While Miah became Seattle’s best Harry Potter recorder interpreter, I took a more laid back approach on giving her assignments and made lessons feel more like play time. Together we went into Harry Potter’s magical world and took time to reflect on what part of the story the songs in her music book came from. How did Harry Potter feel when he received that Nimbus 2000? What was “Double Trouble” really about? For Miah, the enthusiasm she brought to her music was equal to that of John Williams’, the composer. Music lessons were a half-hour to make Harry Potter’s world real — with a music stand and a recorder. I was on the sidelines as her biggest fan, every so often helping out by coming up with a rhythm exercise or working out the squeaks.

I asked Miah and her mother if I could write this article and she was honored. If your method isn’t working to teach a student, maybe they’re not a pianist but a vocalist, and maybe they need time to escape from a source of pressure.

Eventually, patiently, with the stage set on your student’s terms, you will build a unique kind of trust and friendship that is unstoppable. Then, after a long eight-hour day of teaching, you’ll pick up your guitar and go to your own version of “Hogwarts” and reinvent the lesson for yourself, perhaps with Miah on the sidelines, every once in awhile pencilling in an eight note that went by too quickly.

Scout MacKay teaches more than 40 students piano, voice, guitar, songwriting and composition in the Seattle area. She also travels annually to Latin America where she provides instruments, art supplies and music lessons as tools for developing communities.

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