No one ever said learning an instrument was easy. It's a tough and lifelong process that requires considerable perseverance but the rewards, and not to mention the life skills we learn in the process are immense. Unfortunately, like Planet Earth II's hatchling turtles, not all of our beginners make it safely to 'the sea'. While we don't have complete control over this, we can create circumstances in which our students are more likely to thrive and therefore continue.
Good habits are essential to the success of learning an instrument, and it is our responsibility as teachers to instill these, so much as it is our responsibility to instill correct technique, musicianship and the ability to read music. Here are a few practical things we need to be on top of from day 1:
We all know how important practice is:
Lack of practice = lack of progress = loss of enthusiasm = quit
We're all painfully aware, (especially at a time when we're setting New Year's resolutions,) how difficult it is to change old habits for new ones, so set out your expectations for practice early on. Be clear about how much and how often, and use a practice book to record what needs to be practised each week. Take time to explain how the practice book works in the very first lesson. If your lessons are short, creating a letter to send home briefly outlining how much practice you expect each week, how it should be recorded and that it should be signed by the parent/guardian may be a more viable alternative. (You may also want to check out our previous blog on making the most of short lessons.) The practice book is also a useful line of communication between you and your student's parent or guardian if you do not naturally come into contact with them.
Check practice records every lesson, praising when practice has been done sufficiently and questioning when it hasn't. Quite often beginners simply forget, so encouraging them to make a practice timetable to schedule their practice around other activities will help. If necessary, take the time to plan their practice timetable with them and always encourage them to display it somewhere prominent at home. Encouraging students to build and follow this routine for themselves cultivates independence, which will serve them well in the long term.
Worse than 'no practice' is 'poor practice', because it gives the student the illusion that they are incapable. Time spent showing students how to break down material into sections and practise effectively is time well-spent. Empower your students to teach themselves at home, e.g. what should they be listening for? What should they feel or see in a mirror when they are holding their instrument correctly? Your students will spend more time playing their instruments without you than with you, so a short checklist is helpful to keep them on the right track when you're not around. It can also allow parents or guardians to help more effectively. Mindful, constructive and efficient practice is what we are aiming for.
Punctuality and Attendance
If being late means getting into trouble at home and at school then there will come a point when the student decides that playing an instrument is no longer worth the hassle. Granted it's frustrating when you have to chase a student down every week, but it is unlikely that they are deliberately forgetting. If a student really struggles with punctuality, suggest some strategies to help them remember their lesson time such as relating it to a particular lesson or break time, asking their teacher to write their lesson on the board and remind them, or getting a watch with an alarm.
In primary schools, (and in all honesty even in secondary schools,) stickers go a long way in the battle to create good habits. Children find delayed gratification difficult, so the idea that consistent practice will bring ample rewards in years to come is not that interesting to the average seven year old; it's all about now. A sticker chart to reward good practice, effort, progress, punctuality and overcoming their own individual challenges, provides an instant reward and encouragement to keep going. If a student has done something well, or even made a small step in the right direction after a period of stagnation, then praise them. If they've done something particularly special then telling their parent, class teacher, music teacher, or anyone who will affirm their progress or positive behaviour will motivate them even further.
Like the hatchlings, beginners are vulnerable so the more we can do to put them on the right track the better chance they have of continuing long-term.