Instructor’s often go through the horrible experience of teaching a student the basics, months if not years of effort, only to find that the student quits over the summer. I imagine this is not just limited to piping and drumming, it could be applicable to any instrument. It might be just a case of out of sight, out of mind. However, I think there are things that can be done in the background to try and minimise this happening. It involves setting up some support structures in the background that can be utilised when the student is going through some moments of doubt.
I would estimate that my “drop out” rates when I first started teaching pipe band drumming were around the 40% mark – pretty high you would think. However, over the past three years I have managed to maintain a “drop out” rate of less than 5%. For this example, let’s take a look at younger students. I see a few key factors contributing to some of them opting not to lift up the sticks all of a sudden.
- The student has been off on school holiday and has been focusing on summer sports and vacations. This is probably the area where most students drop off the radar – they don’t have the instructor there to motivate them regularly and have no events or performances to re-ignite the old fire.
- The student has too many activities that they are committed to and they quit their instrument because they aren’t seeing as much progress as they would like. This is where the parent comes in … we’ll chat about that after.
- The student gets a hard time or is hassled by his/her peers in their year group about playing a traditional instrument and feels like it is uncool. This applies to clarinet every bit as much as bagpipes or drums.
- The student doesn’t enjoy the teaching style of the tutor.
There are, of course, many other factors that contribute to students quitting however the above points are ones that I hear time and time again from fellow music tutors. So what can be done to help combat this issue? Well, some support systems being put in place will go along way in helping to solve the issue.
Let’s take a look at the student who comes back after their summer holidays and says he/she is quitting. Instead of trying to rally around and change their mind, how about you think about what actions could have been taken to prevent this in the first place. Taking seven or eight weeks away from routine is not good for anyone. So what could we do as tutors to help keep our students on track? Firstly, a conversation with the parents is a good start. Outline to the parent the importance of continuing personal practice (after a short break of course!) throughout the holiday period. Perhaps go as far to write out specific rudiments/tunes to practice, how often to practice them and get them to make a note of their practices. This will motivate the student (and parent for that matter) to feel that they need to make an effort, so when they return to lessons they will be able to show their tutor that they have made an effort. Another option might be to look up a summer school option for them, I personally host a drumming workshop for students two or three weeks before the year begins – it’s a great way to get them enthused and to brush off the summer cobwebs.Playing an instrument can be a a very solitary activity – so encouraging some of your pupils to get together during the summer to jam could be a good idea. This gives them the opportunity to have fun with their instrument without any “disciplinarian” around. Also, it is important to take the student through a structured form of learning. As with any other subject at school, the student works from a book. I personally use the Guide to Pipe Band Drumming Books, and also have my student’s sit the Scottish Drumming Certificate. I think it’s important for the student to have structure, but also have the opportunity to get examined and rewarded for their achievements. Not all students like solo competition, so sitting examinations can be a great way for them to see their development tracking along. If the student is working from a book, you could let the parents know what their child should be looking at through the summer break. This then involves and engages the parent with the development of their child. I think that not enough focus is placed on getting the parent involved in the student’s musical development. I find that the students who progress the quickest are the ones whose parents take an active role in overseeing their progress. Obviously there are exceptions – those students who have a crazy passion for their instrument and practice hours each day!
Ok, let’s chat about a modern-day pandemic. I see so many students who are personally involved in cricket, rugby, swimming, chess, dancing, tennis, golf, cross country, skiing, cycling, polo, soccer and they play an instrument. I am not over-exaggerating when I say that this is becoming the “norm”. When I chat to a parent about the progress of their child and why they aren’t achieving as much as they could, the number one answer is that they have so many other commitments. In my opinion, this is something that the parent and child need to discuss. It’s a managed process, and it’s an ongoing one. I think we all have to make choices at some point. It’s a cross-roads if you like. There are only a finite amount of hours in the day. So, often we need to make decisions about which activities will have to go if we want to dedicate more time to another activity. The old saying “Jack of all trades, master of none” springs to mind. Don’t get me wrong, I think experiencing new things and learning from a varied palate is a positive thing, but committing to something and sticking with it (through thick and thin) until you master it is a hugely important and valuable life lesson. If all parents knew how learning an instrument might impact their child’s life I think each and every one of them would be signing them up for an instrument in primary school. And when the child gets bored (because they can’t download a “make me a master musician app” overnight) the parent needs to explain why they need to stick at it. It’s difficult to encourage your child to stick at it when they want to quit. But in the long run they will realise that in life, you will go through tough times and there is often no option to quit or walk away. Instilling this mindset from a young age through committed musicianship could pay dividends. I’d go as far to say that a student learns as much about life in a music lesson (or perhaps more!) as they do in Maths, English or Science. But then again, Im biased. To learn the skills of an instrument to a level where you can perform proficiently in public and create a positive emotion in your listener is a long and arduous journey. It’s also a very rewarding and enjoyable one.
Some of the key life lessons gained when learning an instrument :
- Pursuing Excellence
- Goal Setting
- Focusing on processes, not outcomes.
- Self Esteem
- Self discipline
Looking at the list above, as a parent, do you think any of these things will help your child to live a full and happy life? I would absolutely think so. I have many students who stand out in my mind as perfect examples of carrying the positive traits of a musician over to their academic life. In fact, one in particular placed at the World Championships and was crowned Dux (equivalent to Valedictorian) of his school in the same year. He was not the most naturally talented drummer, but he set major goals and worked extremely hard over a long period of time to reach his ultimate pinnacle of playing at the World Championships. To receive the Dux award is seriously amazing and comes with many scholarships for top Universities. When I hear parents/students saying that they can’t excel in their instrument field because of academic commitments I think of that one student. He’s an example to us all. When you want something bad, and you are willing to sacrifice time plus make a commitment over a long period … then anything is achievable. I know he will continue his life with some amazing guiding principles and will go on to do great things.
Now we all remember that moment at school when the bully spots you with your instrument walking across the playground and he heckles and laughs at you because you are doing something that’s “not cool for school”. I recall a guy at my school who used to goad me and prance around singing “Little Drummer Boy”. It was a bit embarrassing at times but to be honest I loved to drum and couldn’t care less what he said or did. I think it would be fair to say that he may have continued his life carrying his own set of “guiding principles”. So, if you are the student being teased, please don’t give up the instrument – stick with it and give the muppet who’s picking on you, a wide berth. Entertaining other humans is one of life’s amazing gifts – don’t forget it, and don’t throw in the towel.
Another huge factor affecting any musician is their rapport with their tutor. If you don’t gel with your teacher, then find another one. Keep going until you find the one that works for you. And if you go through 20 tutors and still don’t find the right one, maybe the tutor isn’t the issue?! But that is pretty rare I’d imagine.
Our fraternity (as musicians) is pretty special and is something we should try to preserve for future generations. It provides us with a strong sense of community and gives us a reason to collaborate and share great music, laughter and friendship. I hope that some parents might get a chance to read the blog, and that it might just highlight to them the major life-long benefits for their child being involved in playing an instrument. The benefits will no doubt have a positive impact on the musicians academic life, career success and relationship happiness.