Can I tell you one of my greatest fears?
One day I get an email from a student. And they are ready to quit.
I’m in shock. Completely blindsided. Things had been going well, right? But out of nowhere I’ve lost a student and maybe alienated them from music performance forever.
Fortunately, this hasn’t happened yet…
Young musicians face so many difficulties. If your communication with a student breaks down, you may miss a chance to guide them through a major speed bump.
It’s not that your students are afraid of you.
They may simply be afraid to discuss certain topics with you if they don’t know how to bring them up. To help them, all you need to do is observe and act when the time comes.
Every musician experiences playing-related pain at some point.
So why even talk about it?
Students often don’t know the difference between minor aches and more severe chronic problems. They may fear that their pain is a negative reflection of their poor technique. Or they might be afraid of letting you down by admitting discomfort.
As a result, they may never tell you about the pain they experience every time they play.
Watch for excessive physical tension while playing, especially if it causes your student to wince. Notice if your student massages sore spots or habitually stretches certain body parts during lessons.
Keep an open dialogue about pain. Make sure your student knows that pain is nothing to be ashamed of. Every musician experiences playing-related pain at some point and it is important to manage pain before it becomes chronic.
Talk with your students about how to warm up. Encourage your students to participate in non-musical physical activities to build strength and flexibility. Incorporate body awareness into discussions about physical setup.
Some students may need to seek medical advice. Be an advocate for the long-term health of your students and encourage them to seek advice from a medical professional if needed.
Many students assume there is something wrong with them if they experience performance anxiety.
They think they don’t have what it takes to be a great performer. They wonder why they feel like throwing up when everyone else seems so calm.
A 2001 study of Music Performance Anxiety (MPA) among college-level music majors and faculty at a major Midwestern University found that 97.1% of students had experienced MPA before a performance and that 100% of faculty had experienced MPA.
So your students are not alone. It’s really important that they know that.
Listen for self-defeating phrases such as “Oh, this is gonna be bad,” or “Sorry for what you’re about to hear.” Notice if a student resists performance opportunities or always finds excuses to avoid performing.
The first step for helping students with performance anxiety is to help them realize they are not alone. Guide them to books and resources that teach mental preparation for performance, yogic breathing, and meditation practices. Music Performance Anxiety may fuel successful performances when managed skillfully.
3. Odds of Success with ________
How many times have you wondered if your goals are too ambitious?
Your students wonder the same thing. If doubt constantly nags your student, there is a good chance that your student will not bother committing to their goals.
Does your student shift focus from one goal to another, never able to stick to one large goal for more than a few weeks at a time? Do they express doubt in their ability to reach larger goals?
Your student needs reassurance that the long-term goals you set together are achievable. Work with your student to structure a series of manageable short-term goals that ultimately lead to medium- and long-term goals.
When your student notices that they are reaching their goals on a weekly basis, they will gain confidence in their ability to reach their big goals.
4. Lowering Lesson Expectations
Your students are busy.
They balance school work, sports, family, religious activities, and other hobbies with music lessons. No matter how much you would like them to put music first, they will occasionally need to focus on other things.
If your student has no energy in lessons, loses track of lesson assignments, or laments not being able to practice enough, they may need a decrease in lesson expectations. Notice if your student’s ability to practice regularly changes suddenly.
Ask your student if an adjustment of lesson expectations would be beneficial. Instead of removing all goals, just adjust them so that they are attainable with less practice time each week.
Sometimes just a few weeks of lowered expectations can allow a student to rekindle their love of playing.
5. Increasing Lesson Expectations
As your students grow into mature musicians, they may not know how to express their desire for more challenging lesson repertoire, technical exercises, and performance expectations.
Maximize your students’ growth potential by taking advantage of motivation when it appears.
Suddenly your student is able to do everything you ask every week and may even talk about how “easy” things are.
Your student might start asking you about competitions, music festivals, or unique performance opportunities.
Allow your students’ motivation to fuel more ambitious goals. Work with them to set an ambitious short-term goal, such as learning a piece by the next lesson. If that goes well, work together to develop a series of more challenging long-term goals.
6. Progress Evaluation
Am I doing enough? Am I meeting expectations? What do I need to work on? What do I already do well?
These questions can be uncomfortable to answer. But your students will be significantly more confident if they know the answers. Telling them: “Good job this week!” after a successful lesson is a start, but more detail can make a huge difference.
Notice if your student seems to want more feedback from you. Self-deprecating comments may suggest they want you to tell them how they are actually doing.
Be honest. Give thorough feedback.
Don’t sugar coat, but encourage success. Each student will react to your feedback differently. Pay careful attention to how your student responds to your compliments constructive criticism and adjust the language you use appropriately.
Evaluate the student based on what they are trying to achieve. Did they reach their goals for this week? Are they on track to achieve their goals in a month? In a year?
7. Long-term Potential
Can I succeed as a musician? Am I behind?
Many musicians struggle with these questions. It can be very difficult to answer these questions directly as you might not even know the answer for all of your students.
Does your student regularly express doubt in their ability to succeed? Notice if they compare themselves to others often or say they could “never be as good as” someone else.
Nobody can know the future.
The one crucial thing your students need to know if they want to achieve long-term success: All you can do is work consistently.
Success in any field requires a great deal of effort and consistent work over many years. Slow progress over many years adds up.
Observe and Act
It’s so simple, right? Just be sensitive to what your students do and say and you’ll know what to do.
If you teach more than a few students, it can be difficult to remember the details of each lesson from one week to the next.
You remember planning to talk to one of your students about how to alleviate back pain in their next lesson, but which student was it? Consider keeping detailed lesson notes for each student. When you observe something you think might be important, take a moment to write it down. Your observations may make the difference between a long musical career and one that comes to an early end.
What do you do to make sure your students get what they need? Tell me all about it in the comments!
 Robert A. Tamborrino, “An Examination of Performance Anxiety Associated with Solo Performance of College-Level Music Majors” (Diss., Indiana University, 2001), 78-86.
 Tamborrino, “An Examination of Performance Anxiety,” 4.
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