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As a music coach and ensemble director, I have worked with children as young as six and adults as old as eighty. Working with both children and adults has had a reciprocal benefit. What I mean by that is, there are things that I have learned from observing adult students that help me better teach my young students, and vice versa. For now, I’m going to talk about what I’ve learned from working with adults. After all, adults are the “After” picture in a Before-After comparison.
What adults have taught me about teaching children.
Adult students frequently have tales of woe from their younger days. It could be overhearing a parent joking about their tone deafness. Or being asked by a teacher to only pretend to play during a band concert. Yes. That really happened.
There is a particularly important lesson to be learned by all parents and teachers regarding children and creativity. It’s a tough one to hear, but I’m going to be blunt.
It’s not about you.
The details of a student’s creative output is not a test of your worthiness as a teacher or as a gene donor. It can be tough not to squirm in your seat as your child or student proceeds through a performance only nailing 70% of the pitches. Do it anyway. Don’t even blink until it’s over, and then tell them all the things that were great about the performance.
And then work more on nailing pitches in the next lessons.
What is it about? Cultivating creativity.
Every kid deserves the time and space to experiment with creative expression. No one needs us adults injecting fear and doubt into the experience. That’s our own stuff. Young people come into the world as fearless creators. We adults can build upon that to help them grow into fearless adults. Or not.
So, how can we cultivate creativity in young people?
Based on what I’ve learned in large part from adult students over the years, I’ve put together a list of dos and don’ts. It’s geared toward music teachers but applies to anyone surrounded by young people.
1. Do recognize that any progress is progress:
Let’s say your student is learning a new scale on the piano. He needs to get the fingering correct, the volume of the notes consistent, and the tempo steady. If in his next lesson he only has mastered a consistent volume, cheer him on. Any progress is progress, and you’ll see more of it if you don’t focus immediately and solely and what was not accomplished.
2. Do end every lesson or practice session with a “win”:
Did your student just master a new skill and there are still seven minutes left in the lesson? Don’t start a new challenge. Instead let him or her practice executing the new skill and leave the lesson with the experience of a win. The student will feel successful, charged and inspired to continue.
3. Do encourage imperfection:
There is a learning progression that goes like this – can’t do it – can do it but not very well – can do it well. Executing a new skill “not well” is a sign of progress and should be treated as such.
4. Don’t be critical of others:
I don’t just mean about musical pursuits. If you are critical of other people for any reason in front of a young person, the subconscious assumption will be that you are also critical of him or her.
5. Don’t be critical of yourself:
Just the way a mother can model, and therefore teach, bad body image to her daughter, adults can teach young people that imperfection and mistakes are terrible and something to hide. But imperfection and mistakes are a requirement for progress of any kind. Don’t treat your imperfections like they are shameful and the young people around you will follow suit.
6. Don’t limit special performance opportunities only to your more skilled students:
Confidence and a can-do attitude will grow with each accomplishment of a new challenge and all students need and deserve that opportunity, not just the ones with special gifts. As a teacher, I had to learn to put my pride and concern about my teaching image aside and allow students with average skills the chance to challenge themselves on stage. It didn’t always lead to the most technically amazing performances but it ALWAYS paid off in the form of added confidence and inspiration for the student (and a warm fuzzy feeling in my heart).
7. Do remember that amazing gifts don’t always reveal themselves at a young age:
Don’t ever discourage a creative pursuit because you think a student doesn’t have enough talent. Young people are just that – young. You don’t know what they are capable of until they pour some experience, passion and effort into any pursuit.
8. Don’t buy into the misconception that only people with special skills deserve to pursue the arts.
Creativity, musical or otherwise, is for anyone and everyone who is called to it. It improves health, well-being and mental functioning. Creativity is not a club. It’s an experience. Teachers and parents should be gateways to creativity, not gatekeepers.