Contributed by: Sara R. Longwell
As teachers, we love getting to know our students as unique individuals. We get to know their personalities, their favorite (and least favorite) subjects in school, what’s going on in their families and with their friends, how all of their other activities are going, and so much more. Unfortunately, it can be so easy to fall into the trap of teaching cookie cutter lessons that all look alike, rather than teaching highly tailored and individualized lessons that really suit each student. This can be extremely challenging to do when you have a full schedule, limited planning time and resources. Not to mention that most of us have our favorite methods and theory books that we are going to want to use for 99% of our students. There’s nothing wrong with starting from a standard curriculum that you believe is effective! Small adjustments to your curriculum can make lessons more effective and fun for you and your students. Try some of the following easy strategies for more individualized lessons with minimal stress.
Give unique rewards. For most of my students, especially the little ones, stickers are my go-to, day to day rewards for learning a new piece. I know other teachers who use candy. Each student, though, is working on larger goals, too. Maybe they are trying to meet their practice goals for a whole month, or are very nervous, but bravely preparing to perform for the first time. I like to reward these personal successes, too, and considering what is going to be a truly motivating reward for each student makes these rewards extremely effective and fun to get. Consider some of the following rewards: a whole lesson of nothing but music games; a special piece they’ve really been wanting to play; something non-musical like small lego kits, a pack of trading cards they are interested in, or a Starbucks card for teenagers; a special treat like cookies or cupcakes. Don’t be afraid to ask the student what they’d like to earn. Little ones might make some unrealistic requests at first, but with some questioning, they can help you figure out something that will excite them.
Choose extra music that the student is interested in. Even if you love, love, love your method series, every once in awhile, let the student choose a fun piece they’d like to play and find a version of it that is on their level. There are five-finger versions of so many things available now that kids hear on the radio or in their favorite movies. Any genre of music can provide practice in reading, counting rhythms and other musical skills, so even if you think their choice isn’t the most, ahem, academic, you can find the educational value in it, and they will be more motivated and energized that if they aren’t ever given the chance to play what they love.
Don’t ignore that one student for whom your favorite method isn’t working. We’ll always run into that one student periodically who just doesn’t click with your favorite books or theory workbooks. You think these books are brilliant, but they are frustrated, bored or confused on a regular basis. Don’t keep trying to fit that square peg into a round hole. Identify what about your materials isn’t working and don’t be afraid to try something new! Even if your first adventure or two with new materials isn’t a success, that’s okay. Try until you find something that works. Keeping the material fresh instead of plodding ahead will help keep your student from burning out, and eventually you’ll find what you need.
Identify one component of musicianship that your student is struggling with and come up with one new thing you can try to help them get stronger. Music is highly complex, and each student has aspects of musicianship that they are great at, and others that they are weaker with. Try adding just one new strategy for each student to help them address their weaknesses. You will most likely have more than one student with the same struggles, so you won’t have to come up with something new for every single one of them. Try adding a sightreading book for students who don’t read well (I keep mine with me instead of leaving it with the student, so they can’t peek ahead.) Try using rhythm sticks or small drums to work on reading rhythms with students who don’t count well or have a hard time keeping a steady beat. You could play a recording of a song they like and have them play the beat along with it. Add some fun theory games for students that struggle with their theory homework on paper.
Involve students in setting their own goals. If you are always the one who sets the goals for your students, it will be harder for them to feel invested and motivated. For example, I have my students set their own practice goals each week (though I do say they can’t pick less than three days). When they tell me how many days they will practice, they are making the commitment, rather than me forcing a number on them. It also teaches them the very important life skill of adjusting their goals based on what else is going on each week. They very quickly start thinking out loud about whether they have a lot of tests and projects and need to shoot for fewer days, or if this is an easy week and they can do more. They also start to intuitively adjust their goals when a big performance or audition is coming up. What a great skill to learn so young! With older students, I also like to set a little time aside at the beginning of the year or the semester and have them set some goals they’d like to reach in that time. It might be a challenging piece they want to play, a performance event they want to try participating in, or a score they’d like to earn at a judged event. It could even be a personal goal like composing a piece, writing a song, or performing in the school talent show. It feels good to check in with their goals as the year or semester goes on to see if you’re hitting the marks that excited them, and it will help them feel accomplished and motivated.
If this feels overwhelming, especially if you have a full schedule, start small. Pick just a handful, or even just one student to start with, and pick one thing you could do from the list above. Even small changes over time will start to accumulate, and you will find that your teaching becomes more effective, you and your students will be more engaged and less bored, and your students will be much more motivated over time.