Music Lesson Anxiety

When I talk to adults who are interested in taking music lessons, I frequently hear some variation on the following story: “My parents made me take lessons as a child and I hated it. The teacher was very strict and critical, I hated practicing, and I quit as soon as my parents let me”. I call this phenomenon “Music Lesson Anxiety”, and it can easily lead to the dreaded “Music Lesson Trauma”, which renders the victim unable to pick up an instrument for life. It is a sad situation, because these people often love music, and may even have some musical talent, but their childhood experiences have convinced them that learning music is a tedious, stressful chore.

However there is good news. Music Lesson Anxiety can be cured! The cure is to make learning music fun, the way it should be. Many who suffer from this syndrome had to endure an older, classically-inspired approach that emphasized perfectionism, discipline, and intense criticism. This approach can work for some, very dedicated students, but for most people it is a disaster. Let’s face it, most people are not going to become professional musicians. These people want to play music because it is a fun, social activity. Subjecting these people to strict discipline is likely to turn them off to playing music forever.

I like to combat Music Lesson Anxiety with a few simple methods. First, I like to start with music the student already knows and appreciates. If a student can learn to play a song she likes after only a couple of lessons, that’s exciting! There’s no reason to force someone to play Beethoven if they don’t want to.

Second, I don’t set strict rules on practicing. While you can’t get better without practicing, you also can’t get better by feeling guilty about not practicing. I encourage students to set realistic goals about how often and how long they practice. Perhaps three times a week for half and hour. The fact is, you get better every time you play, even if it’s just for twenty minutes. In addition, you should have fun when you play, not just spend the whole time playing scales.

Third, I try to favor encouragement over criticism during lessons. I focus on what the student is doing right, and then make gentle suggestions for improvement. Once a student is more advanced, he may benefit from a more critical approach, but for beginners and adults who are starting over it is important to focus on the positive.

If you suffer from Music Lesson Anxiety or Music Lesson Trauma from childhood, there is hope! If your child is interested in music lessons, there are ways to teach them so that they will never experience these problems. Music shouldn’t cause anxiety or trauma. Music is fun. Music is beautiful.

The Sandwich Method of Teaching and Practicing

I am grateful to my friend Savannah Mayfield Roberson for introducing me to the sandwich method. Originally, she recommended it as a way to break bad news to somebody. You start by saying something positive, then you put the bad news in the middle, then you finish by saying something positive again. The good news is the bread, the bad news is the filling.

I’ve learned that I can apply the sandwich method to a lot of situations in life. For example, when I teach a music lesson. We start by doing something fun, like playing through the songs the student has been working on, trying out some new songs, exploring a new technique or interesting problem, and answering questions that came up from practice. Then comes the work part – some music theory, some scales or exercises, specific critiques of technical aspects of playing. Then we go back to the fun, specifically showing how the topics we covered in the work section can be applied to making real music, something more interesting.

Similarly, when I practice at home I like to start off by having some fun – improvising freely, focusing on the sound of the instrument, trying some new ideas. Then when I’m warmed up I work on memorizing melodies, learning new tunes, playing in keys that give me trouble, or refining some aspect of my sound. Then I have some more fun at the end – soloing on some of the tunes I’ve learned, trying to put it all together.

I recommend that my students use the sandwich method in their own practice. When we don’t have any fun, we get sick of things and lose our motivation. If we do nothing but have fun, it’s hard to get any better. So the key is to combine the two. By having some fun first, we get excited to learn and improve. By having some fun at the end, we leave practice with a good feeling, looking forward to the next time.

As I said, the sandwich method is useful for many aspects of life. From our social interactions to our personal projects, it is good to ease into the difficult part and then try to end on a positive note. Give it a try!