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.