Motivation, Practicing, Teaching Piano

Forum Q&A | Keeping Teenagers Engaged

Our last Q&A Forum topic was about organization.  I loved reading your ideas — thank you all for your responses!

I had a great topic idea from a reader (thanks, Amy!) who asked:

How do you keep teenagers engaged?  As we know, sometimes they are taking lessons only because their parents want them to.  Or, sometimes they are over-scheduled.

Please take a moment to share your thoughts in the comments below — we would love to hear your ideas!

Photo Credit: easylocum

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20 thoughts on “Forum Q&A | Keeping Teenagers Engaged”

  1. This is such a tricky topic. I’m still trying to figure out the best ways to keep teens engaged. For most, I take the approach that as long as they are *practicing* – it doesn’t matter *what* we focus on during lessons. They want to play video game music? Great. Pop songs on lead sheets? Fine. Broadway tunes? Ok.

    If they stop practicing however, and we’ve been focusing on material that *they* chose, then we have a conversation about their goals and what it means to take piano lessons. A little tough love here can go a long way – especially if you have a good rapport with the student.

    As for the over-scheduled student – I used to be more lenient with this problem, but lately I’ve been telling parents/students that it is a *good* thing to limit the activities you do. It’s better to do a few things really well, than a bunch of things rather poorly. If practice is suffering, and we’re treading water, I’ll explain to both parent/student that while I enjoy our time together, it is not fair to continue lessons if there isn’t any progress.

    I’ll be interested to read what other people do with this issue – I’m always looking for more solutions/incentives for teens.

  2. I do a lot of what Sara talked about. One of my most drastic cases of progress came this past year, when I suggested to one of my teenaged girls that we ditch the lesson books and jump in the deep end with some “real” music. I thought she was going to cry, she was so happy. I have never, in over 30 years of teaching, seen such a turn-around. She promptly picked Classic music as her passion. She memorized Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca” in three weeks, chose to take it to Festival Cup (her first-ever experience with that), and got a superior. She moved right on to “Moonlight Sonata” and is going to town! She accompanies my girls’ vocal ensemble and plays for her young women’s group at church.

    1. Yes! Sometimes it really helps to get away from method books. I’ve found that once most students reach the teen years, it’s a good time to ween them off of method books and get into the real repertoire. Sometimes it’s a tough transition though, especially if you have students who aren’t that well-versed in technique and theory. How do you address that kind of problem? Any tips?

      1. @Sara, I have the teenagers that are not in a theory book get a spiral notebook to keep with their piano music. With each new piece we select, they start a fresh page in the notebook, with that piece’s title at the top. They write down every dynamic marking, every expression, symbol, etc. that is in the piece. Then they go back over the course of working on the piece, and define/draw/whatever about each of those things in the notebook. Very applicable theory lesson. My challenge to them with technique is to either memorize a level of Fingerpower or to work their way through Hanon. I also have a page-long scale routine I made up.

  3. Love the suggestion to get away from method books. We usually get so busy during the fall and spring semesters with festival pieces and theory tests that when summer rolls around, my teen students love the popular music concert! They each choose a current popular singer or band or any other jazz music they love. We learn at least one piece from this artist or group and then perform it at the end of the summer with a drummer and guitar player accompanying them. It’s made such a difference in getting students excited about music yet ready to focus on classical music more in the fall again!

  4. I have very rarely been able to see big transformations in the amount of practice my teenagers put in. Most of the exceptions have been when I let them play a genre that they really enjoy. Even then, most of the ambition levels fall short.

    Then I have other students who just have a lot of ambition no matter what they practice!

    There are exceptions though. Most of the turn arounds that I have seen have come over a long period of time!

  5. I recently had a teenager start and promptly quit. Any suggestions on how to engage teens who are complete beginners and don’t have the experience for more “fun” things (like pop arrangements)?

    1. That’s a toughie – what kind of method book were you using? That can be a key component, finding a method book that moves quickly enough, and isn’t too “kiddy” looking for the teens. I had a student start at 14, and he stayed on for 2 years before I moved locations and we parted ways. I kept him engaged by being very honest with him.

      “Sure, these method books are boring, but if you are serious about wanting to play something that you’ll love – you have to slog through these. Do the work, and there will be great rewards – just trust me!”

      It also helped to find lead sheets that kept him interested – we simplified a lot of songs by Coldplay, and that kept him busy for a while. Oddly enough, if we spent *too much* time on Coldplay, he’d ask to go back to the method books to brush up on his technical skills.

      Then of course, there are always the odd-ball techniques like I know a lot of teachers might shudder at the thought, but my mindset is as long as the student is actively playing and practicing, then there’s no harm in using strange methods.

  6. I agree that students should be allowed to learn music they enjoy and given an opportunity to experience different kinds . However, I’m quite old fashioned about my approach to teaching. I guess that’s okay, because I am quite old. I lel the parent know, right up front, that if their child is not doing well then it is the parent’s fault. They are the adult and sometimes children do not know how to make decisions about what is important. Most parents don’t let their kids make decisions about whether or not to do their school work or other things that are important. So, if learning to play the piano is important then practice should be a priority.

  7. I agree with all of the other comments and have used most of them with good success. Another thing I have been doing this past year is adding competition into the equation. I did a practice competition in the spring with an iTunes gift card as the reward. Practicing went way up and the kids were excited to see who was doing what. I think adding that community element is something that excites them as well.

    1. I too am interested in Vivian’s practice incentive. I like the idea, but would love to know how you went about doing it?

  8. Vivian,
    I like the idea of a practice competition and an iTunes gift card as the reward. I would like to hear more about it. Did you have your students track their practice time for a week and pick a winner based on the longest time?

  9. When a teenager comes to their lesson and just practices until their next lesson, they begin to wonder why they are taking lessons at all. To me, this is a passive role in piano. When they are actively engaged in thier own progress and lessons, they stay motivated. Find out what the family’s experiene is with piano.
    One of my teen students had two older sibling take piano for a few years, become disintered and quit. So its no wonder that the parents had no experiece with a serious piano student and she was headed in the same direction. She needed exposure to other dedicated and motivated students who were serious about piano. Setting a goal to enter a state event, but non-competitively solved several problems. She has to be in my monthly rep class- which exposes her to those other serious students, she is expected to play higher level pieces than normal which is an exciting challenge for her, and she now has a goal that she is actively engaged in. We both know where she is heading musically and she is now actively engaged in her progress this year. And finally, her parents now understand that she has real ability on the piano and couldn’t be more proud of what they hear when she practices- the siblings never lasted long enough to obtain this level of musicality.


  10. Whilst it may not work for all, I have rediscovered the joy of simple duets.
    Knowing that we are going to share the experience in the next lesson I find that the student (any age) puts in more effort at home so as to enjoy the experience.
    It also takes away the solitary feeling of playing the piano. All my teenage students do theory which can simply be termed as “learning about how it works” . I explain that eventually it will allow them to go ahead on their own without having to wait to be shown at lessons. Most end up loving it.
    Please keep ideas rolling as teenagers are great, but not always easy to keep as students.

  11. I have a teenager that also plays the viola and is in all honors classes etc. She has MANY hours of homework each night and came in the 2nd week of school in tears because she had no time to practice. I asked her how she did her homework, i.e. in one sitting, just pounding it out or did she take breaks? She said she just pounded it out. I told her she needed to take study breaks for the brain to absorb all of the information and also to let it recharge for more information. I told her to get up, walk outside, go get a drink of water, ….wait for it…….go practice part of her song for a study break, even if it was for 5-10 minutes AND write down the practice time in her assignment book.

    The next week she came in smiling from ear to ear! AND she had progressed on her song and had a sense of peace and accomplishment! And I would bet that she did better of her academic studies too! It was a big success!

  12. I love all the comments and ideas so far! Here’s another idea to try with less-than-motivated teens: Try assigning a piece or two that is a level or two below what they normally play. This can take the pressure off a little for students who are experiencing increasing homework loads. It also helps them feel a sense of accomplishment and recognize their achievements and ability at the piano so far. Conquering pieces in only a week or two can build confidence and increase motivation. When I do this with students, I make sure they are also working on at least one “challenge piece” that I make clear is a long-term project.

    1. Oh thanks! I have been thinking the same thing. I’m changing my whole approach in my studio to develop better sight readers by moving through more pieces quickly (and accurately, etc) instead of just focusing on two or three big challenge pieces. It sure helps keep things interesting, for them and me!

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