HomeEducationHow to stop students quitting by Karen Marshall

How to stop students quitting by Karen Marshall

These days when I catch up with teaching colleagues, there is often a common theme:
“I need to recruit some new students as so many have quit during the pandemic.”

The numbers vary from just one or two and tragically the most I’ve heard is 30 (by a visiting music teacher who mainly teaches groups). As most are self-employed with bills to pay, adverts are out, websites are being updated, and they are doing their very best to fill those gaps – and fast! It’s not easy as with cost of living rises and even middle-class families tragically not always seeing the value in some orchestral instruments – leaning more towards piano and guitar (due to perhaps the false impression they will be ‘more fun’). More than ever, it is desperately important to keep the students that we have engaged and enthused!

We will always have some students leave as families move out of the area, or a student leaves us due to work pressure or University. However increasingly (from anecdotal evidence) it appears that students are giving up in greater numbers (that was pre-pandemic too). With lots of other activities going on, children heavily tested with demanding national examinations and the need to catch up after Covid along with technology distractions, instrumental learning is suffering.
In my own teaching practice, I have tried to become much more conscious about any signs that perhaps I need to adapt a little to keep a student coming through the door…

What are the signs a student may be disengaging?

The pretty obvious one is that they simply stop practising. But there are others:

  1. They forget their books frequently.
  2. They miss lessons due to lots of other commitments.
  3. They look at the clock rather too frequently and yes, yawn a little.
  4. They compare themselves with others (siblings and friends) who are making faster progress.

Here are a few thoughts and ideas I’ve gathered in my teaching. Hopefully there may be something that could be helpful.

Creating meaning and purpose

Music is like anything else. We feel more motivated to do it if we feel it serves a purpose. Creating meaning with our students can be done in several ways. Recently I’ve been asking my students more why they are learning. Getting them to think about it has, I believe, been helpful. And I’ve been more able to provide a curriculum that suits what is driving them.

Here are some of the things that they’ve been saying:
“It’s a good thing to put on my UCAS form personal statement, as it shows that I have other hobbies and interests.”
“I really love music! Playing the piano always cheers me up when I’ve had a sad day.”
“I like to see myself making progress. It takes some time to do that on the piano, but that makes it even more worthwhile.”
“My music is totally different to my schoolwork and gives me a break from homework and revision. It chills me out.”
“I want to teach the piano when I get older.”
“I like to play music I know, so I can play it to my friends.”

As a teacher it’s always valuable to explain ‘what’s in it for them’. From developing ‘life skills’ of organisation and grit, to talking about other benefits mentioned in Susan Hallam’s research commissioned by the Music Education Council, The Power of Music.

The value of community

A student concert can really motivate (post-pandemic more than ever), as can pairing students up with a duet partner, band, or ensemble group to encourage one another. Not least, they are able to compare notes and realise the other person has similar frustrations at times, and they can problem solve together.

Group activities also produce a fuller sound (stereo does feel fantastic when performing). Do check online for non-competitive festivals or performance opportunities. Due to the pandemic these opportunities have been limited but are now needed more than ever. Huge numbers of children and adults are already embracing this type of event and are thrilled to once again be able to publicly perform. It is vital to give our students the experience of a wider musical community. Not only can it help their musical development but also is a way to make friends and can even improve their overall well-being.

Useful duet material includes ABRSM Piano Star Duets, for beginner stages to Grade 2. Paul Harris has written a whole range of duet material with Faber Music for woodwind, Kathy and David Blackwell have some excellent ensemble material for strings (Fiddle Time) with Oxford University Press, and Sarah Watts’ material with Kevin Mayhew is very accessible and fun for early mixed ensembles.

Showing progression

Learning an instrument is a slow burn! Some students can feel they are not making progress. I have begun (with signed permission) to start to record students at the beginning of a piece and then again at the end. The progress also from an easy piece several months earlier to a harder piece later gives evidence of achievement.

Providing material that motivates – not demotivates

I have found that the material I offer is a balance. I cover core repertoire, but also music in the moment. Following the Queen film, Bohemian Rhapsody was one such hit as was music from La La Land when that was released.
I have learnt over the years that I have perhaps given too much material, or that it’s been hard. I now regularly ask what the student wants to work on. That way, they also tend to take more responsibility in what they practice. It’s important as a teacher to also know when to ditch a piece too! The one for me (playing a piece you’ve suggested as the teacher) and one for you, is also a useful approach.

We must remember that some core repertoire (I call these the ones high in musical nutrition, “the musical fruit and veg”) are essential to give our students the skills they need to move forward, especially technically. Using a tutor book as a basis for several months – that has been carefully thought out and includes repertoire, theory, musicianship, sight reading and aural activities – can be extremely useful alongside lots of “in the moment” repertoire. My own series Piano Trainer published by Faber Music (Post Grade 1 to Grade 8 – Foundation, Intermediate, Advanced & Scale Manual) was written for such a purpose. Do watch the video with more information about the Intermediate books in the series found here, and here are two performances, a variation on Ode to Joy (Ode to Style) from book 1 and a Variation on Drunken Sailor from book 3. Each of the pieces includes all the different styles of the music covered in the following pages in the books.

Other things to motivate include:

Topic-based teaching, so you can provide a student with a much deeper understanding of what they are playing. When we understand something, we can enjoy it more. I often pick a style to focus on in a month or even term and cover all aspects of it from repertoire to history, composing to listening activities.

Diversity in lessons: what opportunities are there for composing, improvisation, playing by ear, ensemble playing, or even listening to some fantastic performance (by you the teacher or on YouTube)?

Encouraging independent learning

We must remain continually aware of the need to help our students become independent. If we intend on giving lots of new repertoire, we must work at note reading on an ongoing basis so a student can tackle it at home.

We can encourage further independence by:

  • Getting students to source their own repertoire.
  • Asking them to source good performances of their piece on YouTube, even asking them to write an appraisal of it, as if adjudicating at a festival.
  • Asking them to research around the music they are playing.
  • Encouraging live performance attendance and working with other musicians informally through ensembles, bands and duet playing.
  • Creating their own performance for family and friends, making a programme and even sending out official invites. Perhaps keeping a recording for a lasting digital record of the achievement.

The teacher pupil relationship

The TED talk by Rita F Pierson ‘Every kid needs a champion’ has some excellent advice for teachers on the teacher pupil relationship. Most importantly students need to feel you like them. This relationship is so important in the whole musical learning process, some students carry on purely because of this weekly one-to-one contact that is just focussed time purely on them. It’s a precious thing and a privilege to be able to do this.

And finally…

As we move out of the pandemic, I believe music to be a very powerful healing tool for everyone – but especially our rising generation. Never forget as a music teacher you do truly important work that changes so many lives for the better. Let’s support one another too to keep everyone playing their instruments and not quitting!

Karen Marshall’s Music Room Top picks

Rachel Portman’s ask the river – Chester Music
This is a beautiful book with pieces that late intermediate pianists truly love. It’s very attractive too with copies of Rachel’s original handwritten scores inside. Rachel Portman is a highly sort after and accomplished musical film score writer, the pieces are broadly minimalistic in style with gorgeous melodies weaved in. “Apple Tree” is a particular favourite of mine. This collection has certainly rejuvenated the enthusiasm for the piano for many of my students, especially ones deep in national examinations like GCSE and A levels.

The Intermediate Pianist Books 1, 2 & 3

Karen Marshall and Heather Hammond – Faber Music
Lots of students give up the piano at about Grade 3 level and this series was written particularly with those students in mind to quite frankly ‘stop them quitting’. These books cover Grade 3+, Grade 4+ and Grade 5+. They include 25 styles of music across the series with lots of repertoire that are described as ‘quick learns’. Being below the Graded level of the book so a student can learn them quickly and complete the whole book in a manageable time. Perfect for between exam grades, classical repertoire is included alongside popular, folk and jazz pieces. All of this is packed alongside scales, technical, theoretical and musicianship activities seamlessly pedagogically organised.

Heather Hammond’s Ballads Without Words – EVC Music

19 enticing pieces here of around Grade 4-5 level. Again, a book that can keep a student playing when motivation is lacking. A wide range of styles and time signatures makes the book also very pedagogically sound. It’s very apparent that Heather Hammond is a practising piano teacher as the material does include aspects of playing students can find challenging in a way to help them succeed and grow. From 5 time to syncopation, tricky co-ordination to rhythmic complexity. Heather is fantastic at writing a tune that sticks, and as we are aware, students do love music they just want to play over and over!

Also do look at the excellent Gradebusters series for grades 1 and 2, and for a range of instruments. Packed with popular chart hits and so much more. Arrangements are accessible and brilliantly written. This is an important series for all instrumental teachers to be aware of!



HerStory: The Piano Collection by Karen Marshall

HerStory: The Piano Collection was written over lockdown. It was one of the greatest privileges of my life to write this book, especially because most of the music is currently not available in print. Launched on International Women’s Day (8th March), the book tells the story of 29 remarkable female composers from across the ages, with a specially chosen piece of music by each. In addition, two competition winners are included, who are being published for the first time.

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