Why Students Quit and What to Do About It

There is an article at The Music Parents’ Guide detailing reasons why students tend to quit. It’s very much worth the read, and I’d like to add some thoughts of my own. I’ll begin by responding to each reason one at a time:

  1. Parents don’t treat music as important as other subjects. This may be true, although it could easily be the assumption of a frustrated teacher who has been inundated with fear over the devaluation of music education. If true (and I’m inclined to believe it might be, at least somewhat), there is not much you can do on a personal level to combat this thinking. The lack of appreciation for music is a cultural problem. One thing I will not do is parrot the usual “music makes you better at school” platitudes, because it dilutes the message that music is valuable in its own right. If parents have signed their child up for music lessons, those lessons are likely to be just one part of a very busy extra-curricular schedule, because parents who want their kids to be active and discover new things won’t just stop at one activity. The fact that a child is taking lessons is evidence that their parents already value the experience you provide; so this point may be more relevant in a discussion of how to attract new students, rather than how to retain existing ones.
  2. Students don’t know how to get better. I can’t agree more. A music teacher doesn’t just teach how to play an instrument, they teach how to practice.
  3. Parents and students think they aren’t musically talented. Although worded somewhat awkwardly, the author is correct. Isn’t it completely backwards to quit learning how to play an instrument because you think you’re not already good at it? It is very important — I mean it, focus on this one — very important for students to understand that learning to play an instrument isn’t like learning how to make a sandwich — something that only requires knowledge but little practice. Musical performance is a highly trained physical skill. It takes months to play the most simple music, years to play most standard repertoire. And that’s assuming you never stop practicing. One thing I learned in the business world is the importance of setting up expectations. From day one, new music students should be made aware of the dedication of effort that will be required of them. If you keep them inspired, they will crave practice, and not abhor it. I do believe that some have a greater natural talent than others; but if I didn’t think that, with practice, anyone could play reasonably well, I wouldn’t be teaching.
  4. Students discontinue playing over the summer. This is true, and I don’t get why parents seem to  think summer is a time to put learning of any kind on hold. Because there are fewer commitments during the summer, no time is more convenient for private lessons. I certainly don’t mind if we reduce a student’s ongoing schedule, or cancel a few lessons because of family vacations, so long as we don’t stop meeting altogether for months at a time. Remember what I just said about music being a physical skill. What happens if you stop going to the gym for three months?
  5. The instrument is in disrepair. I wouldn’t insist that students or their parents sink tons of money into professional grade instruments. But having a decent enough instrument and keeping it functioning properly is crucial in maintaining motivation to practice. I recently recommended that a guitar student restring his instrument, and the following week I could tell that he was so enamored with its sparkly new tone that he had been practicing more.
  6. Teachers don’t create enough performing opportunities during the year. I am personally guilty of this, but I have been working on it more lately. The purpose of learning an instrument is to perform, even if only for family and friends. Recitals offer this chance. They also provide an incentive to practice. Put a deadline on the preparation of a piece, and you’ll be shocked at how much more well-prepared that piece is than everything else you have assigned!
  7. There is not enough “fun” music to practice. This seems especially true with guitar students, who are often lured to the instrument by popular music. I compromise with my beginners; I explain on day one that if they can master some fundamental skills, then I will introduce repertoire. I often teach from Mel Bay’s Mastering the Guitar, which features conveniently tabbed sections. When a student completes the “Basics” section, I deem them ready for simple rock songs. In the meantime, I try to keep them engaged with writing and improvisation, which aligns with my “Practice Triangle” approach.
  8. Other activities are pulling at the child. Funny enough, it’s kids that seem more willing to balance music lessons with multiple other activities than adults. But there can still be a perceived conflict. I say “perceived” because, at the beginning level, it doesn’t take much practice to see progress. Ten minutes daily should be enough. If a student tries to blame lack of practice on how busy they are, I’ll ask if they have ten minutes when they get home from school, or before or after dinner. This is prime time for practice. Of course, if a student feels excited about learning the instrument, and their instructor encourages free play in addition to assigned material, they will pick up the instrument whenever they have a free moment out of sheer compulsion.

There is a common thread running through my previous statements: Motivation. Everyone who chooses to learn an instrument does so because they want to have fun. They aren’t volunteering for work. So a key question that guides my approach to teaching is, What makes a person want to hold and play with an instrument? Whatever that is, if I can consistently cultivate that impulse, practice will happen, and students will remain motivated to continue their lessons indefinitely.

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  1. Hi Lyle, thanks so much for referencing my blog! Your posts are great — I have enjoyed reading them. A little follow up to your statement about music being valuable in its own right was written by me here:


    While I agree with you in spirit, we are not “there” yet with our school system — we have to use every argument at our disposal to keep music in schools.

    Again, thanks!

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