Enthusing the Musically Reluctant

We've all had them in our classes, haven't we?

Those students who declare they don't need music, don't want to do it and it's all completely useless.  

What do you do when a student says this?  Well, after the initial weeping that anyone could consider your subject so invaluable to their lives, there is one vital thing you must do. 

Ask the student why they think that.

This answer will inform all your actions going forward.  Your actions can be so much more effective if you know what they are thinking to start with. 

Here are the top 5 reasons I have found that students can be 'musically reluctant' and how to turn it around. 

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1. Shyness

Don't forget that although you love getting up and playing or singing in front of large crowds and may well have done so since you were 7, many students just don't enjoy it.  Introverted, anxious or just shy children can find performing subjects very difficult.  You've had times when you would rather sit in a corner with a book and have the world ignore you, I'm sure.  Imagine if you felt that way all the time, but knew that you would be called upon to not only answer questions in class but also perform on an instrument that you may not even be very good on, to a large crowd of people! 

The main issue here is that it is very rare for a child to say 'well, I'm just shy'.  You may have to read between the lines or phrase it differently. 

What to do next

If you have a quiet practise room away from the main classroom, this is the perfect place for your shy student to learn and progress their practical skills.  Even better if they have a friend they are happy to work with.  They can work without fear of people seeing or commenting on their work.

To begin with, have the student just perform to you in the quiet space, and over time, as their confidence grows, ask other students in to listen.  Eventually, the goal is to have the student performing to larger and larger groups. 

2. Fear of Embarrassment

No one likes to be shown up in public and many students may not feel confident doing the tasks you have asked of them in front of others in case something goes wrong. 

Some students make more of a display refusing to perform than if they had just performed in the first place! 

It is often very clear if a student is worried about their performance but reassurance and allowing students to perform a short extract at first will go a long way.  Remember it is often the seemingly most confident and loudest students that are the most insecure.

What to do next

Ensure that your class is a positive place to be.  Set your ground rules in lesson 1 that no negative language will be tolerated and ensure that any negative, rude or mean comments are shut down immediately.  Encourage applause and even cheering when students perform.  Focus on the WWW before the EBI, but ensure that any EBIs given are constructive comments on improvement, rather than lists of things that went wrong. 

3. Parental Input

"My parents said it doesn't matter".

Now there's a phrase that makes me boil up inside.  Why?  Why did your parents say that?  Why don't they want you to have a broad and balanced curriculum?  Why have they decided that one subject is more important than another?

What to do next

Have a chat with the student about what music can do for them.  Show that you understand that the student isn't planning on studying music further, but emphasise the transferable skills they will pick up. If this continues to be an issue, a phone call home to chat with the parents may be the next step. 

4. Haven't stopped to think about how music is EVERYWHERE

Ask the student what they do in their spare time.  Do they watch TV?  Visit the shopping centre?  Play games online or via Xbox?  Play sports?  Go to the cinema?  Link their favourite activity to music.  What would the cinema be like without any music?  Would your game be so intense without the dramatic themes?  What would a football match be like without any singing in the stands?  

It may just be that they haven't stopped to realise that behind virtually everything, there is music. 

What to do next

Ask your student to come up with three places they heard music this week ready for the next lesson.  You could even use this as a discussion starter for your next lesson and ask all students to do this so you are not 'picking' on this one person.

5. Not Naturally Musical

Let's face it, try as we may, some people are just not naturally musical.  You might have students that come in and make excellent progress.  They feel the beat, they understand the music, they enjoy transferring this on to software programmes or through performance and composition. 

But other students may just find it very difficult.  And if you are finding something hard in a sea of people finding it much easier, it's not going to make you feel great!

What to do next

Reassure the student that they are not alone!  Remember to differentiate the work, perhaps giving more scaffolded materials for this student.  Focus on the student enjoying what they are doing rather than trying to achieve a grade.  Ask the student if there is a different instrument they would like to try.  I have found that some students struggle with piano, but have far more success on a ukelele, for instance.

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So next time a student seems reluctant to participate, just take them aside and ask them why?  Children love to be included, it's our job to find a way for that to happen successfully. 


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