As I began my teaching adventure when I was 16 years old, I wanted to obtain more students of various ages and learning styles, and that is when I was introduced to teaching junior high school students. I put an ad in a local home-school newsletter, and to my surprise the very next day got a response. A very kind woman wanted me to teach her daughter beginning piano lessons. She didn’t have any previous training and was eager start as soon as I had an opening. The only dilemma was that she could only attend lessons every other week. We adapted and agreed to make up for lost time by having an hour lesson. The student was 12 years old and could sit for a longer time than the average young beginner so we made arrangements for the first lesson. I couldn’t believe I had my second student! I was going to be a real piano teacher!
When the student and her mother arrived, I was intimidated by a girl who was almost as tall as me and wore trendy clothes. The only things that gave away that she was four years younger than me were her braces and lopsided pigtails. The doubts started invading my mind. “What do I know about teaching a junior high student? I can’t teacher her out of that cute little picture and music book I was planning on using. How fast would she learn things?” I mentally attempted to adapt my plans for the lesson and then plowed ahead. I figured if an 8 year old could learn a few pieces a week then a 12 year old could learn a few more. So, off we went! I threw terms, scales, chord progressions, and music at this frightened junior higher like I was feeding a vicious tiger. After about 30 minutes of the lesson we were both exhausted and burnt out, but my stopwatch said I had 30 minutes to go, so we turned the page and sight-read through a few more folk song. I drilled her on music staff flash cards and was frustrated and discouraged when she had a difficult time reciting letter names of notes I had just told her a few minutes before during the rush of information in the method book.
I didn’t realize older doesn’t mean faster, it just means different. Occasionally, older students will learn faster than elementary students at the first few lessons, but typically it is just as overwhelming at age 60 as it is 6, if not more. The overall progression and deeper understanding of concepts will be greater in a more mature student, but the learning of new concepts and memory seem to slow down after a certain age. This week I taught a 9 year old the first two pages of a piece by rote and he learned and memorized it in 2 minutes at the most. As fast as I could play the next section he could remember it, add it to the previous section, and play the whole thing flawlessly. Immediately following his lesson, I taught an older woman a piece by rote. It took her about 10 minutes to remember 2 measures and by the end of the lesson had forgotten most of it. Young children have an amazing memory and aptitude for learning, but less focus and comprehension of complex matters.
Junior high students are now one of my favorite ages to teach because they have that excitement, awkwardness, and playfulness of a young child, yet the focus, ambition, and comprehension of an adult. They thrive upon praise and success and gain confidence through a job well done. Even though all students must be carefully prepared and set up to do well the first time playing something, junior highers are desperate for it. In their mind if they accidentally hit the wrong key, it is the end of the world and they are a failure at playing the piano…and life. That’s why lessons with 11-14 year olds require as much humor and encouragement as playing and critique. That’s why they need music that will inspire and encourage them, despite if that means they’re playing “If You’re Happy and You Know it” because they feel capable, or if they’re playing Mozart arrangements because they “sound cool”. When a student is playing something that they love and feeling like they are doing well they time flies by. Instead of throwing information and music at junior high students like I did when I was first teaching, I attempt to logically set up, thoroughly introduce, and, reassuringly assist students until they are successful.