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The 6 Stages of Piano Students: Why and When Piano Students Quit Lessons

August 19, 2011

As a private piano teacher, I have taught students young and old, from ages 3 and up.  The longer I taught, the more I began to see a pattern of the stages that piano students go through.  I saw my young students start out extremely enthusiastic about their music study, then lose interest, then go through a zig-zag of motivation, gain interest again, then quit.  For a small majority of students, they would continue piano studies until they graduated high school, but this was rare.  Student drop out rates were an issue.  Hence, I began thinking and researching about the issue of piano student drop out rates, and why and when piano students decide to quit lessons.

In this article, I will discuss my findings on:

  • the 6 stages of piano study
  • the average drop out age of piano students (i.e., at what age piano students typically quit lessons)
  • why piano students quit lessons

 

The 6 stages of piano study

Stage 1 (ages 4-6): “Listen to me play, everybody!”
In this pre-piano stage, children love to make sounds on the piano just for the sake of being able to make sounds themselves.  The concept of music is fascinating and they enjoy being able to be in control and produce sounds out of an instrument with their own hands.  Children typically learn through peer group interaction and like being in groups, hence their motto: “listen to me play, everybody!”

Stage 2 (ages 7-8): “Not now, later.”
Once piano students enter the beginner and late beginner stages, they find that playing the piano actually takes practice.  This is different than before, when playing the piano was fun and like playing a game.  All of a sudden, motivation levels have dropped because now piano actually takes work.  Note reading is difficult and each lesson is getting progressively harder.  The student gets discouraged.  The lesson time is often spent with the teacher practicing with the student what they were supposed to practice at home.

Stage 3 (ages 9-10): “Look mom – with my eyes closed!”
Students have gotten past the difficult stage of note reading and music concepts begin to make sense.  For some reason, something has “clicked” in the students’ minds and they figured out note reading through ‘every good boy does fine’ or other means.  Usually at this stage the student’s goal is to play as fast as possible or play pieces memorized with their eyes closed, in attempts to show off to family and friends.  At this age, students enjoy flashcards as a means of learning, showy pieces, and tunes they recognize.  Regular practice time can still remain a challenge due to distractions at home (i.e., video games, television, internet, friends, etc.).

Stage 4 (age 11): “Why can’t I have good music – like rock or pop?”
At this age, the adolescent child begins many changes, and it can be quite difficult to continue with piano lessons.  Their world is moving out of the family structure and into a world of peer association and approval.  Students are in the early intermediate stage and teachers often begin introducing students to easy pieces from the classical era (i.e., Minuets, Sonatinas, etc.).  This type of music is so far out of line of what the student enjoys to listen to on a daily basis.  The student wonders why they can’t play “cooler” music like the Harry Potter theme song or the rock song they heard on the radio.  The student gets discouraged, do not care much for their progress at the piano, and playing the piano is no longer cool.

Stage 5 (ages 12-14): “I want to quit.”
After Stage 4, students often have resentment towards learning the piano.  It takes away from the student’s free time, it is hard work to learn the music concepts, and requires a lot of practice that the child does not have diligence for.  The teacher has expressed some frustration toward the child and the parent is placing pressure on the student to keep practicing, furthering the child’s resentment towards music lessons.  The student is not playing music he or she likes anyway, and figures the easiest thing to is to quit lessons.  Unless the parent continues to force the child to go to lessons, many students quit at this age.  Parent involvement and support is very important at this stage to ensure that the student continues learning.  Even if the parent just has the student merely “show up” to the weekly lessons until the student passes the growing pain hurdles, that is better than the student quitting on his or her own terms.  This is the stage that adults who once learned piano often look back on later and regret that they quit.

Stage 6 (ages 15-16): (If you get past the growing pain hurdles) “No more kid stuff.”
After a rough patch of frustration by the student, parents, and teacher, the student will begin to gain an appreciation for classical music in the advanced repertoire.  Students will begin to feel satisfied from their ability to play difficult pieces, and the teacher will begin guiding the student on artistry and interpretation aspects of music pieces.  The students are approaching adulthood and begin to take on responsibility without reminders.  Usually they are taking piano lessons because they want to.  The student and teacher begin to develop a strong bond of mutual respect and students can become very close to their piano teachers.

Assessment and Conclusion

As discussed above, the average age that students quit lessons is around ages 12 to 14 (stage 5 out of 6).  Students often quit at stage 5 because of their desire to seek peer attention and approval, their realization that learning the piano is hard work, and distractions from other activities, friends, and technology.

Note that Stage 5 is extremely close to the last and final phase of a child’s piano study.  I always found it a shame that students often quit at a time (unknown to them) that is right before their motivation level that is about to shoot through the roof.  If the student were to continue for an additional year or two, the graph above displays how their motivation level will become far higher than they have ever experienced in their lives.  This is why parent involvement is extremely important in Stage 5.  It is highly recommended that parents continue taking their child to lessons, even when the child resists and wishes to quit.  Parents should realize that this is just the growing pain hurdles of piano study, and once the student passes this stage, they will develop their own self-motivation to learn the piano.

Once the student reaches Stage 6, the child will likely continue with little further effort by the parent.  And as an adult, the student will thank the parent wholeheartedly later for pushing them to continue through the growing pains.

 

About the author

Theresa Chen runs two music education websites, Opus Music Education and Opus Music Worksheets. If you are interested in finding a music teacher in California, please check out Opus Music Education at http://www.opusmusiceducation.com.  To download free music education worksheets, visit http://www.opusmusicworksheets.com.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 20, 2011 9:02 am

    I love the visual graph. Great post! It went well with a topic I was blogging about so I included the link to your article in my blog post. Here’s a link if you are interested in reading it: http://fpsresources.wordpress.com/2011/09/20/student-burnout/

  2. December 17, 2011 8:30 am

    A very interesting article. Now that the “why” and “when” students quit has been studied, it is time to find solutions to students quitting. Here are some thoughts, gleaned from my experience as a private piano teacher:
    1. Unless the student has aspirations of playing at Carnegie Hall or on public television, the thought of teaching strictly classical music is all but dead. There’s nothing wrong with teaching a student how to play a Harry Potter tune. We just need to alter our teaching style to accommodate the student. That’s not to say that there isn’t value in learning classical pieces, but it should not necessarily be the focus of the teaching method.
    2. Forcing children to take lessons is never appropriate. Yes, there are hurdles that need to be overcome occasionally with gentle guidance from parents and teachers, but never ever “force” a student to continue if it is evident that they have no interest in playing. I cannot begin to tell you the number of adult students who have come to me with stories of bad piano lesson experiences when they were children. Music should be fun and enjoyable, even when things get more difficult. Find a way to make the lessons relevant and enjoyable. If that means deviating from the traditional teaching methods, then do it. Your students will appreciate it, and you’ll find that your student retention level will increase dramatically.
    Our goal, as teachers, should be to foster a love and appreciation of all types of music, an appreciation that will last a lifetime.

  3. December 25, 2011 10:44 am

    Amazing post! Unfortunately, the downhill process of becoming more and more frustrated with piano was faster for me. I started in preschool and ended up quitting in 4th grade.

    I now highly regret quitting. Starting in the middle of 9th grade I decided to touch my piano after 5 long years of piano idleness. I started sightreading some of my old pieces, and realized that I was actually a lot better was than I was in 4th grade, being able to almost sightread pieces from the book that I used to play recital music from.

    And soon, I began to start playing everyday. I became obsessed with piano. And withing a year I began to start playing reasonably difficult repertoire such as Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata 3rd movement. I am now in the middle of my 10th grade year, a year from when I restarted piano, and I am soon going to start taking lessons again. And this time it’s not my parents forcing me into it, I’m the one asking for piano lessons. (After realizing how poor my technique was and how having a teacher could embrace my potential and perhaps enhance my love for the instrument)

    I also think that having a good teacher is important, one that is both skilled in playing (and teaching) and supportive. Those two traits are what I believe is essential for a piano teacher. If either one is lacking, then the student will most likely not reach his full potential.

    • December 26, 2011 11:25 pm

      Tony,

      Thanks for your comment! I wish you all the best as you restart your piano lessons. This time, I think you will find much more self-motivation to practice and make music. I too experienced a slump in my middle school years, but once I passed about 16 years old, I absolutely loved the piano and began taking it much more seriously at my own will. I hope to hear more about how your progress goes and thanks for sharing your story!

      -Theresa Chen

  4. Mr. Rodriguez permalink
    January 5, 2012 1:47 pm

    I have taught piano over 20+ years in all aspects of the business and understand the issues at hand. Parents should guide and not force. Funny thing, people haven’t changed. The posts from year 2000 apply currently. Parent’s must determine whether a child lacks talent or character. I was very talented but distracted and lazy as a most children are. I needed my parents and teachers to help me get to where I needed to go. I was shy to play publicly. My peers were very impressed by my ability to play the piano that it gave me confidence to keep going. I can never remember quiting but sometimes I wouldn’t practice and my teacher and parents would help me to stay focused. Other freinds that played would share and we would motivate each other by sharing pop songs we learned by ear. I made it though those years and am so happy that I can play and teach today. It grieves me to see talented able students quit because the parents see them not practicing and quit at motivating and helping them stay focused in the early stages. Too much work for the parent and an unnecessary expense. Kicking a ball around on team seems alot easier. I know that fumes most of us teachers.
    If the parents discover and believe in their child’s talent and ability than they should cultiviate it and motivate them early. There should be a solid reason for putting children in any learning experience. Don’t waste time fitting a square into a round. It should come natural to play music for children who have talent or desire to learn. It is in their makeup from birth. Maybe, they are good at something else related? Once you discover a child’s interest one should pursue to explore it and make opportunity to learn and grow.
    Culture and discipline are the main elements concerning the arts. The greatest motivator I had was growing up in a cultural art enviornment. My parents always played tasteful elegant music beit classical or opera and contemporary. I was fortunate to have an artist father who instilled a taste for art and music etc…
    .

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