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Adolescence is not a disease; coping with the challenges and taking pleasure in teaching "average" teenage piano students.

"Teenage students are such an amazing package. They can be so brilliant, so intelligent, so profound, and so insightful, yet at the same time so foolish, so silly, so ridiculous, so crazy, and so immature that we often wonder, `Is this the same person?'"--Carolee Eriksson, a piano teacher of exclusively teenage students

Suddenly, our sweet, happy, respectful, perfect little piano student who was always well prepared for piano lessons becomes a temperamental, discourteous, lazy and unpredictable monster who objects to everything we say and shows no motivation for piano study. Failing to recognize the nature of adolescence and to adapt our teaching to suit the needs of our teenage students can make teaching a nightmare for the piano teacher and turn music study into torture for our students.

Characteristics of Adolescence

Adolescence is the hormone-driven stage of development that bridges the transformation of human beings from childhood to adulthood. Adolescent psychologists, Yates (1) and Gage, (2) propose that the dramatic changes occurring during the adolescent years can be observed in the following characteristics:

Physical growth. Because their bodies begin to grow so rapidly during adolescence, teenagers often feel awkward, self-conscious, uncoordinated, embarrassed and even confused. Furthermore, teenagers frequently attempt to hide or constantly complain about whatever part of their body makes them most uncomfortable.

Sexual Growth. Teenagers struggle with dramatic hormone changes in their bodies that evoke mixed feelings ranging from guilt to amazement.

Emotional growth. The hormone changes during the adolescent years also set teenagers off on a vulnerable emotional roller coaster ride overflowing with exaggerated and uncontrollable feelings. Teenagers view everything as a crisis. Their emotions outpace their rational thinking, and their feeling and thinking become so intertwined they have difficulty distinguishing between them.

Social growth. Parents no longer are the major focus of the teenagers' world. Adolescents shift from same-sex best-friend relationships to having close interactions and increasing interest in both sexes. They are quite self-centered and constantly feel like the whole world is watching them. How other people see adolescents, how everyone else may think about them and what their peers say about them become teenagers' great concern. They need frequent validation by others, and they desperately seek peer acceptance. Adolescents have a great desire for independence and want to be treated like adults. Anxiously searching for their own identity, adolescents wish to find their answer to the question, "Who am I?" They attach great importance to status symbols, as reflected by their possessions and clothing. Fascinated by "adult" behaviors, teens are eager to try out previously forbidden activities. Rebellion seems to be inevitable, so they can be different from their parents. Peers' opinions become most influential. They are passionate about their idols, with whom they can identify. Being "cool" and doing "cool" things become imperative.

Intellectual growth. Adolescence is the exciting phase of transition when human beings start developing the cognitive ability to form abstract thoughts. However, teenagers often have poor communication skills and frequently show frustration when not able to express their thoughts clearly. They tend to have doubts and confusion about what to believe, and they are troubled by their fear of the unknown that lies ahead. Furthermore, adolescents' learning to reason and think for themselves often leads to their constant questioning of authority.

Five Emotional Needs of Teenagers

In Why Your Kids Do What They Do, (3) Rodney Gage specifies five emotional needs of teenagers:

(1) To be noticed. Teenagers crave attention. Changing hair styles, dressing in certain fashions, playing loud music, slamming doors, using angry words and picking on younger siblings are all signals to us about their need for attention. They need to feel they are someone special, and they want to be appreciated for their efforts and accomplishments. They would like adults to respect their privacy, their possessions and their ideas.

(2) To receive encouragement. In spite of striving for independence, teenagers need nurturing and support. They perceive a verbal or written encouragement and our physical commitment--being there for them when it matters the most--as indications of our support.

(3) To get empathy. Comfort is one of adolescents' greatest needs, yet most difficult for them to articulate. It is crucial that we watch their body language to provide the needed consolation as soon as possible. Additionally, we need to be sensitive to those who struggle with their rapidly growing bodies and may not feel comfortable being hugged or touched.

(4) To receive direction. When searching for their own identities and significance, teenagers often try on different personalities to see which one fits best and undertake different projects to see which one makes them feel significant. We can facilitate their growth by helping them set specific, clear and measurable goals.

(5) To acquire security. Adolescents need to feel secure in an environment with clear, well-defined boundaries. They want to be accepted with unconditional love for who they are without comparison to others.

Communicating with Teen Students

Leading experts in adolescent psychology (4) recommend several guidelines for establishing effective communication with adolescents:

* Know how to listen to understand what teenagers are trying to tell us through their attitude, behaviors, body language and even their silence.

* Listen for the contents (the verbal message) and watch for the process (the nonverbal message). To get the total picture, we must listen with more than our ears and watch with more than our eyes.

* Use frequent eye contact to indicate our concern and our willingness to listen.

* Validate their feelings and encourage further conversation by using statements like "I see," "Wow," "Hmm," "That must have been ..." or "How did you feel when that happened?"

* Confirm understanding by responding with statements such as "Let me see if I understand what you are trying to say," "If I understand correctly, you ..." or "From what I hear you saying, I get the impression that ..."

* Reply to encourage clarification, without sounding defensive, with reactions like "I don't understand what you mean," "What do you think causes you to feel that way?" or "Help me understand what you mean." Remember not to take the teenagers' comments or actions personally, and avoid immediately defending yourself.

* Seek the hidden meaning in adolescents' words and be able to recognize the difference between their words and their behaviors.

* Be patient. They may not want to talk when you are ready to listen. However, they need the assurance that we will always be available to listen when they want to talk.

* Be truthful. Avoid being sarcastic or patronizing, yet show respect when presenting your viewpoint. It is fundamental for us to remember that we may not like the way they do things, but we do need to like them.

* Maintain a good sense of humor. Teenagers are funny and they like to laugh. We must learn to laugh at our own mistakes, and laugh with the students.

"Average = Normal"

Whenever we measure a group of people for traits that each group member possesses in varying degrees, we can expect most of the scores to center around the mean (the average score), while the remainder are distributed decreasingly toward both extremes of the distribution. This is known as normal distribution, the so-called Bell Curve (Figure 1). Statistically, in a normal distribution, 68 percent of the scores fall fairly close--within one standard deviation (5)--to the mean; whereas, almost 95 percent of the scores will fall within two standard deviations of the mean. Actually, these 68 percent are the scores that are more representative of whatever it is we are trying to measure. Its practical implication is that almost seven out of ten of our students will fall into the "average" category. The vital question is: Are we teaching to meet the needs of the majority of our students, or are we using the methods to teach all students that may only work for the top 2.5 percent of the students?


In their 1998 National Survey of High School Pianists, (6) Harold Kafer and Richard Kennel investigated high school students who were taking private piano lessons with an eighty-eight-item questionnaire. Five hundred MTNA members who teach high school-age piano students were randomly selected to participate. Of these, sixty-nine teachers sent 215 questionnaires and received 117 responses from students, ninety-three female and twenty-four male. Respondents represented thirty-six states in every geographical region. The students' average age was 15.7 years old, and they had a GPA of 3.69. Examining the students' weekly out-of-school activities (Figure 2), Kafer and Kennel found that 65 percent of the students practiced between one and five hours each week. They spent an equal amount of time with their family and talking on the phone. The researchers also found that more than half of the students played at least two instruments, and 60 percent of the piano students also were involved in weekly sports activities. Social time with friends and doing homework were also a high priority for them. Further examination of their piano experience (Figure 3) showed that only 4 percent of the students indicated that winning piano contests was an important goal for them, and only 33 percent stated they were seriously considering majoring in music in college. When they were asked about the "one thing you least enjoy about studying piano," practicing was the overwhelming response with "boring," "frustrating," "not in the mood," "requiring a lot of discipline" and "not having enough time" cited as reasons.

Utah Survey

Questionnaires were sent to four experienced--eighteen to thirty-five years of teaching--Utah piano teachers (7) who teach thirty to fifty students each, with a range of 40 to 100 percent of their students being teenagers. Seventy-six out of 100 surveys were returned with fifty-two female and twenty-four male students responding. The following lists the questions and answers, ranked by the frequency of the response.

1. What motivates you to practice?

Their parents

The desire to get better at the piano

The right repertoire

The fun and joy of making music at the piano

Their teacher

To be prepared for lessons as their motivators

2. What are highly desirable qualities of a good piano teacher?


Understanding/really cares about the student


Challenges the students but is not overly demanding

Kind and encouraging


3. What characteristics/manners would you not like in a piano teacher?

Rude/mean/puts down the student with-harsh words/yells at the student


Inflexible and overly demanding

Overly complimentary/not challenging the student enough

Always negative

4. (Teachers responding) What is most challenging about teaching teenage piano students?

Teenagers' time schedules, due to greater academic demands and their involvement in sports and social activities

Their desire to learn the most challenging pieces with very limited amount of practice time

Peer pressure and influence

Greater emotional needs and unpredictable mood swings

Teaching Strategies

Based on this research, I propose some strategies to address the needs and facilitate the piano study of teenage students, and to help alleviate the frustrations of their teachers.

(1) Identify and prioritize the music goals you have for your students. For instance, if I consider fostering a love of music, developing musicality and critical listening skills, and becoming musically independent as my top three goals for teaching a student, this list then becomes the philosophical foundation that will help me prioritize and influence all my decisions guiding each student's musical journey.

(2) Exchange and discuss with your students your music goals for them and their music goals. We need to think honestly about the question: "Are we really teaching the students what they need and want, or are we trying to teach every student to become more like ourselves?"

(3) Recognize teenage students as individuals with diverse interests and needs at a unique stage of their lives. It is imperative that we avoid using only one set menu to sate all appetites, involve the students and guide them in making decisions related to their piano study, and show genuine interests in other areas of their lives that are important to them.

(4) Accept the reality of the increasing time demands in the teenage students' daily lives. Being a piano student is only one of the student's many identities. We need to have realistic expectations and help them to experience the joy of doing things well.

(5) Know your material. It is our obligation to assign carefully selected repertoire we know the student is ready to learn and will be able to play with ease and security within a reasonable amount of time. We need to match the right piece with the right student. Generally, teen students seem to prefer pieces that are lyrical, tactile, fun, rich in harmony, romantic, passionate or dramatic. We should ask the question, "How well?" as opposed to "How many?" when assigning repertoire.

(6) Be flexible. Consider reducing the quantity of the repertoire to be learned concurrently. Separate weekly study goals from monthly and semester goals. Mix the challenging pieces with the less demanding repertoire in the assignment. Allow for one or two ill-prepared lessons by issuing "give me a break" cards every semester. And develop a lesson swap list for students to exchange lessons on their own when unexpected conflicts occur.

(7) Provide opportunities for music lessons to meet their social needs. Explore the option of organizing monthly group lessons, partner lessons, ensemble teams, piano clubs, cooperative music projects, special music events, summer music camps and joint student recitals. These will help teen students build their music community.

(8) Promote the use of their musical talent in a practical way. Arrange for them to perform for school music groups, retirement homes, Christmas parties, Fourth of July celebrations, wedding receptions, fundraising events, church functions, pre-symphony concert lobby performances and so forth, and encourage them to relate music with their school projects whenever possible.

(9) Document their progress in a "measurable" manner. Potential tactics include: (a) setting specific and attainable short- and long-term goals with clearly indicated completion time; (b) documenting weekly progress of various musical skills with visually stimulating charts or graphics; (c) keeping a video/audio recording at the first lesson and the last lesson of each semester/year; and (d) designing lesson grading criteria for self-assessment.

(10) The teacher is an important source of the teenager's inspiration. Students need to experience success during their lessons. Sufficient guidance and interactions should be provided in the discovery process, with enough direction and hands-on experiences to warrant their success at home. Additional means (visual, aural and tactile) need to be suggested to guide the students' self-assessment.

(11) Offer a more creative and engaging practice guide to ensure effectiveness and success. Recommend effective practice strategies that allow them to make the most out of their limited time. Show them how much can be accomplished within a limited amount of time if they know exactly what to do and how to do it. Demonstrate a step-by-step practice sequence on how to diagnose and analyze problems, design and implement a practice plan, and then assess the outcome. Encourage them to keep a practice journal to document their progress and concerns. Provide opportunities for them to discuss their concerns and share effective practice strategies with their peers in a group setting. Promote the concept of being "goal-oriented" rather than merely "time-oriented" when practicing. Advocate concentration and focused listening to achieve success and effectiveness in practice.

(12) Be sensitive and innovative. Know what the students need when they walk into your studio. When needed, change the lesson routine. Remember, if you are bored, they are bored. Use success to bring more success. It is as important for the students to repeat the parts they can play beautifully as to revisit the parts that need improvement. Be sure to begin and end their lessons with something the students can do well, and that will make them feel successful. Provide incentives to reward their effort and accomplishments. Make good use of music technology as a motivating teaching tool.

Finally, be sneaky, plot ahead and make a deep musical impression at any cost! Enjoy and treasure the opportunity to really make an impact on their lives with the power of music. The possibilities are endless.


(1.) Yates, Susan A. And Then I Had Teenagers. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2001.

(2.) Gage, Rodney. Why your Kids Do What They Do: Responding to the Driving Forces Behind Your Teen's Behavior. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999.

(3.) Ibid., pp. 12-31.

(4.) Yates, Susan A. And Then I Had Teenagers. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2001; Orin, George H. Understanding the Adolescent. Washington D.C.: American Psychiatric Press, Inc., 1995; and Gage, Rodney. Why Your Kids Do What They Do: Responding to the Driving Forces Behind Your Teen's Behavior. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999.

5. Standard deviation (s.d.) is a measure of how spread out the scores are from the mean (the arithmetic average score) in a distribution. This number represents the average difference of all scores from the mean. In a normal distribution, 68.26 percent of all scores will lie within one standard deviation from the mean; 95.34 percent of all the scores will lie within two standard deviations from the mean; and 99.74 percent of the scores will lie within three standard deviations from the mean.

(6.) Kafer, Harold and Richard Kennell, "1998 National Survey of High School Pianists," American Music Teacher, August/September 1999, pp. 34-38.

(7.) Laurisa Cope, Carolee Eriksson, Debra Gamero and Cheryl Norman are the four Utah piano teachers who participated in my survey.

Out of School Activities: Hours per Week

 0 hours 1-5 hrs 6-10 hrs > 10 hrs

Practicing piano 0% 65% 24% 12%
Social time with friends 3% 49% 23% 24%
Doing homework 4% 36% 33% 27%
Time with family 7% 60% 23% 10%
Time on phone 21% 62% 11% 6%
Practicing other instruments 31% 53% 11% 3%
Sports 40% 23% 23% 14%
Shopping at mall 47% 49% 3% 2%
Time on e-mail 48% 44% 5% 3%
Games on computer 54% 43% 3% 0%
Surfing the Internet 58% 34% 8% 0%
Working job 55% 23% 9% 13%


Piano Experinces: The Student

My personal goal in studying piano is personal satisfaction. 88 %
I enjoy practicing. 79 %
I am good at sight reading. 68 %
I have performed in major piano competitions in my area. 65 %
I practice more now than a year ago. 60 %
I am always well-prepared for my piano lessons. 54 %
I hope to get a scholarship for my piano playing ability to
 attend college. 46 %
I am seriously considering majoring in music in college. 33 %
I can improvise in a jazz style. 32 %
My personal goal in studying piano is to please my parents. 29 %
My personal goal in studying piano is to win contests. 4 %

Yu-Jane Yang is associate professor of piano/piano pedagogy and director of the piano preparatory program at Weber State University. She received a Ph.D. degree from the University of Michigan. Active as performer, adjudicator, presenter and workshop clinician, Yang is president of the Utah Music Teachers Association.
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Author:Yang, Yu-Jane
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2002
Previous Article:Music for one and all.
Next Article:Musicians by any other name: a tribute to music students who pursued other careers.

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