Thoughts about Teaching Seniors
Robin Keehn, Washington
A couple of weeks ago there was quite a bit of discussion here about teaching older students. This may have been addressed, but I had a conversation with a dear teacher last week about how strict we all seem to be about requiring that everyone follows the program exactly, sometimes to the apparent detriment of the student and their continuation of Simply Music lessons.
I’ve pondered that a bit the past few days and I want to address teaching people who are older. I agree that sometimes people who claim they cannot remember are really claiming territory. They want to do it their way and they disagree with what you are asking them to do. Again, it comes back to selective coaching: I am coachable if I agree, understand and it is convenient. If I disagree, don’t understand or don’t find it convenient then I will just do it my way. It is pretty easy to spot people who are claiming territory.
Regarding students who genuinely struggle with their memories and are not claiming territory, I can tell because in every other aspect of lessons, they are doing exactly what I have required them to do. They keep a playlist, practice at the same time each day, complete all of their assignments, watch exactly what I have asked them to watch on the video, use the audio in the car, etc. However, when it comes to remembering, they struggle and they insist that they have to write things down.
The goal of Simply Music is a world where everyone plays. Other stated goals are that people walk away feeling a success each week, that they are musically self-expressed, that they can figure things out for themselves (self-generate), and that they have a large repertoire. In order to succeed at this, I may have to be willing to make some exceptions for my students who really do have memory issues. Rather than require that they don’t take notes and leave them feeling nervous or even scared when they leave, wouldn’t it be better to see how we can work together to ensure a positive outcome?
One way that I’ve handled this, especially with Arrangements, is to let my students devise a way to remember whatever seems “hard.” I will ask, “What one thing would you write down to remember the pattern (or whatever)?” I may suggest that we come up with a rhythm diagram or a melody diagram and they get to write it on the board and then in their Notes book.
This addresses their immediate concern and puts the responsibility on them to generate a way to remember. Self-generation is a goal after all.
If I find out that students have been taking notes (usually in their car after class or as soon as they get home), I chat with them about it. I’ll ask, “So, how’s it working for you?” Inevitably they will say that they can’t figure out what they wrote down the next day or that it gets confusing and they have to look at their notes to play the piece. At that point I say, “You know, there is a code already written for music. It’s called notation. Do you really want to write a new code?” They get the point. We can use the code (notation) or we can learn the pieces playing-based, giving them access to entire pieces and help them remember with some type of very brief map or diagram that they develop with me.
The other things I’ve learned are to slow down and drop my own expectations. I always tell my students that this is a process, not an event. There is no rush. Better to slow down and learn things slowly and completely rather than feel the pressure (my own inflicted pressure usually ) to hurry. Give your older adult students some other projects besides just the foundation piece they are learning. Let them work on composition and improvisation where they don’t have to remember anything. Teach them to play accompaniment where they can read the chords. Give them a diverse experience so that what they find more challenging is just a small part of what they work on at home.
I think that there are always exceptions, and we need to be flexible and creative enough to include our older students in giving them what they have desired for a lifetime–music as a companion. We can set aside some of the strict requirements and find ways to stay true to the method but with flexibility.
Finally, I want to teach Simply Music they way it was intended and developed. I know for a fact that the results of teaching exactly the way Neil prescribes gives an amazing result, time after time. I don’t want to deviate but I also know that there are exceptions and that, as long as I am fine with making exceptions, I can do that. With the children I teach, I am much less likely to make exceptions (unless the student has special needs or is especially gifted) because I want to make sure they walk away able to do anything and everything they want with music. I am pretty “strict” about following the method with children.
With adults, however, I have found that I am more likely to work with them–be more flexible when appropriate, to achieve their goals. I have to be really careful, as I mentioned above, that they are not manipulating me. If I’m clear that they are not, I can work with them so they have a success each time they come to class.
I hope this is helpful to those of you teaching older students. They can be such a joy to work with because they do get to achieve a goal that they may have had for years and years. I have had a number of adults cry in class because they are so grateful and so amazed at what they are able to do. I have one adult right now who just beams and acts like she is about eight years old every week. Really, how wonderful is that!