I have a student that is a highly “visual-spatial” learner. We are struggling. He is at the late elementary level (says they are too easy but cannot play them well) but wants to play harder things. He struggles with rhythm and counting, but his note reading is pretty good. He does not like repetition and I struggle with what to do with him. Do you have any suggestions?
First off, I just have to say that this is what I love so much about teaching! Every student is different and presents unique challenges for us to deal with and find solutions for. It’s exciting to work with students to identify their weak spots and help them overcome. There’s nothing quite as rewarding as realizing that something that used to be hard is now quite easy. That said, here are some specific ideas for working with a student like this:
- Communicate a vision for what they can do. Be completely upfront with the student about what you are observing in terms of their strengths and weaknesses. But don’t stop there! Help them understand their potential for success and then let them know that you will work with them step-by-step to help them achieve it. It doesn’t have to be grand; just full of hope and encouragement. For example, “Wow. You played almost every single note correctly. Great attention to detail! Now I’m noticing that your rhythm is pretty far off from what’s printed on the page, which is making the whole piece sound a lot less polished than it could. If we can get this counting ironed out, though, you’ll be able to sit down and play all kinds of pieces start to finish with great flow and a beautiful sound.”
- Present a specific, measurable goal for the student to work toward. Obviously, students like this think that they are playing better than they really are. If all they are going off of is their own subjective perspective, it will be hard to convince them that there is anything to work on. I would try simple (but probably challenging) assignments like “play the entire piece counting every single beat out loud” or “play the piece while recording yourself and then we’ll listen to see if you can get through the whole thing without any pauses or hesitations.” These are concrete goals that a student will either achieve or not. That can be the basis for whether they are allowed to move on to a new piece the following week.
- Let them try something harder. Amazingly enough, sometimes a student who can’t play a simple one-hand-at-a-time elementary piece will rise to the challenge and learn a much more advanced hands-together piece that grabs their interest. Intrinsic musical motivation does wonders for students who just can’t stomach the insipid sounds of what they deem a “baby piece.” Find a really cool sounding piece that you can use as a teaching tool to help them learn more effective practice strategies. Even if they don’t learn it perfectly, they will probably really appreciate that you believed in them enough to let them give it a try.
- Give them freedom to learn pieces via a different approach. For students like this, I love teaching them pieces by rote because their keyboard facility and ability to quickly memorize patterns on the keys is much further developed than their reading skills. Try giving them an “Any Song” assignment and just see what they come back with the following week.
- Don’t be afraid to take risks on your students. Let them know that you’re not totally sure if it will work out, but you’re willing to work with them to try different solutions until you find something that works!
Do you have any other suggestions for working with students like this? Feel free to share things that have worked well in your studios!
Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!