October 3, 2014

Hospice Students: What to do with students who are quitting

I didn't come up with the term "hospice students". One of my fellow teachers dropped that little nugget as we walked out of our school a couple nights ago. We were talking about the need occasionally to space out a bit in lessons and not give 100%. I know, it sounds like we're basically making excuses for being bad teachers, but after you spend some time giving private music lessons you understand that it's impossible to be your best self at all times. Some days you will be an exemplary educator, and some days you won't. Alternately, sometimes your students deserve a great teacher, and sometimes they don't.

Then my friend used this term "hospice" to refer to some of her students and after a moment of genuine concern for the health of her young wards I understood fully what she was talking about. A hospice student is not one that needs special home lessons because of a grave illness, a hospice student is one who is going to quit.

Usually a student acquires this status mid-term when the perfect storm brews of student deciding they want to quit, parent deciding it isn't worth fighting them, and 5 weeks left in the term that mom has already paid for. The teacher ends up with the unsavory job of taking care of the student for those final weeks and coming up with anything that will make those 30 minutes as painless as possible. Sometimes the information is sprung on you at the end of a lesson ("This will be Billy's last semester of piano.") and sometimes you can see it a couple of months out. Piano teachers have to plan for this. I actually keep a mental list going at all times of the students who are likely to drop over the next year so I can work on replacing them as quickly as possible.

Hospice students can be painful. They often stop practicing completely (in all honesty they probably haven't been practicing much up to this point at all). Sometimes they can have extreme attitude problems, stemming from parental insistence that they finish the term. They represent two things for the teacher. One is a developmental dead end that you have to keep teaching. If your student has expressed that they never want to play the instrument again, how are you supposed to stay motivated as a teacher knowing that the information you're imparting is basically being flushed down the toilet? The other thing that a hospice student represents is a hole in your future schedule and consequently in your finances. And because often the parent doesn't make it explicit that they are going to drop at the end of the term, you may not be able to fill the spot immediately.

I've found that there are some useful things to do with one of these hospice students. If the student is moving on to a new instrument (which carries a whole other bundle of issues) try to shape some lessons that will help with the new instrument. For kids moving to guitar, I try to do some basic music theory work, showing them how to build chords, what a normal harmonic progression looks and sounds like, and how certain melodic notes fit into a harmony. For kids moving to percussion, I do rhythmic reading, rhythm transcriptions, and other kinds of non-melodic exercises. Honestly, those are the two most common instruments I've lost kids to, although I'm sure plenty of teachers have lost students to other melodic instruments. If my student is moving to a new instrument, I try to give them a taste of what they might be in for, rather than just trying to plug away at the piano for a few more weeks.

If the student is quitting but is not going to a new instrument there are fewer options. I will often do the same kinds of things as I mentioned before, with a "general music" kind of flavor to them. Sometimes we'll do improvising, or play some pop songs. Often I'll teach them how to interpret lead sheets and chord charts, in the hope of giving them something to grab onto in the long term. I believe that many of these kids will regret their decision to quit when they reach adulthood, so giving them something that's more utilitarian is a nice parting gift.

Sometimes there are students for whom none of the above ideas work. They aren't doing a new instrument, don't really like music at all, and maybe don't really like you. I'll try these other ideas, try to give them some enrichment in their final lessons, but we often fall back into what we were doing all along: playing the same piece over and over. There are some kids for whom it seems like the thing they despised the most about learning an instrument becomes their self-inflicted penance. Faced with alternative options, they would rather return to what's familiar. Like Sisyphus being relieved of his boulder only to pick up a job in a rock quarry, I've ended up with students who play the same piece every week for their final month of lessons. There's a poeticism to it for sure, the refining of this piece which represents the height of their piano education but will never be performed. Maybe that's what some students need as they wind down their music lessons.

Every student at some point will enter this faze. No student continues lessons forever. In my own life I've been this student a number of times, often because I was graduating and moving on, but other times because I've just felt it was time to stop taking lessons on some instrument or another. It's a part of every student's cycle and their relationship with a teacher. We get excited about new students, we're thrilled for the ones who do well, and we get frustrated and try to lift the ones who struggle. How will you treat the ones who are at the end of their musical life? Every student you have now will one day be a former student, so it's worth thinking about what you will do with them when they say that they're leaving.

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