How to stop teenagers from tuning out of music lessons

Many children lose interest in learning music when they reach their teenage years. The solution lies in changing the way we teach music to make it more inspiring

Sorcha Pollak took Jack Rodgers a 17-year-old lapsed clarinet player to visit the Wexford Gateway Orchestra in a bid to reignite his interest in his musical instrument. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

Jack Rodgers started playing the clarinet when he was seven. He had always wanted to stand out and be different, so he decided to learn an instrument none of his friends had heard of. His mother signed him up for lessons with a local teacher in Drogheda, and he began to develop his musical skill.

A decade later he is fed up with lessons and has decided to quit. “I was getting all this music like ‘second symphony’ and ‘third piece of vibrato’ and I was like, this is so boring, I have no interest in this,” the fifth-year student says. “They sounded nice but I would prefer to play some old bluesy music.”

An hour down the road in Kildare, 16-year-old Joshua Peacock is tired of playing cello. He says it keeps him away from his friends and rugby. “My friends are able to have that little bit more time and go out places. I might be intending to go out but my parents will say, ‘You have to practise the cello’.”

Peacock, who has played cello since he was seven, had plenty of time to practice as a child. However, the teenage years are a lot more hectic. “As a teenager you feel you have a lot of things to do and places to be; it’s just frustrating. It just doesn’t interest me. I’ve been playing so long, it’s faded away.”

Peacock prefers listening to The Coronas rather than “posh” classical music, which is really just “some instrument going off on a big rant. You wouldn’t see the people I hang out with listening to that type of music. It’s not interesting.”

Rodgers and Peacock are just two of the countless teenage musicians who will inevitably give up their musical instrument this year. Their predicament transports me right back to my teenage years when I too seriously considered abandoning the violin. I was sick of practice, hated scales and knew I would never make a professional musician. However, more than a decade later, and despite the demands of a full-time job, I continue to play violin.

What was it that changed my mind? For me, it was the discovery that I could meet other like-minded young people by playing in an orchestra, a quartet and later playing gigs in college.

What’s the solution?

Is there a simple way to encourage young Irish musicians to persevere with their musical development?

This was one of the main topics addressed at the Music Generation conference in Dublin a couple of months ago. The two-day music conference brought together musical experts from around the UK and Ireland to discuss how to develop and improve music education for young Irish people.

Composer and producer Bill Whelan said that as a teenager he often felt an “overbearing sense of impatience” with his music education and was more interested in the 1960s music revolution taking place in the outside world.

“I had great difficulty linking what I was being taught to the great noise that I was starting to hear out in the wider world. The Beatles had appeared, and from the American west coast we were starting to hear anarchic voices like Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.

“In my enthusiastic myopia and exuberance, I saw very little connection between the music I was being taught and the kind of music that was exciting something elemental within myself.”

Whelan grew tired of the demands of playing classical music, and, aged 14, he abandoned the grades, put his violin back in its case for the last time and “embarked on the mapless route of the self-taught musician”.

He began experimenting and engaging with people who knew more guitar chords than he did. This, he argues, is how teenagers can introduce music education into their lives: at their own pace, in their own time and developing their own personal tastes.

“Music is a language that’s non-verbal; it tells them things about themselves that language doesn’t. No amount of theory can make this real. What can make it real is letting teenagers go off and play it.”

 

Social advantages

Rosaleen Molloy, director of Music Generation, Ireland’s national music education programme, who organised the conference, says teenagers should be made aware of the social advantages of playing a musical instrument. “The pursuit of music-making is a social activity. Music is there to be made with people making it together,” she says. “If we don’t provide that social experience of music-making and togetherness as part of the spectrum of what music education is, then we’re missing out a really important part of it.”

Children with music in their lives develop “discipline and transferable skills” that are applicable throughout life, says Molloy.

“Music enhances other areas of learning in their lives. What we need to think about as music educators is what it is that young people want and how they experience music.”

The Music Generation programme, founded in 2010, provides high-quality music education for children and young people around Ireland, regardless of their financial situation. All young people are musicians inherently, says Molloy. It’s just a question of providing access to good music education and inspiring them to develop their creativity.

As a singing teacher, Molloy has watched many students drop out once they hit second or third year of secondary school. She says the “relentless pressure” of the Irish school system is unhealthy. However, with the right type of motivation, teenagers may recognise the benefits of persevering and continuing with their musical studies.

“We’ll never be able to keep all children in music, but it is incumbent on us as educators to ignite a spark so strong that we have engendered a relationship and a love of music so they can have that with them throughout their life.”

Molloy says music education needs to be separated from Irish schools’ examination culture and the university points race.

“It’s going to take a generational change to adapt and amend that. We need a cultural shift in our thinking around the benefits of the arts in the holistic education of young people.”

The cost of lessons should never be a barrier to a young person’s musical development, says Molloy. Music Generation already works with 20,000 young people around the State. However, large numbers of families still struggle to access affordable music lessons.

Dr Katie Sweeney from the Department of Education acknowledges that music education programmes often overlook children from disadvantaged backgrounds, particularly when they live in the same locality as more affluent families. She proposes a programme that would offer music education to families struggling financially and to those who already have access to music lessons.

“You don’t want to displace a provision that is already there, but it’s of paramount importance to allow the dual provision both for those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds as well as those who already have access.”

Molloy says she remains optimistic and hopes music educators will use their “social justice conscience” when offering music lessons by never closing the door to a potential student, regardless of his or her financial situation.

Limerick Voices

Boris Hunka, co-ordinator of Music Generation in Limerick, is one of the teachers trying to revitalise music education to make it more appealing to teenagers. Hunka runs Limerick Voices, an initiative dedicated to making music more accessible to teenagers. The project uses a multicoloured, graffiti-covered, double-decker bus to travel around Limerick, offering teens workshops in singing, songwriting, recording and performing.

“Everything we do is free for the child,” says Hunka. “They write songs, take them into the band and then do gigs and recordings.”

Hunka says the key to working with teenagers is encouraging them to develop their own musical styles. Instead of hiring music teachers for his Limerick music project, he went looking for gigging musicians who could “engage and inspire” young people.

“The kids see them on a different level from how they would see a schoolteacher. Our main focus in the teams is to allow them to focus on their self-expression, helping them find a voice and giving them the tools to use it.”

Nigel Flegg, head of education at the National Concert Hall, says music teachers must be “adaptable and flexible enough to modify their approach to education”.

“It’s very ironic that this fall-off in music in the early teenage years coincides with when most teenagers are becoming passionately interested in music,” says Flegg. “You have this situation where people are giving up the instruments they played for so long, but suddenly they’re passionate about playing music in bands.”

If teachers are imaginative and creative in their approach to teaching, they can show teens the “tremendous opportunities” open to them as musicians, says Flegg.

“As educators we can’t force-feed our music students with what we think they need to know. The mark of a good teacher [being willing to] facilitate the learning of that information by the student.”

Bill Whelan says the key to convincing teenagers to stick with it is creating a link between their music tuition and the music they are interested in.

“Playing music together can open up young hearts and minds, help them access their dreams, unleash their young imaginations and connect them to each other in a way that few other disciplines can,” says Whelan.

“In a world of selfies, tweets, blogs and postings, the traffic seems to be predominantly outward into a global echo chamber of cyberbabble.

“In this turbulent, incoherent and often isolating landscape, music offers the opportunity to engage with each other in meaningful and expressive ways.”

 

MUSICAL TIPS: HOW TO STAY INTERESTED

 

Teens

  • Don’t just play one genre of music; try learning some jazz, traditional or pop music.
  • Join a band, orchestra, rock group and meet other music-loving teens.
  • Experiment with writing and composing; create your own musical style.
  • Try singing or playing a new instrument.
  • Develop your performing skills – don’t just play by yourself at home.
  • Don’t become that person who turns around in 10 years and says, “I wish I had never given up my instrument”.
  • Tip for the guys: girls love musicians, even cellists and pianists.

 

Parents/teachers

  • Music isn’t just about scales. Be creative and look for interesting, contemporary music for your child to play. Arcade Fire, Radiohead and Sigur Rós have some great orchestral scores.
  • Get involved with your child’s musical education. Try listening to their music and tell them about music you grew up with.
  • Look for subsidised music programmes in your local area – initiatives such as Music Generation are on the increase.

 

 

CASE STUDY: A GATEWAY BACK TO MUSIC

Sarah-Louise Rossiter played violin as a child but grew tired of her lessons and quit classical music when she was 15. After she got married, she moved to Wexford. Soon after she took up the viola and joined the Gateway Orchestra, which was launched in 2003 for adults who played instruments in their youth or those who started learning later in life.

“I found music is the best way of integrating yourself anywhere, no matter what the country,” she says.

Rossiter, who is a mother of three small boys, says playing in the orchestra helps her to clear her mind.

“It’s my way of blocking everything else out. All you can do is concentrate on the music and watch the conductor.”

She says teenagers who feel a bit bored with music lessons should just take a break rather than give up altogether.

“Give it six months, a year. Maybe give the lessons a break. Mix it up a bit and make it more interesting for yourself. Join a band or a classical group. Don’t stick to the same routine.”

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