10 possible sources of anxiety in music lessons

Tuesday December 1, 2020 by Jason Mohlenbrock


1. Synthesis is required too early on.  Take reading music, for example.  There are so many different concepts wrapped up into one task: What notes do the dots represent? Where are they on my instrument?  How long do I hold them down for?  What’s a time signature?  How many sharps?  What’s that triangle looking thing again?  What about that curved thing, is it a slur or a tie?  Dang, I forgot to count!  Do I take the 2nd ending?  


2. Posture and technique are overemphasized.   Proper posture and technique can help a musician achieve good tone, execute difficult passages, and go a long way to prevent injuries from over-practicing.  It’s no wonder posture and technique are placed so highly in most methods of music education.  The issue comes into play when a student’s needs and level of understanding are not taken into account.  In the beginning stages of learning an instrument (especially when working with young kids), a student is nowhere near the performance level where “good technique” is either necessary or makes sense.  We may be thinking that we are helping them play better or more correctly, but what they are feeling is somewhere along the lines of “No matter how hard I try, or how much I learn, there’s this right way to do it that I just can’t get.”  What’s worse, when a desperate but undeveloped attempt to play correctly makes its way into a student’s practice and performance, tension builds in the joints and back of the neck.  This rigidness actually leads to more injury than proper posture and technique attempts to prevent.


3. Practice is overemphasized.  Here, we enter the classic symptom vs cause dilemma.  A student practicing their instrument at home is a very good thing.  When it becomes a problem is when we look to practicing as a way for a student to prove that they are motivated and eager to continue their learning in between lessons.  There are many things that can cause a child to not want to practice their instrument: busy schedule, low self esteem, a desire to spend their free time doing other things, or perhaps they’ve been assigned boring or confusing material to practice… There are so many things that a student’s lack of practicing can teach us, but it’s much easier to blame it as the source of the problem. The minute we call a kid out for not practicing, they are in on our warped way of thinking, and, more often than not, they fight back against the shame.  Practice then becomes a battle or, worse, a chore.  In short, a missed opportunity to diagnose a source of anxiety soon gives way to an escalation, causing many students to quit lessons altogether.


4. Responsibility and motivation are confused.  Have you ever said (or heard anyone say) “…they won’t even touch their instrument”?  This is usually an indicator that a lack of motivation has become personal.  There are many opportunities to use music lessons as a tool to develop habits of responsibility (setting goals, following through on tasks, making and keeping a schedule, working through challenges), but no kid has the responsibility to be motivated to play music.  Motivation is a roller coaster; it will fluctuate, and we need to stay aware of that.  When we get upset with a student for not picking up their instrument, we are missing out on a huge opportunity to understand what currently motivates them.


5. Lack of context isn’t put into context.  “What I would do in this situation” will almost never matter to any of my students, because I have 27 years of experience playing my instrument.  What their friends are able to play also doesn’t really matter because they have completely different interests and circumstances.  The longer we have played an instrument or learned to appreciate music ourselves, the more likely we are to take the difficult nature of learning music for granted.  Most kids start lessons with very little knowledge of any musical terminology, but an enormous eagerness to express what they like and who they are.  When we are unable to put into context the fact that they have very little previous knowledge in any of the complex tasks we are about to help them work through and expect predetermined results, we run the risk of forgoing the celebration of who they are for the shame of what they’re not. 


6. Taste and artistry are expected before they are developed.  Like garnish and plating for a meal, there are many ways a song can be elevated once it is learned.  Phrasing, dynamics, correct tempo, or playing like the recording are examples of ways to make a song even more powerful than the notes alone.  If these items are expected before a student develops an ear for them (or before they are fully confident in simply playing the notes), they run the risk of becoming the unexplainable-unattainable “No matter how hard I try, I know there’s something about this I just can’t do.”  Right around the corner is where “…there’s something wrong with me” lives.


7. Not enough support systems in place for big picture concepts.  Because music is so abstract, it can be experienced and defined in countless ways: organized sound mimicking nature, the strongest language on earth, a full artistic expression of the mind and body…  Exploring these sorts of abstract, open-ended concepts is an awesome way to help a student meet and develop their inner creativity.  But without a strong foundation in the more straightforward music fundamentals, we run the risk of our students being lost in the conversation we are trying to have with them.


8. Creativity is overlooked or rejected.  On the flip side, if the big picture concepts are completely ignored, and the fundamentals are the only focus, a sudden burst of creative exploration can be mistaken for a distraction or threat.  Singing while playing, an improvised ending that isn’t on the page, an alternate rhythm, repeating every phrase for no reason, even deciding they would rather just play something else are all ways that our students might try to add a little of who they are into the music.  If they are told they are not allowed to do it that way, they are really being told that who they are is not welcome here.  It’s scary for a kid to let us know exactly what they are thinking; it’s devastating when they realize no one is listening.


9. The abstract and confusing become elephants in the room.  The most common way to address this balance of fundamentals and creativity is to reach a compromise with our students: if they play what’s on the page correctly (or what’s on the recording flawlessly), then they are allowed to make a composition or jam with us.  This really only touches on the surface of how confusing and abstract the music fundamentals AND creative expression can be.  Since confusing and abstract are scary, both parties eagerly accept the compromise.  But abstract and confusing never go away, they just sit in the background getting bigger and bigger.  


10. Mistakes are okay, but it’s better if they don’t happen.  “You learn from your mistakes” is a huge first step.  However, if we simultaneously celebrate perfection, kids are immediately in on the joke: mistakes are okay for now, but it will be better when I don’t make them.  How much patience do our kids have with themselves?  How long is the leash they are giving to their mistake-making?  How many months until the jealousy of those who (apparently) don’t make mistakes kicks in?  Will they ever trust their own voice?  It’s a shame when this onus is on them…


(Next week I will share some ideas on how to address each of these potential sources of anxiety)