10 strategies to reduce anxiety in music lessons

Wednesday December 9, 2020 by Jason Mohlenbrock

Last week I wrote about 10 possible sources of anxiety in music lessons.  Each of these strategies will apply to the corresponding number in that post.

In 14 years of teaching music, nothing has positively impacted the experience for me or my students more than adopting these 10 strategies:


1. Cut up material into bite-sized chunks.  You can help reduce the stress your student puts on themself by identifying the small little bits of information that combine to make up a bigger task.  Recognize they cannot digest all of this at once, and actually teach the small little bits of information only.  When they are confident enough with the little pictures, take a step back, and let them synthesize the information into the bigger whole.  This creates a huge potential win for your student that you can slowly work toward together!


2. Save posture and technique for later.   This one will be very tough at first, especially if you have a strong understanding of how a student should be playing their instrument.  The key is to focus on helping them develop a strong understanding of what to play before putting any pressure on how to play it “correctly.”  Use a simple rule of thumb: Can my student play this comfortably the way they currently are?  If yes, ignore any technique or posture issues; if no, introduce a new strategy they can use to help their own playing.  This small shift in our approach creates an enormous shift in focus for our students: strong posture and technique become something they can own to reach new goals, rather than an annoying “extra thing” holding them back.


3. Use practice habits as a barometer.  That’s it.  Don’t ignore a lack of practicing, but don’t put any unnecessary pressure on your student either.  Start by understanding that progress can be made lesson to lesson even without practice.  Then, see what kind of motivating activities or material can increase self-driven practice.  Then, add in some planning and goal setting routines to help increase the frequency even further.  Look at any dip in or outright refusal to practice as an indication that the overall system needs tweaking.  Continuing this process disperses the pressure to all parties involved, balancing the accountability amongst the student, parent, and teacher in a more realistic way.  


4. Put goal-setting and motivation into perspective.    Music teachers can help students set reasonable goals, and parents can help put these goals into action with small responsibility-building routines.  As a child naturally fluctuates on their commitment to these goals, their motivation to engage in music lessons should never be tried.  Constantly ask yourself how you can find what motivates your student, and be willing to adapt to spark and re-spark their interest.  If a child’s interests are given the freedom to fluctuate naturally in the short term, there is much more room for long term motivation in music.


5. Try your best to see what they see.  Let’s say I want to learn how to make my own repairs on my car instead of having to take it in all the time, so I hire a car mechanic to teach me.  I have no idea what any of the parts of an engine look like or do, let alone what they’re called.  I just know what a working car looks and feels like when it drives at the end.  Now, imagine my car mechanic instructor started saying things like, “No, that’s not the right part!” “Why would you put that there?” “It’s never going to work right if you do that” “I’ve been doing this for 30 years and if you just watch me more closely you won’t have any problems” “Look at how well your neighbor fixes their car!”
I would probably get incredibly stressed out and then say something like, “Look, if you’re not going to take the time to talk to me like the car-part novice that I am, I will never be able to learn how to do this effectively.”  And then walk out…

The only difference between me in this hypothetical and a kid starting music lessons for the first time is that I wouldn’t have a problem questioning authority so directly.  This is why we need to start giving our future musicians the courtesy of questioning ourselves…


 6. Don’t steal wins.  When a kid learns the notes to a song, it’s a huge win!  When a kid realizes they can read the notes on a page of music, it’s a huge win!  Celebrate with them.
Sure, they didn’t keep a steady tempo throughout.  Sure, they didn’t get louder where it said to.  Sure, they paused in awkward parts of the song to remember where they were.  All of that stuff can come later, and be just another win. 
Saying, “Great job, but…” steals a win and makes right now feel less-than-perfect.  Saying, “Wow, look at what you just accomplished!” solidifies a win, makes right now feel special, and makes perfect unnecessary.


7. Embrace fundamentals and careful planning.   Just because music is so abstract doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for music lessons to be.  Even if your main focus is music being fun, things can still get stressful pretty quickly.  Most kids want to be able to make something amazing and creative, and, as their teacher or parent, we want to help them.  Don’t overlook the necessity of providing appropriate tools and resources before a student is asked to jump into the abstract.  Reading music, understanding chords, a powerful sense of rhythm, a strong understanding of historical context…. What are the necessary and appropriate tools our students will need for these things?  And how can we best provide them in a logical and progressive way?  Constantly asking ourselves these questions will go a long way toward providing the path and platform our students need to successfully navigate the bigger picture concepts later on.


 8. Embrace creativity.  When kids start feeling confident or excited about what they are learning in music, one way they might express it is by exploring what else is possible.  Look for signs of this, such as: improvising their own beginning or ending to a song, singing while they play, making their own song in the style of a piece they are learning, intentionally adding in notes that don’t belong…  

Don’t stop this process!  

Highlight it, ask them why they did it, open up a conversation, empower the decision to add a little of their own ideas into the music.  

But don’t stop there.  Create more platforms for them to create and expand.   Praise them for taking risks.  


9. Embrace the chaos.  Music is confusing.  Music is complicated.  Music is abstract.  Instead of hiding this fact, head directly toward it with your students.  Take opportunities to intentionally show how open-ended things are.

“If you play these notes over these chords you will have an awesome jazz solo,” can be followed by a video of Thelonious Monk breaking all the rules because he felt like it.

“The audience will be expecting this song to sound like this,” can be followed with a video of Bob Dylan getting booed at the Newport Folk Festival for playing rock when his audience expected folk.

Here’s exactly what this means.  Here’s why it might not matter…


10. Embrace mistakes and forgetfulness.  As a kid’s brain develops, so does their relationship with it.  When mistakes or forgetting are described or hinted at as problems to overcome, we can unintentionally reinforce a preconceived notion that many kids have: That there is something wrong with their brain, and thus something wrong with them.  Flip that thought process 180 degrees, and teach your student how to see their brain as their friend.  Mistakes and forgetting are going to happen – simple as that.  This isn’t a flaw, it’s our brains telling us that we need that information again, that we need to dig deeper, that we need to learn this material in a new way, or perhaps even that there might be more possibilities beyond the notes on the page (re: Thelonious Monk).  

What a gift!  Not only did your mistake help you know that you needed to learn this again, it helped me know that I needed to teach it in a different way…”  Thanks, brain!”