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I teach 2 ten year old twin boys piano, but they both show no motivation to learn. Every time they come over they have a new excuse for why the couldn't practice at all in the last 2 weeks since I have seen them. Lots of these are valid excuses ("We moved and the piano is not set up yet." or "We went on a vacation") but most of the excuses are complete baloney. ("I couldn't figure out how the metronome works so I didn't practice at all.") Most weeks, they have practiced for a total of 20 minutes. Frequently they will not have practiced at all.

I have been teaching them for over a year, but I don't think they have made any significant progress. At this point, I feel like I could continue teaching them for another 2-3 years and that they would learn very little. Obviously, this is a waste of my time, their time and their parents' money.

Is this indicative of poor teaching on my part? Most of our lessons are working through their books, and I could understand how they might consider music from a book "boring". However, I try very hard to make music fun and interesting, which is why I am always showing them cool music, working with them on songs that they enjoy and choose, and give them tips and ideas on songs that they are writing.

I have asked them if they want to learn piano or if it's just their parents forcing them to take lessons, and they tell me that they love music, and they dream of being a composer one day, and that they like taking lessons from me. However, I don't really believe them. I have also explained to their parents the lack of practice several times, and each time the same thing happens. "We'll work with them on that" and they practice a little bit more for the next couple weeks before falling back into the same habits.

I'm not sure what I should do from here.

  • Am I the problem? Do I just need to find a better way to motivate and teach them? I am sure that part of the problem is bi-weekly lessons, rather than weekly lessons. However their parents don't want lessons more than once every two weeks.

  • Should I set a standard? If you are to continue taking lessons from me, you must practice a minimum of X minutes per week?

  • Should I stop teaching them? If this continues much longer, I must say this at some point, especially since for me, I teach out of a desire to bring the love of music to passionate people that are dedicated to learning about music, not to help parents enforce their vision of "Every child must be enrolled in hundreds of extracurricular activities". I know that this is possible at their age (my hardest practicing student so far was 9, and I would practice for hours a day when I was 14) even if it's not common.

  • You may want to look at this question and answer. It's very similar in nature. – Dom May 1 '15 at 17:52
  • I won't make this a real answer right now in case this is deemed to be a duplicate: I agree with the linked answer that catering to the student can help - I ask students what music they want to learn and teach that while working in "important" stuff like theory on the sly. Also, sometimes things outside your control will rule the day. When I was 13 I was very depressed and quit everything, including piano lessons. No teacher or teaching technique would have been able to stop me that in my case. – Todd Wilcox May 1 '15 at 18:34
  • One more note: when I taught myself guitar it was easy because I never felt like I was practicing anything, I was just playing guitar (very badly for the first few years). I would miss classes because I was playing guitar instead. I've never felt that way about another instrument. Loving music is good, loving the instrument is unstoppable. – Todd Wilcox May 1 '15 at 18:35
  • On a personal note - I was much like that age 13, & eventually gave up my piano lessons age 15, much to my chagrin now as an adult. I did, however pick up guitar & bass & eventually made a career of it. They may love music, but not like their piano lessons. It doesn't make you a bad teacher, it just makes them 'teenagers' – Tetsujin May 1 '15 at 19:29
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    @Matthew Read - the clue's in the title - Music-Practice and Theory. Of course it could be construed that the question could relate to any subject, however, it doesn't. Motivating in music specifically, can be very different from motivating in other subjects – Tim May 2 '15 at 10:00
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I actually had a piano teacher politely ask me if I was sure I wanted to keep going, as I wasn't really that interested in playing, but sort of went (I was about 10 years old). I regret that, as a few years later I picked up the guitar and loved it.

I think the thing was, I was playing stuff I just couldn't relate to - at all. 'Oh when the saints go marching in' really didn't peak my interest.

I would suggest teaching them songs for 6 months or so, no theory, no scales, not even with sheet music if you can help it (maybe chord charts for reference with the lyrics to songs). Also, the songs which you teach, only teach them songs that they love listening to. I know if I were taught Michael Jackson songs I would probably still be playing piano today.

As an additional insentive, always have a new song 'in the wings' so you can say 'once you have got this right, we will learn this'.

Eventually, when they get stuck because something is too complicated, that might be the time to introduce some scale practice to help.

Finally, you could get one to sing the song they love while the other plays, and then swap around (or perhaps one plays left hand and the otherright). This way, they learn to play together - as right now, if one is practicng, what is the other one doing? sitting around bored waiting for their turn, or worse on an Xbox distracting the other twin from their practice! I would be suprised if the house has two pianos!

  • I like this answer too. I have tried doing this, but not quite to the extent that you recommend. – DJMcMayhem May 2 '15 at 14:43
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Life's too short for such nonsense. You aren't enjoying the situation and they probably aren't feeling too good about maintaining the charade either.

Kids are often much better at 'being diplomatic' and telling people what they want to hear than adults are. Or maybe it's true that they are serous about music, but piano isn't their thing - it was never mine, and I love music (and still want to be a composer :) or it may be that for whatever reason, your teaching style isn't right for them.

If you've already brought up the issue several times, I wouldn't bother with any further ultimatums or crisis meetings - the danger is that you end up carrying on with more ill-feeling. Just say that for whatever reason, they're not making progress, and you absolutely can't keep taking their money. Perhaps suggest a break for a couple of months and, if the kids actually decide that the lessons were a good thing, you can consider taking them back on your terms (maybe weekly, and with strict practice rules).

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    Yeah, I'm inclined to agree, especially as this can be done quite diplomatically. – user16935 May 2 '15 at 14:00
  • @Patrx2 - exacltly - making an executive to finish it on good terms is going to be better than forcing the issue, which may make the kids actually start hating the piano! – topo morto May 2 '15 at 14:10
  • I like this answer. It makes it clear (to them and their parents) that it is not working, but still leaves the door wide open for them continuing to take lessons from me if they get a little more serious. – DJMcMayhem May 2 '15 at 14:34
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I would have a nice little sit down with the parents and discuss the situation with them. They may not be aware of exactly how there little tyrants are taking them for a ride.

If you gently let them know that you are not getting co operation and that yes you can still take there money if they so wish but it is not fair on them to pay for a teaching service that does not actually teach their children anything.

You should also consider asking there parents, au pair or some sort of parental figure to sit in on the lessons.

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Even if you can't teach them piano, at least you can try to teach them (and their parents!) that that what the kids (don't) do has consequences. Next time they admit they haven't done any practice, end the lesson right there and show them the door. Make it clear that you aren't going to spend any more time with them unless they do their "homework".

If this results in a visit from their parents, you are in a better position to have a meaningful discussion about the situation than the "yeah, I hear what you say" response when got when you tried to talk to them.

  • I agree, but I think this might make them dislike lessons (from me or otherwise) even more. – DJMcMayhem May 2 '15 at 14:37
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How carefully do you map out your instructions for home practice? Some students need things written down in a very explicit way.

Catch the child displaying the desired behavior and reward it. (To figure out how to reward the child, you have to use some intuition, experimentation and observation. For example, on a really good day, my son's teacher allowed him to fool around on her electric organ for a few minutes at the end of the lesson.)

How involved are the parents? How good a communication channel do you have with them? Is it possible to involve them more? (The extreme example of this is the Suzuki parent coach, but you might be able to use them less intensively.) Would they be willing to hire a teenaged practice buddy? Homeschoolers are often interested in working in this way.

In the worst case, you may want to do as a viola teacher I know did for one student. The student had done good work with her viola in previous years, but in high school her ballet schedule became extremely intense. The teacher was basically the practice buddy in the lessons. Of course, the student did not progress very quickly during those periods, but there was still a benefit of continuing the lessons.

Perhaps you can get these twins playing piano more at home by assigning simple duets. Alternatively, you could have one of them "accompany" the other with some percussion.

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One aspect of this that I don't think has been addressed (unless I missed it in the other answers!) is that, in my opinion, teachers should protect themselves from being "blamed" for lack of student progress in these cases. If one teaches kids as a business, it's only a matter of time before one comes across a parent that says some version of, "What am I paying you for!? It's been a year and my kid still sounds like he hasn't had a lesson!"

One concrete way to do this, especially for kids of this age, is to be very specific about what you want them to practice, write it down at the end of each lesson, and have the students record each day (in either a notebook, or on a sheet that you print and give to them) what they practiced. There are many possible versions of this. If you know that the students have parents or guardians that have the time and availability, you could even have the parents just record each day whether or not the student practiced for at least 20 minutes (or whatever.) If they can't practice on a given day, just have them jot down the reason.

Having a discussion with the parents is a good idea as well. Suggest to them that setting a specific practice time each day might be a good idea. Maybe an analogy with say, soccer practice, could be useful. Soccer practice takes place at a certain time, in a certain location. Just as a parent might ensure that their child gets to and from soccer practice, so too they should ensure their child gets "to and from" piano practice. (Not all kids have parents that are able to be super involved in the details of their children's activities, so you will have to use some judgement/care/tact here! I certainly would avoid language that tells a parent what they "should" do.)

Of course, these things can sometimes be good ideas for the students even if they aren't having practice issues, and it does more than just protect the teacher from being blamed for non-progressing students. Sometimes adding a little structure can increase productivity.

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I am new to this forum, hence not sure of the proper parameters or protocol. However, I do have a personal experience that may apply to 'talented' yet unmotivated students. I began playing piano on my own at age 4. No one forced me. As some of the answers suggested, around age 12 or 13 I had other interests, and resented being forced to travel on the subway for my lesson. I played stickball, then hid in the closet till my teacher informed my parents that I never showed up. This may not be the right way, but my folks actually kicked me out of the house at dinner time and had to eat in a diner. Needless to say, this was 1970 and it was not as dangerous to be out at that age in NYC. In any case, I learned the hard way to continue, as I was interested in music in any case and have not regretted the decision they made as I did go on and majored in music in college and continue to enjoy it. Perhaps this seems harsh but it made an indelible impression on me and I'm glad. Maybe there are other ways to see how motivated students are, certainly that incident got me back on track. I realize there are more 'toys' etc that interest music students these days, however that worked for me.

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