keeping lesson alive during the middle school years

Middle School…..whew, what a change for the children!  Many students and parents feel a sense of overwhelm in middle school, and often piano (or guitar, or violin, etc.) lessons are the first thing that gets cut when the academic year starts.

But I want you to reflect on one thing:  I’ve played many performances in my life, including several important recitals such as those required for my doctorate and masters degrees in piano.  Sure, I can always sit down at the piano and review those pieces and get them up to performance level again. That usually takes me a couple of months.  But I can always (and I mean always!) sit down and play a few Bach inventions, Joplin’s The Entertainer, and a few children’s pieces by Debussy.  Do you know when I learned and memorized those pieces?  I learned them when I was about 11 or 12 years old.  I’ve always wondered why those pieces always stick with me, while other pieces I’ve sweated and practiced over through hundreds of hours take some work to bring back.

Well, research has shown that what we learn in middle school does stay with us the rest of our lives.  Here’s a quote from Linda Peristein:

 “But your brain, your gray matter– during the middle school years, what happens in your early stages of puberty is this vast overproduction of brain cells and connections, far more than you actually need. And only some of them are going to survive puberty.

This growth in your frontal cortex, it peaks at 11 for girls and 12 for boys. And then what happens is the cells just fight it out for survival. And the ones that last are the ones you exercise more.”

Super intersting, right?  So that’s why I can still play the Bach piece I learned when I was 11, but not the one I learned when I was 28.  I pushed through lessons during my middle school years (with the nudging of my parents) and I came out on the other end knowing that music would always be a part of my life.

I know middle school is rough.  Believe me – I’m living it this year with a 6th grader myself!  But I also know that the middle school students I teach experience such a tremendous amount of musical growth during those years.  The elementary years of music study lays the foundation of learning.  The middle school years is a time of expanding on that knowledge and blossoming into young musicians.  We want music to always be a part of everyone’s life – whether it be professionally, or as an audience member  in the concert hall, or a means to relax and unwind at the end of a long day.

I have to bite my tongue sometime when I hear about talented students dropping music lessons to start band or choir.  Band, choir, and orchestra are wonderful things!  But they complement, not replace private lessons.  You’ve laid the foundation during the elementary years, now see how students can grow during the middle school years.

If you are on the fence about your middle school student continuing lessons, just remember that this is the time in their lives to nourish what you want to stick with them the rest of their lives.  I’ve got an early riser in my middle schooler, so we spend the first 30 minutes of every day practicing together at the piano.

What you water will grow.  

I’ll leave you with one other story.  A dear friend of mine, who is also a pianist, lost his father to cancer this past month.  He wrote a moving tribute to his father, speaking kindly of his upbringing and his father’s patience.  But what mattered most to him, he said, was that during his middle school years, when he wanted to give up on music, his father never gave up on him.  He told about how his father was his determination when he was doubting; how his father believed in his musical growth when he saw no potential.  The decision to keep going in lessons gave him a career path, an option to continue with music.  I can’t imagine this particular person not in music, so hearing this story from him really reinforced the idea that we all struggle with practicing and wanting to discontinue lessons at times!

So as we start this new academic year, we (the teachers) at Velocity just want to say that we are here for you – we are on your side, and will continue to nurture and teach your children in music in the best way that we know how.  Here’s to a wonderful year of music learning!