Some students take to music lessons like a duck to water. Others seem to struggle with building confidence.

It isn’t necessarily that these students don’t enjoy music and learning more about it. They just don’t seem to have an intuitive understanding of the subject matter.

When students begin to struggle in any subject, be it music or math, this can impair their ability to enjoy and connect with what they are learning.

This leads to frustration, and before long, the student may begin to consider that studying music is a waste of time.

Other students love to study music but lose confidence when they are asked to perform for an audience. For a student who hopes to study music in college or perhaps someday play professionally, this is a perplexing problem. How can they gain greater confidence in their abilities?

Whether your struggling music student is having difficulty learning to read music or nailing their audition piece, there are ways that you can help them and teach them to help themselves.

Ask the Student About Their Self-Talk

Even from a young age, most humans engage in a lively habit of self-talk. Also called the inner voice, an individual’s self-talk is the monologue that runs through their head throughout their waking hours. This inner voice can be a source of support and reassurance or it can be self-defeating and designed to sabotage self-confidence.

Most peoples’ self-talk veers between the positive and the negative depending upon the situation. Unfortunately, negative self-talk frequently dominates the inner narrative, consisting of vague phrases like “I can’t do anything right.”

Most of this negative self-talk has little basis in reality. Nonetheless, too much of it can cause the individual to freeze, making them incapable of taking positive, appropriate action.

If negative self-talk is given free rein for too long, it can become a dominant outlook, undermining a person’s confidence in music, relationships and beyond.

Counsel Students to Monitor Their Self-Talk

Many people, especially kids, are only aware of their self-talk on an almost subconscious level. Whenever a thought such as “I just can’t learn to read music,” pops into their head, they accept it without questioning it. Soon, it becomes reality, a truth that cannot be changed.

Fortunately, negative self-talk can be defeated. The first step in the process is monitoring self-talk. Ask kids to notice the next time a self-defeating statement pops up in their head while studying music.

When negative self-talk appears, ask kids to replace it with a positive statement like:

  • I can learn to read music
  • I will learn to play this passage better
  • I’m a good musician
  • Learning this new piece is an opportunity

Encourage kids to tell you when negative self-talk pops into their heads if they are comfortable doing so. This can be helpful for kids because they may have difficulty turning their negative thought into a positive one.

When your student reports a negative statement, ask them for some examples of things they could say instead. Early on, you may need to provide guidance, but most students will begin to pick up on the concept fairly quickly.

It similarly can be helpful to write down some of these positive statements. This makes them easier to remember at a time of stress or uncertainty. Your student could write these statements in a journal or on post-it notes that are placed around the classroom. Alternatively, you might make a few posters with positive reinforcements written on them for all to see.

If your students feel frustrated by how frequently they are still experiencing negative self-talk, encourage them to keep at their efforts to monitor and change those statements.

The habit of negative self-talk does not develop overnight, and it cannot be alleviated overnight.

Encourage a Sense of Loving-Kindness

Negative self-talk tends to be relentlessly harsh. It involves words like:

  • Idiot
  • Can’t
  • Screw-up
  • Failure
  • Not good enough

When your student is monitoring their self-talk and reports these kinds of statements to you, ask them if they would talk to their best friend that way.

Chances are good that your student will quickly say that they would never call their best friend an idiot or a screw-up. Instead, they would offer kindness and support, encouraging them to try again and reassuring them that they are a wonderful person.

For most people, it is very easy to offer such loving-kindness to others, but not to themselves. As part of the practice of monitoring self-talk, it’s vital for everyone to offer themselves a little bit of loving-kindness and encouragement.

Rather than focusing on that mistake that the student made in rehearsal, guide them toward a feeling of self-compassion, have them take a deep breath and then try again.

Focus on One Small Thing at a Time … or Focus on Something Else

When a student is struggling with reading notes or a certain passage in a piece that they have been learning, frustration quickly follows. Your student is already working on monitoring their self-talk and turning negative statements into positive ones, and you can reinforce this positive lesson by encouraging singular focus or distracting your student with a different matter.

Let’s say that you have a student who is struggling to identify notes as they read music. Rather than asking them to identify all of the notes on the staff, ask them to identify just the first three.

Repeat these three notes several times, using an app, flashcards or the keys on the piano to help cement the lesson. Don’t progress to the next three notes until the first three are solidly understood by the student.

With these three notes serving as a foundation, move on to the next three notes, and then the next. Your student may begin progressing faster than they thought possible, leading to increased confidence.

However, there are occasions on which it makes sense to do the exact opposite. Practicing the same phrase over and over starts to feel maddening, especially if your student says that she is just not getting it.

In this case, walking away from that phrase or that entire piece for a few hours or a few days can be immensely beneficial. Allowing a new skill to “simmer on the back burner,” can yield surprisingly good results that provide a huge confidence boost.

More Practice May Be the Answer

When a student is really dedicated to their instrument and practicing one, two or more hours per day, then more practice will not necessarily give them the confidence that they lack.

However, music teachers frequently can tell when a student just isn’t practicing enough between lessons. This may have something to do with wanting to avoid negative self-talk, which we have already discussed.

Alternatively, the student may be having difficulty simply finding the time to practice. Kids may be juggling homework, an after-school job, chores around the house, watching their siblings and various sports and extracurricular activities. This makes it difficult to find adequate practice time.

Ask your student if they want to find more time to practice their instrument. If so, then help them brainstorm some creative solutions. Maybe they prefer playing the piano to soccer but don’t want to let down their team. Perhaps the answer is to finish this soccer season and then decline playing another, leaving much more time for practicing their instrument.

Music Study Builds Confidence

Kids who study music tend to have an improved understanding of language and better social skills. Music lessons even enhance problem-solving abilities and develop the imagination. Accordingly, this is a subject that’s critical for everyone to learn.

If you have a music student who’s struggling, encourage him to monitor his self-talk, practice loving-kindness toward himself and break down a troubling lesson into bite-size pieces. With these techniques and others, it is possible to help students to build their confidence.

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