Teaching /Taming Tantrum-driven Teens

To teach adolescents the teacher requires a fairly robust ego, as it’s important not to respond to the provocation that can be attempted. Just as some play games with their sexuality, so others enjoy experimenting with their power: and no power is so cherished as the ability to wind up (or put the wind up) teachers, especially these days when pupils know how vulnerable teachers are. It's not to say that every teenager will – of course not – but the more confident the teacher is, the less likely the pupil is to express hir own insecurity by seeking confrontation.
    The great teacher Shinui Suzuki said: ‘first I trained myself not to show frustration; and then I trained myself not to feel frustration.’ From personal observation teachers are most likely to feel /show anger when they themselves are unable to see how to explain to a pupil the correct way of doing something. (Elgar apparently was so volatile that outgoing violin pupils would issue ‘weather warnings’ the incomers.) My general view is that ‘a pupil only has a problem if the teacher has a problem.’ I have found that if I can conceptualise the problem clearly -& appropriately for that pupil- s/he can invariably overcome it. I see my own role as that of the sweeper in ice hockey who smoothes the passage of the puck towards the goal.
    The delight of teaching kids and teens is that once you’ve found out where their ‘blue touch paper’ is & ignited it with repertoire they enjoy, they go like rockets. But that doesn’t always make it plain sailing. I have one particularly ‘vivid’ young lady of 12 whose parents bring her a considerable distance. This means that she enjoys piano enough to give up two hours of her Sunday, but unless her mother* is present there are some lessons in which she argues the toss on every comment I make. “What’s the matter with that?” she’ll say aggressively after playing a piece with 90% accuracy. So I tell her, and the reply will be “Well I did that!” or “What does it matter? I like it that way.” Having had two dauters myself I've learnt that such behaviour is often hormonal, hence it’s irregular manifestation, but it’s particularly important as a teacher not to respond – because a) young people don’t mean it, or aren't aware of the ‘adult’ overtone to their words, or b) they're picking a proxy fight that they can't have with their parent. Either way it’s important not to trigger a war since while the teacher may win the battle, the longterm casualty will be music.
    I'm fortunate in that I teach entirely privately, and thus have a 1:1 relationship with pupils & parents, which makes it simple to unravel complications if they emerge. The part that I hated most about teaching at the RCM was the need for everything to go throu hierarchical loops, and the fact that the ‘professor’s’ power to facilitate radical alterations to the student’s overview was essentially limited to changing the lightbulb.  
    This brings me to a deeply held conviction that what adolescents need in /from learning a musical instrument is a ‘rumpus room’. Amid the fearful amount of examining and the rigid control applied to their lives, they benefit colossally from being given a space where they can be responsible for their own learning. And for this reason, as much as for any other, I consider music exams positively injurious to an adolescent’s psychological well-being. I believe this applies just as much to intending musicians as to casual learners.
    Children actually want to learn. If ‘uninterefered-with’ they're little sponges, soaking up new skills. If you make it clear that they control the pace of their own learning, and pupils feel that as the teacher you really understand the kind of musical experience they want, then, unless there are other hidden inhibitors, they will generally go full ahead. The problem comes with the ‘interference’ of curriculums & regulations that require them to learn things that are emotionally irrelevant. No wonder they turn from sponges into crabs with impenetrable shells. Who wouldn’t?    
    In the case of the ‘vivid’ pupil, her blessing /curse is that she is a brilliant sight-reader, and thus it’s precisely because she can usually wing it that what makes her particularly angry is to be made to concentrate on the difference between ‘good enough’ and ‘excellent’. Especially as she feels she should be congratulated for getting so much right with so little practice. The teaching point in all this, as I see it, is to try to help her value her own potential excellence, in order to achieve ‘ownership’ of what she does.

    And this leads me to the deeper issues. This girl comes from a socially well-connected background (her excuse for not practising in the recent halfterm was that she was in Caribbean!), and one of the big problems for rich kids in private schools is that our elitist /technocratic education does nothing to encourage personal introspective engagement. Without the emotional grit of having personally to overcome adverse circumstances there is no ‘alterity’ in the lives of middleclass kids, no balancing negativity to help them locate themselves within all the positive opportunities thrown at them – by which alone they might acquire some traction in developing their own inner self. That’s why drugs are so attractive: they represent a shadow existence which is absent from the adolescent’s conscious environment.
    However learning to achieve excellence in a performing activity can simulate the necessary adversity, safely – because confronting the fear that performance brings, within an environment where it’s ok to fail, creates a favourable heuristic dynamic in a teenager’s life. If all their other learning environments are driven by externally directed (& emotionally irrelevant) goals which they can more or less skate throu, then why bother to invest in anything personally? Especially since in the rest of their educational existence who they are personally doesn’t matter: each is just a blob of protein in a vast educational sausage who, provided they don’t seek the path of individuation, will be force-fed throu the system until they emerge with life on a plate in front of them.
    The thing about my ‘vivid’ pupil is that she's too emotionally aware to accept that, and thus her bolshiness is a way of creating an adversity that allows her to achieve some kind of individuality, albeit of a negative kind. It may not be much of an ‘achievement’, but it’s the adolescent application of a ‘baby tool’. I have always told her parents (who are not far from their wits’ end about her) that I feel within her there is the kernel of a future authenticity, to achieve which she may ‘choose’ in young adulthood to place herself in negative situations – which is simply what the robust psyche knows intuitively to be the best school for self-realisation.
    As it happens, she enjoys the piano and has considerable ability. Throu learning the piano I hope her juvenile ‘palate’ may become aware that what is unsweet may have a deeper longterm value in life’s gastronomy than what is immediately tasty. She's resisting this because to achieve personal excellence (she knows) will demand differentiation from the pack & that’s not a price she's willing to pay - yet.

    I'd like to close by alluding to the longterm emotional damage inflicted on individuals, and thus on society as a whole, by forcing young people to study things without engaging them in the moral dimension of learning. It seems to me such a colossal, elementary, and wholly avoidable, psychological mistake. If you make music, or any other subject, emotionally relevant to children then you engage them whole-heartedly and equip them with a resource for life. My punch-line about the piano is that: whatever repertoire kids learn must work for them in the playground. (The caveat being that what ‘works for them’ in the playgrounds of a comprehensive vs a specialist music school will be completely different.) This doesn’t mean that you can't wean pupils onto more demanding repertoire, it just means you need to be aware of how music fits into the overall ecology of their cultural environment.
    It seems to me completely pointless to demand all young pianists achieve the same technical or theoretical requirements of grade exams as intending musicians. In the long run it's more likely to turn them off music altogether. I often hear colleags bewail ‘how hard it is to retain the interest of adolescents’ and think, but never say, ‘of course it is, with the exam music you give them!’ Whereas by listening to what they want (& often by tippexing so-called ‘Easy Play’ into pianist-friendly versions) I've been particularly successful in keeping teenagers’ love of music alive. It gives me pleasure to hear that one young ex-pupil was able to support himself by playing bar piano during training as an RAF pilot! And another is still playing, despite being a motor mechanic. I don’t think you'll find that kind of music on the syllabus of the ABRSM, but the fact that both already understood the lingua franca of contemporary pop made it easy for them to pick up new tunes.  
    A society made up of people who can relate to their skills to the world they encounter is more likely to be a happy society than one made-up of over-educated people ‘qualified’ to do things that don’t engage them.