HELPING THE OLDER STUDENT
By Kevin Taylor
Many of our newsletter articles deal with the beginning Childbloom family and the many challenges they will face in helping their child develop their talent. Even though the average age of students starting our program is 7-8, the average age of the student in the Childbloom program is twelve. That is because so many stick with it until the teenage years. The ages of 9-18 are not without their storms and challenges for parents. Just think back, yourself.
According to 20th century child-developmental theory, we travel through several phases of mental development that both limit and expand our perceptions of the world and ourselves. 21st century technological developments in imagery are explaining some of the neurological reasons why these observations were made, why they persisted and why they are effective models to use even today. Here is a simplified description of the relevant phases for our students according to Jean Piaget, the “Father of Child-development”:
This is the language-learning child – roughly from ages 1-7. This child learns by doing, repeating, and direct modeling. Manipulation of the world is how this child learns about the world. This child’s perceptions are magical – not necessarily logical, there is little forethought and most learning (practice) is best done through play (see last month’s newsletters “100 ideas…”). Many of our beginning students are either in this phase or emerging out of it.
The transition from one phase to another is done in fits and starts and it is common that children possess higher cognitive skills, as they are entering a new phase of ability, but revert back to the prior phases when under stress or through reinforced habit.
Once the child starts to lose his teeth the next phase emerges. This occurs around age 6-7. The operational stage brings a whole new repertoire of cognitive skills to the child. Meaningful manipulation of symbols is much easier (that is why a child who has difficulty reading in first or second grade, may become a completely fluent reader by third grade.) Music notation is much more accessible for the operational child. That is another reason why we proceed very slowly and do not push music literacy on the younger children.
The average age of children gaining all the cognitive skills of this operational period is nine and a half. The child can now perceive, think about and work operations on the music outside of himself and know that the names of things are not something inherently attached to the object. This is also the age at which a child can, and is expected to be a moral agent: know right from wrong and choose accordingly. This moral agency suggest that the child can now learn and imagine future events in a logical sequence from current events. This is the age when the child must learn the very important lesson that if one does not practice, one does not improve.
This is also the age at which music pitch becomes something that affects the child’s emotional state. Even though the pre-operational child will become activated by rhythm, it is the operational child who becomes emotionally moved and enthused by melody and harmony in music. This emotional content of music (including lyrics) can now be a part of the child’s motivational architecture and stimulate practice. This is also the age at which the child is open to others besides the parents for instruction. This age of a student is a blessing for most teachers because the student is attentive, open, and at his or her most docile. The nine-year old girl and ten-year old boy are the most charming students – generally the easiest to teach. If you have kids this age take pictures of them, have fun, play games, travel and enjoy them while you can because soon they will turn into a bit more complicated child.
The operational child will not understand technical growth on the guitar and may wish to play things that are beyond their ability because they wish to be able to play it. This inability to see their skills realistically can lead to discouragement and embarrassing performance. This is actually a reversion back to pre-operational thinking. The “how to get there” is the main idea we must teach this age musician.
Socially, the operational child is less self-centered. Rather than parallel play so common among pre-operational children, this child can interact with others. This process is referred to as decentering. That is why this age child typically generates intense relationships with a friend or two – usually of the same gender. It is the “best-friend” era. Parents can build on this by bringing the social component of music-making into the child’s life. This is not the best time to have private lessons or to isolate the child’s talent from others. Efforts must be made to have the child interact with others who share the music education experience – either other guitarists or musicians. If you do this you will understand the fruitfulness of this approach. The child will more easily become a “student of the guitar” because of the desire to fit into the social sphere with other guitarists or musicians.
Even though the guitar has traditionally been a solo instrument, the relatively recent phenomenon of guitar ensemble and age-old tradition of garage-band playing (chamber playing: with other instruments) has great power to cultivate motivation and involvement in the musical world for the operational child’s life. Do not hesitate if your teacher suggests or invites your child into an ensemble experience. Although the operational child, having just grown certain skills, may not be fluent in social interactions, he or she will be naturally attracted to friends. If they negotiate this world successfully it will cultivate much personal and musical growth and stimulate technical motivation. Even if a child has problems socializing, they will still be attracted to this world. This will require much parental guidance, but luckily, this age child is usually open to the parent’s words.
There are signs when the student begins to grow into the next stage of development: the emergence of wisdom teeth and some severe autonomy drives.
When you notice that your child is expressing critical preferences on music that he or she hears in concerts or in recordings, you know that your child is now entering a mature world of music and music now has a potential to become a rich part of the child’s life. You may also notice that as the child’s internal world is affected by music, that there is an inverse relationship to your ability to control and manipulate the child’s actions and tastes in this regard. This is the time to validate the teacher in the student’s eyes. The teacher can suggest ways to expand the child’s taste and the child will tend to be more susceptible to the teacher’s guidance in this sphere than yours. A bad teacher can do damage during these years.
When students move from one level of cognition to another, it is usually accompanied by a strong drive for autonomous action. The child may begin to snap or bristle at parental instruction or suggestions. The child who was docile and pleasant yesterday may be snarky or argumentative today. This is a sign of change into the new world of perception.
PERIOD OF FORMAL OPERATIONS
This is the teenager. The formal period may last roughly from the age of 12 until 21. This is the longest period of cognitive growth.
This is the age at which students can plan into the future. They can keep their own schedules. The operational child will have to be told when and where to be. The formal-thinking child will tell you where to go (!) and when to be there (even if they’re wrong). The parents of the first teenager in the family will have to grow new communication skills. Communication will have to be at a higher and more respectful level.
As the cognitive skills that allow this formal thinking emerge, the student will again exhibit severe autonomy drives. This student will not appreciate a parent reminding them when to practice. They may not even want the parent involved at all – especially if the parent claims any expertise regarding music or guitar. This is the age that the student MUST own his or her activity and the autonomy drives reflect that need. If your child hasn’t taken to the instrument, initiating practice by about age 15, chances are they are not going to. This is not to say that a child who has bonded with the instrument needs no occasional reminding. Motivation, even in adults, goes up and down. This is the time for the child to learn how to bring the motivation back when it retreats. Parents can help a lot in that regard. How do you re-motivate yourself? And if you aren’t good at it, how does someone who is good at it do it?
Time management is a big issue with this age. This is the age at which they must learn it. They have the ability, now, but are not practiced at it and frequently fail. Effective time management requires a prioritization of activities. Kids emerging from the operational phase are often involved in more activities than they can handle. By the formal stage the time requirements of these activities become serious as teachers concentrate more on product than process. Students emerging into the formal period often have to jettison other prior activities. The prioritization of activities is a way the child must define himself or herself: am I a gymnast, a guitarist, or a ballet-dancer? It is often a painful process and we lose students at this stage because of just that re-prioritization.
But what of the student who remains? How can you help your older teenager who still wants to play, improve and involve himself in the activity of music-making? Here are my suggestions:
• Help the child plan by planning your schedule around the child – even a little. This support is what the child needs. Be willing to travel to events if the student doesn’t drive, yet.
• Discuss the future. What can he do with this skill? Does he wish to study it further in college? Does he like performing? Competing? Composing? Playing with others? Creating music for other instruments? Enjoy understanding music theory? Playing various styles of music? Playing for his own enjoyment ? Communicate those things to the teacher.
• Brainstorm about performances and let the child’s brain prevail. Where would she like to play? Play for a retirement center or nursing home? Play at a coffee-house to earn a little money? Make a recording for grandparents or supporters?
• Provide the materials necessary. If you can’t afford to purchase the right guitar or materials, help your child come up with a plan that allows her to earn and save for those things (remember, she can now plan). If you can provide those things but wish to cultivate work-ethic in your child, then come up with requirements that the child must fulfill to receive the materials. Make sure the child agrees. (Many teenagers resist their parents purchasing expensive instruments because of the responsibility of practice that goes along with them. It is often exaggerated in their mind. Make sure there is clarity of expectation BEFORE the purchase.)
• Although people at this age want to be special, they often give up when they can’t be “the best.” No one is “the best.” The formal child is often involved in status-seeking and must learn the usefulness of the skill they possess and how it can fit into the real world. Highly competitive kids (often from highly-competitive environments) use winning & losing as part of their motivational architecture. It will be a part of them. You can’t remove it. But it can become more intelligent. You must counsel both the winners and the losers: Winning is a platform to stand on to grow even more. Losing is a chance to learn winning things.
• Adult-like practice is a very isolating thing. This is the age at which young people must learn to integrate that solitude and bring the results of that effort out socially. If you notice your child suffering in this regard – either being afraid to perform in the presence of others or putting herself in an unprepared performance situation that causes embarrassment – which means the practice is avoided or ineffective – you should make sure your teacher knows this if he doesn’t already. Armed with this knowledge, the teacher, student and parent can work intelligently to create a satisfactory plan to coincide with the better person the student wishes to be.
The young person, growing into adulthood, needs and benefits from the presence of adults: family members, teachers, mentors and most of all, parents who are advocates for the responsible independance of the sometimes secretive and oppositional teen. It is easy for a parent to think “my job is done” when the child learns to drive or keeps her own schedule. But we all know that that is when guidance and interaction is most needed because now the dangers are numerous and the consequences of risk very serious. This is also true of the “good” child who may be disciplined in music, art, sports or school-work. Never abandon them.
© 2013 Childbloom, Inc.