To the question “If you could choose, would you prefer to teach percussion to high school students or to middle school students?” Of course I would usually answer “I would teach to anybody who wants to learn.” The fact is that I had to make this choice for real.
Last year I taught percussion in a local middle school and I had the chance to work there for the rest of my life. However, I realized that, for me, teaching in middle school would be much more difficult than in high school. So, since I could choose, I decided to go back to high school.
I say it now, just to avoid misunderstandings. I’m glad I taught one year in middle school. I’ve grown professionally and personally due to the fact that I had some sensational students, without exception. Today, after 3 months of leaving the previous school I still get emotional thinking about the last final show in June where all students were together on stage playing “Into the Light” by Kevin Tuck.
But I preferred to go back to high school because I personally think that working here suits me better and in my opinion it’s easier for at least 5 reasons.
So, here are 5 reasons why I prefer teaching percussion in high school rather than in middle school.
Disclaimer: This post is based on my personal experience as a percussion teacher in an high school where I went back to work after a year of teaching in a middle school. These two types of Italian schools are both specific and complex, but in my opinion many of the arguments can be generalized to all students of the two age groups (11-13 and 14-18) also outside the environment of the Italian public school.
The guys … sorry. I meant the kids … Sorry again, I restart.
The individuals between 11 and 13 are in the middle of the period of human development that goes by the name of preadolescence. You don’t need to have attended a developmental psychology course at University to understand that preadolescence is a big mess. Not that after 14 years old is all peaches and dandelions, but the preadolescence is probably even worse.
Anyone who has ever taught as a substitute teacher in a middle school class and can compare it with the high school can understand me. Compared to them, the high school students are all English lords.
Be careful, I’m not saying that all middle school students are rude. The fact is that the transition between the time of the game and the beginning of the lesson at that age is not as rapid nor predictable. This means that as a teacher you have to commit more to:
- get their attention;
- keep it for the whole lesson.
Very simple, isn’t it?
In Italy, the conservatory was founded to form great musicians. The music high school was founded to form citizens capable of playing at least one musical instrument at a good level. The middle school with music instrument courses was created to train people who like playing music. Period.
In middle school, music and learning a musical instrument contribute to the general development of the person. If anyone wants to continue his musical studies in high school, that’s a good thing, but it’s not the main goal.
What does that mean to you, humble percussion teacher? It means that you have to forget the way you’ve learned to study at the conservatory. That is, you have to forget that your students can even remotely approach the way you were studying at the conservatory. They can’t study music as if it is the only thing that matters in their life, as it was for me at that age…
For example, do you remember the hours you spent in front of the practice pad, the endless repetitions on the marimba, daily training on orchestral passages, the commitment and the passion with which you passed from playing the scale of C major to Keiko Abe with 4 mallets?
Forget it. One day they will study Keiko Abe. Maybe. In the distant future.
So how do you learn to be a good middle school teacher? Simple: lots of experience (that’s why the pedagogy classes you’ve attended in the conservatory are useless) and lots of patience.
Finally, if you want to be helpful to the person who is facing you, you need lots of commitment and hard work. Read on.
3. PREPARATION OF STUDENTS
First of all, you have to take an admission test to enter in the high school or the conservatory. This is a difficult test about instrumental skills and theoretical knowledge. This means that students arrive already prepared in the basics, which basically makes your life easier at first.
But in middle school kids usually have never played instruments before and have to start from 0. And, if you didn’t already know it, teaching the basics of a musical instrument to a beginner is a difficult job, as well as a great responsibility.
Which brings us directly to the penultimate point.
4. TEACHING PLAN
In a high school you can arrive in class with a song, make your students listen to it while you’re playing and then ask them to study it for the following week. I’m not saying it’s the best teaching strategy; I’m just saying that, if you want, you can do it. The planning work in this case is practically 0, because if you know how to play the song you understand its value in the repertoire that must be studied and you’re able to correct your students’ wrong notes, you’re just fine. You shouldn’t do just that, but let’s face it, it happens.
In a middle school there’s a different strategy:
- The songs you studied in the conservatory, even those of the early years, can probably be thrown off the water. They’re too difficult. You have to start with the basic technique on all instruments, as mentioned above.
- To properly teach technique to a kid you have to thoroughly plan the strategies and teaching methods you want to use because:
If you mess up you compel your student (and his future teacher) to lose months or years correcting the mistakes;
If you’ve no plans of what to do lesson per lesson (both short and long term) the risk is that you can bore your students and quash the initial push that every kid has when he begins to study a musical instrument.
And I confess: I am not an expert guru on this last topic. That is, I’ve not yet discovered any really efficient systems to make the study of technique enjoyable. And I’m not a person who believes that technique could just be totally eliminated at the beginning only because it’s boring.
I have no ready-made recipes; I don’t know how to do it. Every time I try, I settle as I go along; sometimes I fail and then try to fix it. When I find the perfect system, I’ll write a book and you’ll be forced to buy it.
Encouraged, searched, taken care of and frightened at the same time (because it tends to fade, damn it!) by every musical instrument teacher.
The fact is that motivation for an 11-year-old kid who begins studying a musical instrument is VOLATILE, more volatile than that of a 14-15-year-old boy.
For example, what makes you think that an 11-year-old kid who starts studying drums will still be interested when he’s 12? Would it be possible that he’ll be interested in playing the trumpet instead? And then, at 13, guitar? It is entirely plausible, natural and, in many respects, perhaps even healthy. But the Italian public middle school system (as indeed that of the high school) does not assume you can change instrument (unlike if you were studying privately).
So you, as a teacher, will always have to learn how to work with some students (I hope for you just a few) with little motivation regardless of your effort. There is nothing you can do. And working with these kinds of students is not easy.
In high school the same thing happens, but, in my experience, it happens more rarely. That greatly simplifies your work.
LONG LIVE THE MIDDLE SCHOOL TEACHERS!
For these reasons I say long live the middle school teachers! They do a difficult and important job, probably more difficult and important than our job in the high school.
Luckily, you can always count on your students who, every day, regardless of their age, make you remember that you’re doing the best job in the world. And it’s only thanks to them.
So, if you’ve had teaching experience with both age groups of students I talked about in this article and you have something to say, leave a comment.