Let Your Experience Be Their Guide: When Students Consider Quitting Music

Mike Lawson • • February 8, 2019

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When my wife and I leave the mall I impatiently hit the parking lot blazing ahead, but headed off in the wrong direction from where we parked. My wife likes to say, “You’d be a great leader if you knew where you were going!”

She’s right: meaningful leadership comes from perspective. When students express a desire to quit band, choir, or orchestra, our experience can bring valuable perspective.

Wanting to Quit, Wanting a Stradivarius

I still remember going to “Instrument Pick-up Night” with my mom in 4th grade. Like Winthrop Paroo from The Music Man, I was mesmerized by the shiny, brass awesomeness of my new trumpet. Setting eyes on the horn—wrapped reverently in plastic on a bed of plush, brown velour in the case—I couldn’t have been more excited!

After a few weeks, however, I slumped into minimal efforts for the next few years. By the end of 6th grade—seeing that I had become one of the worst players in the trumpet section—I was ready to move on and asked my mother about quitting band.

Quitting wasn’t something one did in my family…not with my mother. If my brothers or I began some endeavor, it was understood we would see it through. I’m not sure how she conveyed that to us—probably just a look—but she did. Nonetheless, I had finished 6th grade and felt that my music career needed to give way to something new.

Surprisingly, mom took the news in stride, making a shrewd counter-offer: take private lessons during summer and see how I felt about quitting in the fall. She secured lessons with an area teacher—Mr. Downs. On nice summer days I could walk, trumpet in hand, to his house for lessons. Don Downs was the right teacher at the right time. I loved hearing his beautiful tone when he played, and—like my mother—he had the right mixture of expectations and understanding.

The lessons paid off. I returned excitedly to band in 7th grade and was placed at the top of the section! I never looked back. I continued lessons with Mr. Downs, saved money from my paper route to buy a silver Bach Stradivarius trumpet, and have played in or led school bands ever since. In retrospect, I’m thankful for my mother’s wisdom and perspective—she saw the big picture and was willing to lead me through what turned out to be a major life decision.

Wanting to Quit, Wanting to Teach

My wife and I were faced with a similar dilemma with our daughter. Abby was a decent middle school flutist, but wanted to quit in high school. We persuaded Abby to give band a try just for the fall of freshman year so she could see first-hand what it was all about. We promised she could choose whether or not to continue after marching season—with no judgement.

As it turned out, Abby loved band! She loved her flute section buddies, away game bus rides, going out for pizza after night games, and even cried when marching season was over. In the years that followed, Abby made district and regional band, became drum major and band president, then majored in music in college. Today she is an elementary classroom music teacher… and she’s glad we didn’t just let her quit band after middle school.

The Special Gift

In eighth grade, my mother had a silver trumpet tie tack custom made for me as a Christmas gift. I’ve worn it at most concerts I’ve played or conducted since then. Each time I pin it on I am reminded of an even more special gift—my mother’s encouragement.

The days of telling children what’s best are giving way to a more student-centered educational environment in which we’re charged with helping students make good decisions for themselves.

In doing so, I encourage you to embrace the wisdom and perspective that your experience has given you. Like my mother, and Mr. Downs, seek to employ the right balance of expectation and understanding, and don’t be afraid to share—with confidence and deference—your perspective in order to help students in what may be life-altering ways.

Scott Watson has taught instrumental and elective music for 30 years in the Parkland School District (Allentown, PA) and is an award-winning and frequently commissioned composer. Many of Watson’s published works have been named J.W. Pepper Editor’s Choice and appear on various state lists; he is a contributor to Alfred Music’s Sound Innovations: Ensemble Development series (alfred.com/SIExperience). Watson has presented numerous professional development sessions/workshops for music educators and frequently serves as an honor band guest conductor. To learn more, visit www.scottwatsonmusic.com.

Sound Innovations: Ensemble Development is a complete curriculum to help beginning through advanced band students grow as ensemble musicians. It thoroughly complements and supplements performance music, breaking down each ensemble concept and preparing students to be ready for any scenario in their repertoire. Learn more at alfred.com/SIExperience.

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