By: Jones Willingham
It’s common practice for students to jump into lessons at the beginning of the calendar year in January or the school year in the fall; whether it’s a return from school break, or the thrill of completing a newfound goal to learn an instrument, this time of year is a lot of fun for us at Mason Music as we get to meet more new students and bring our love for music to folks young and old.
After 10 years of offering music lessons to the Birmingham community, we’ve found that 90 days is typically the make-or-break point for new students in the lesson room. After 90 days, students are either likely to stick it out and continue charting their musical path or give in to the obstacles of learning a new instrument. Playing music and learning a new instrument for the first time can be difficult, no matter how old you are or what skills you walk in with! Because we see that inflection point at 90 days, we’ve assembled a few helpful tips from our community of teachers, parents, and even long-time students, that’ll help you stick with lessons for the long haul.
1. Celebrate Early Wins in the Lesson Room
When you’re doing anything new for the first time, you should always celebrate the steps that you take, no matter the size. If you’re learning how to cook, for instance, you have to learn the difference between a variety of pots, pans, and utensils before you can even turn the oven on. We encourage you to let that carry over into your musical journey as well, no matter what instrument you’re playing. Our CEO Will Mason started this company as a teacher, and his remaining students have been with him for over five years. He emphasized that those little wins are fuel for bigger things down the road; reflecting on one of his first students, Will told me that “The most exciting thing that happened early on was when my student played ‘Smoke on the Water’ on one string. Looking back now, it felt like such a small and easy achievement, but considering that my student had walked in with zero experience, it was a big victory. It was my job as a teacher to create some early wins in the lesson room to build momentum on the path to success.”
No matter what the achievement is, these early wins help motivate students internally rather than applying external pressure to practice and stay on top of lessons in a more structured way. Sarah Green Gunderson, a long-time teacher at Mason Music in guitar, voice, and piano, reflected on the importance of self-motivation with her own students: “As soon as it gets hard, they have to make that choice — do I push through to the other side, or quit? Being able to look back at the times of success makes it easier to make the choice to keep going.” Keeping it fun in the lesson room by genuinely celebrating the little things is a surefire way to stay motivated and continue to progress in your musical journey — so the next time your child comes home playing “Smoke on the Water” or grasps the four-on-the-floor beat on the drums, throw a mini-party with them and give them that dose of encouragement.
2. Practice Is Important, So Map It Out
“Practice creates confidence. Confidence empowers you.” – Simone Biles
I would argue that it’s impossible to move forward in music without practicing — it’s the backbone of progress that helps you conquer each little victory in the lesson room that we began to celebrate in the paragraphs above. With that being said, practicing can sometimes get difficult for a number of reasons! Schedules get busy, material gets boring, you get tired, and that piano or guitar sits on the shelf. Practice shouldn’t be a chore, and our student Alice Brooks-Lane (with her mother Jessica’s help) has embraced that mentality with her own method of practice. Jessica shared that Alice was always geared towards practicing with her own self-interest, but that “once post-pandemic life resumed and life got crazy again, time started slipping away.” To combat this, Jessica and Alice sit down every weekend and chart out in a planner when good chunks of practice time might exist — they don’t lock it in, say, from 3-4pm on Tuesdays, but instead approach their planner with the mentality of “when do I want to do this?” In Jessica’s own words, “chunking it up” makes it a fun thing to do rather than sitting down with a rote schedule of practice. They found that Saturday mornings in their PJs worked as the best time to incorporate the piano into their schedules, and Jessica shared that the sound of music “was a saving grace during the months of the pandemic where everything was closed;” practice can be a salve for sore ears at times.
However, scheduling it more intentionally might work for your student! A planner is incredibly helpful for this, as is our Rock Records that we stock in each studio. The Rock Record Challenge is a way of gamifying practice time to reward students for good practice habits. Sarah shared with us the Rock Record Challenge (or any method of gamifying practice) goes a long way in helping students get past the physical challenge of learning a new instrument: “For something like learning how to sing, it takes a little bit longer to build stamina and the proper ways to practice, but it’s easier to keep interest in because the barrier to entry is lower. Students already have an idea of singing anyway, so being able to reward yourself after you intentionally work on your talent creates a measurable success and foundation to build upon.” Will shared a similar perspective for guitar students, as “milestones happen when you start to commit to real practice time. At three months of consistent practice, you’ll be past the physical challenges of fret buzz and sore fingers and be at the point of learning basic chords and strumming patterns.” Practice makes perfect, and finding an opportunity to spend time with your instrument is a definite way to get to where you want to go in music.
3. Don’t Be Afraid of the Wall
A common theme that was reflected in every conversation I had for this piece was that the dreaded “wall” comes for every student. Bad days are going to happen, sometimes you won’t practice, and sometimes you just straight-up won’t understand something. You know what I’m talking about — that moment where you want to throw your hands up and learn knitting or something that seems remotely less-challenging than the drums. Or piano. Or guitar. Or accordion (which, we do have one teacher learning right now). It shows up in a number of ways — maybe, you’re just tired of missing the same note over and over again on a piece, or some bit of music theory is really crushing you, or maybe you’re actually exhausted from singing at the top of your lungs.
Well, that wall isn’t your ending point — instead, it’s another foundational piece to jump from to get to somewhere higher. At the end of the day, music is a gift: we all want to be classically-trained musicians, but we all can have fun doing it as well. Sarah gave me an incredible piece of wisdom that she shares with her students on those all-too-familiar “wall days:” “I’m going to meet my students where they’re at no matter what, with no guilt attached to it.” If they’re struggling with theory, Will shared that he’ll start with a song they love first to better understand the theoretical side of things once that obstacle is conquered. Jessica shared that, with Alice, “the fun days” are interspersed with the “wall days” in favor of finding consistency over pushing too hard in the lesson room. Motivation from other family members can be a huge asset in the lesson room, as well; Sarah told me about two pairs of siblings that she teaches, and in both cases, she can count on “one brother helping the other” whenever they hit the wall. Jessica’s house functions in the same way – Alice’s brother George took lessons briefly, and she found that the push that siblings can give each other are often more helpful than what she can impart on her own. The wall doesn’t have to define your experience with lessons — grab motivation from your friends and family, and don’t forget that having fun is a crucial part of the experience in lessons at Mason Music.
With that, I leave you to go Rock On in your lesson room. With our 90 day moment almost upon us, use these tips from our teachers and community to empower you or your child in lessons and bring the gift of music to your life.