What to Do When It’s Not Working

As a teacher and musician, one of my beliefs is that there should be a balance between developing technique and finding joy in playing. I had a recent experience in which my teaching failed to align with this philosophy, necessitating a change in my current trajectory with a student. Upon this realization, I knew it was important to realign my teaching practice with my teaching values.

I have a young trumpet student, we’ll call her Zoe, who has been struggling to make improvements in her playing. Despite my efforts to push, encourage, and support her, she wasn’t playing the materials I was assigning very well. Zoe would get through the etudes I’d give her, but was clearly struggling to do so. I also had her working on a handful of scales, some going more poorly than others. The story I was telling myself was, “Hey, the trumpet is hard. Sometimes we have to struggle through stuff and keep pushing to develop.” My wife, a former music teacher, had been overhearing Zoe’s last few lessons and commented, “Zoe doesn’t sound interested in what you’re having her play. You should try assigning her fewer scales and find more interesting music for her.” Being the proud teacher that I am, I chaffed at my wife’s comment at first, but knew she was right.

I had been continually pushing etudes on Zoe that were at the edge of her upper range, spending too much time on scales that weren’t getting better, and generally focusing too much on trying to improve technique. I realized the materials I was assigning were leading to more frustration than results and that I wasn’t providing her with an opportunity to really enjoy the process of learning trumpet. My wife pointed out that the approach I was taking with Zoe was in conflict with my personal philosophy on teaching – that it’s the teacher’s obligation to be adaptable and meet the student where they’re at, helping each student find success on their own terms. It became clear that I needed to make some changes with Zoe. I began by assigning fewer scales and making sure the etudes I gave her were within her range and abilities as a trumpeter. I also let her have input on what she would like to play. She expressed interest in working on jazz, so we’ve begun working on the jazz style and improvisation.

Instead of continually pushing Zoe through material that was just at the edge of her abilities or slightly out of reach, what I needed to do was provide her with a chance to really feel successful and enjoy the process of learning trumpet. In this instance, that meant pulling back a bit on technical demands and incorporating music that she showed personal interest in. Finding the balance between technique and enjoyment is going to look different for each student. Some students will find enjoyment in exercises and technical routines while others find it in familiar melodic material. Whatever the preference, the teacher should be searching for materials that aid the student in their personal growth and individualized success.

Zoe and I have been on this new path for about a month now. She’s showing more interest and is progressing through material at a quicker rate than she was previously. It’s been a good reminder that each student’s progress is a collaborative effort between student and teacher, and that self-reflection and flexibility are always of importance. 

Oftentimes teachers have to look outside the box to meet students’ needs. Here are a few resources I like to use with students when looking for alternatives to standard methods and repertoire: 

20 Lyrical Etudes for the Developing Trumpeter – I wrote this book specifically to provide my students with engaging melodic material which doesn’t push the upper-register of the trumpet.

Musicnotes.com and sheetmusicplus.com – These sites are great resources for finding arrangements of popular music.