21 Reasons why adults QUIT their music lessons – and what to do about it [Text Version]

This is a text version of the video of the same name.

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As traditional music teachers we can often find ourselves teaching children and young people AND teaching adults. Sometimes we try to teach all of our learners in the same way – maybe just at different speeds. But teaching children/young people and teaching adults are completely different propositions. In fact, there are two different terms that highlight this distinction: pedagogy refers to the method and practice of teaching children, while andragogy refers to the method and practice of teaching adults.

Of course learners of any age, and at any stage of their learning journey, experience many of the same challenges. Just like children and young people, adult learners can go through periods where they become disenchanted with their music-making, their lessons, and their progress (of lack thereof) and consider giving up. Even worse, they sometimes decide to give up, and don’t even tell you! 

Have you had that experience as a teacher? Where a student simply makes the decision to stop coming to lessons, and that’s it – you never see them, or hear from then again? It’s disheartening isn’t it? And frustrating? You feel bad and disappointed for them. You are annoyed that you weren’t alert to (or alerted to) the fact that this was bubbling away beneath the surface. And then, of course, imposter syndrome rears its head … ‘maybe I’m no good at teaching’, ‘it must be me, not them’, ‘maybe I should give up.’ It’s not a good place to be in, right?

So, why do adults decide to suddenly stop their lessons with you? Why can retention – i.e. retaining or holding on to students – be a challenge? 

In this blog we will identify 21 possible reasons why this happens. AND consider some possible actions that you, the teacher, can take to prevent it. 

Possible reasonPossible solution
#1   The time of the lesson no longer works for the student. Adults have all kinds of demands on their time, as we well know, and their circumstances change all the time. Maybe the issue is a simple, practical one – the time you have allocated for their lesson no longer suits. Can you offer an alternative time slot? Can you switch their time with that of another student? 
#2  The student is not clear about what they are signing up for.When I speak with adult learners who have dropped out of lessons, one of the common phrases I hear is this: “I thought it would be [insert whatever your student is likely to say]… and then it wasn’t.” It’s really important that we are 100% clear on what it is that we are offering our students. And then, that we deliver on it. Some adults will prefer face to face learning opportunities, but others will happily – and indeed, choose to – learn online. Whatever your offering is, do make sure that your students are clear about what it is, and are happy with it. You don’t want someone signing up to your online lessons and then immediately lamenting about being on zoom instead of in-person. This does happen (trust me!) – and it will almost certainly lead to dropout in the near future. So make sure you are very clear about what your teaching offering is before a student signs up. Once a student does sign up to your lessons, it is very important that you make all of the information about how your teaching practice operates available to them. You can do this by creating a policy document. This is an invaluable exercise and well worth the time. As well as making the practicalities of your teaching offering very clear, something else that is really valuable for prospective students is getting an insight into who you are as a teacher – what motivates you, what aspirations do you have for your students, and so on. All of this you can capture in a carefully crafted teaching philosophy.  

You can learn more about writing your teaching philosophy and creating a policy document in our course, A Framework for Teaching & Learning Irish Traditional Music.  
#3 The student has come with unrealistic expectations.  Increasingly in the marketing spiels I am reading about online traditional music lessons in particular, a big part of the ‘sell’ is around the speed at which you will progress from ‘complete beginner’ to ‘mastery’ of the instrument. 12 lessons, if you believe all that you read! Now you and I both know (although, please do correct me if I’m wrong) that there is not a snowballs chance in hell that you will be a ‘master’ of traditional music in a few weeks. But, if this is the perception out there, as teachers we are now going to have to really spell that out for our students. If they believe that this is possible, and they come expecting that 3 months from they will have mastered trad, then we have a big challenge on our hands. We need to explain that this is not a fast-track process, but rather a long-term commitment.  Now, of course, you can big up what they can expect to achieve in 12 weeks (which can be loads, and impressive, for the learning curve at the start is always easily visible). But be realistic. 
#4 The level of input and effort required from the student is not made clear from the start.Unfortunately, when it comes to learning music, the teacher can’t do it all. That really is the bottom line. Yes, the instruction and supports need to be of a high quality and well delivered. But after this, it’s really down to the individual student and the time and effort they are prepared (and able) to give to this. With adults it is easy to explain that their lesson with us is only a small part of the learning – it’s how this is continued at home where the real work is done.  And, of course, don’t assume that your students (children or adults) actually know how to practice! Take time in your lessons to help your adult learners to plan out a practice routine that suits their schedule – and check in with them often to see how it is going for them.
#5 The teaching environment includes children/young people and adults together.  Teaching children and teaching adults are two completely different things – and require different approaches, methods, tools, resources and so on. So trying to teach both cohorts in the same room at the same time … it’s often not going to have a happy ending. Plus there are likely all kinds of safeguarding issues that arise if a class includes a mixed group like this. Can you re-arrange your lessons to separate these learners into different groups as appropriate? Even if it results in a shorter class time, the quality of teaching and learning will more than make up for it. Think about it!
#6 The student would love a change.  Some students will seek out one to one lessons while others, looking for the social element that Irish music can offer, will prefer a group class option. Again, it’s so important to be very clear about which type (or types) of lessons you offer. And that you are the right fit for your students.  Do check in regularly on how your students are enjoying things – after a while the might start to feel bored and ready for a change. They might fancy a move from a one to one class to a group class, for example. Or they might feel that they would benefit from some individual time with you for a few weeks. If you are able to accommodate these shifts, do make sure that your students are aware of all of the possibilities. Stay alert to the mood, notice any restlessness or complacency – and never be afraid to shake things up. It will keep them interested, and coming back for more.  
#7 The teacher doesn’t solicit meaningful feedback on a regular basis.If we have ever been taken by surprise when a student stops showing up for their lessons it might be a sign that we weren’t staying alert to what was really going on for some time. Often as teachers we can assume that everything is going well;  as long as the student shows up to class, the tune has been practiced, or the technique has been sharpened up, we are happy to take that as a sign that all is grand. But seeking out real feedback from our students can be a really valuable exercise. And yes, I get that asking for feedback can be something that makes us feel quite vulnerable as teachers. However, we must understand that feedback is our friend! It is not about inviting criticism, but rather getting some honest insights into how our teaching is landing with our students.  What are doing well? What are we not doing so well? What might we do to help our students more? Get these insights straight from the students can make a world of difference. And it’s a great way to futureproof our teaching, and to actively and intentionally consider student retention. There are, of course, all kinds of ways to build feedback into our teaching practice. If this is not something that you are yet comfortable with, why not commit to developing this skill as part of your CPD.  So, in order to futureproof our teaching, and to actively and intentionally consider student retention, this might be an area we commit to developing as part of our own CPD.  You can learn more about giving and receiving feedback in our course, A Framework for Teaching & Learning Irish Traditional Music.  
#8 The teacher and student no longer tap into the motivating force behind them choosing music lessons in the first place?  This is such an important question when it comes to adult learners – why do they want to do take music lessons in the first place? Maybe it’s something they missed out on a child and now have the time/resources to do so. Maybe they are returning to lessons after many years. Maybe they just want to explore something new, and are trying it out as a potential new hobby. Maybe they have friends who are taking lessons and loving it  – and they want to see what all the fuss is about. Or they might have children or grandchildren taking lessons and they want to be able to join in with them. Maybe they have just been to a concert or session and been inspired to try this music out for themselves. Whatever the reason, part of your job is to help them tap into this on a regular basis – to remind them WHY they decided to pursue music lessons in the first place. Then, if there is a blip along the way, it may not mean the end of the road; instead they are reminded of the bigger picture and can reset and refocus once again.
#9 The student does not understand the bigger picture – the lifelong learning journey of the traditional musician. Adult learners often want to get a clear picture about what it is they are signing up to, and what all the steps along the way will be. And often they want you to be able to explain this to them – before they ever play a note of music. Being able to articulate what the lifelong learning journey of the traditional musician looks like can be really helpful. The TradLABB model can help you with this, mapping out that journey, and helping your learners situate themselves within it.   
#10 The student has not set goals. Helping your adult learner to understand the bigger picture – that’s a great start. But looking at the whole roadmap of the journey of becoming a traditional musician – that can feel a little daunting. So being able to identify key milestones – and help your student set goals to help them progress towards reaching those milestones – this is vital.  Setting smaller goals is a great way to help keep your adult learners focused and on track. Setting goals is also a great way for them to notice – and to celebrate – progress. And, with adult learners, the most important thing is that these are their goals; they set them, they own them. Yes, you are on hand to keep things realistic, to manage expectations, and to shape the programme of learning that will support the student in achieving their goals. But the detail of that goal – well, that’s up to them.  Often we associate goal setting with the beginning of a year or term. If you think that a student is starting to drift it can be really helpful to bring this goal-setting exercise forward into the end of term lesson  instead – help them to leave excited about what’s ahead for them and, importantly, leave them looking forward to coming back. 

You can learn more about setting goals  in our course, A Framework for Teaching & Learning Irish Traditional Music.  
#11 The student does not see – or know how to measure – progress (and feels like no progress is being made) We know that when you start learning music there is a sharp learning curve – and then, once you have a handle on the basics, any progress becomes a lot less visible for a while. Think about it. You learn how to hold the instrument, make a sound of it, learn what the notes are and how to play these in a certain order – your first tune! And then you keep learning more tunes. And you might start adding in ornaments, or variations. But that first flush of big progress has passed. And it’s easy to think that you have slowed down or stalled. Assuming that the student is getting a well-rounded insight into traditional music, it’s fairly certain that progress is still being made. But it is, naturally, less visible. Because now you are going deeper into the music. So it’s important that as teachers, that we can articulate and explain, exactly what this progress is and WHY each of these micro-learnings is important. And it’s also important that we can help our adult learners to understand and notice too where this learning is happening – and how important this deep dive into the music in. Once they know that what they are doing counts (and, often with adult learners, that it can be quantified and explained) then they get it – and are delighted with all of their new discoveries about what goes on inside the tune as well! And make sure to finish each term with a revision of progress made – as well as playing, be sure to discuss. And to celebrate!! 
#12 The student feels stuck Every teacher needs a toolkit that is loaded up with skills, strategies and secret weapons that you can draw upon at the drop of a hat to redirect or salvage any situation. Having a few quick win options at the ready is always a good idea to keep the energy and motivation going when your students start to feel stuck. This is as important for your adults as much as with teenage students! A quick win is something that will make your student have an a-ha moment or feel a sense of achievement without requiring too much time or effort. Putting a few tunes together in a set (and discussing why these go together in a set) for example can be a great quick win – particularly if you teach tunes individually and not grouped together. Students love that moment where it clicks that all these tunes they have learned can be organised in this way!    
#13 The teaching is not fully geared towards adult learnersLike myself, many traditional music teachers who teach adults also teach children and young people. Sometimes we might have the whole lot in the same class or workshop (that is definitely a rant for another day!). And, of course, it’s easy to rely on the same teaching methods, strategies and resources for all of our students. But let’s think about that. The needs, expectations, attitudes, abilities of adult learners are completely different than those of your young kids or teenage students. How to relate to them, engage them, inspire them – it simply needs to be different. So maybe that’s the issue if you are teaching one adult class after you have just taught 2 or 3 kids’ groups; you haven’t made the switch. Or maybe you have never considered this before and are now excited to reflect on what your adults might need that you may not have been giving them.  
#14 The lessons are all tune-led Adult learners love to ask questions. They are curious and interested and often feel that they will be able to ‘do’ better (i.e. play better) if they ‘know’ more (i.e. have all the facts explained to them). There is no rule that says we must get through a new tune, or even half a tune in every class. Learning music involves a lot more than learning one tune after another. So allowing for this variety and diversity in your lesson planning – and baking in time to allow for questions and discovery – might be the change that will make the difference! Your adult learners will thrive if they feel their questions are not annoying the teacher, but are rather being encouraged and welcomed.    
#15 The lessons are all teacher-ledSome adults are happy enough to be in a learning environment where the teacher, as per their role and based on their knowledge and experience, leads the class and the student sits and gratefully accepts all of this. Some, however, are less comfortable about taking a passive role as the student. As the teacher, are you comfortable with and confident in adopting a more student-centred or even student-led approach? And, if not, then maybe exploring some of the alternative ways of working within the traditional music class might become part of your own personal CPD plan. Remember, it’s about them, it’s not about us. Our job as teachers is to help them to become the musicians that they want to be.  
#16 The students are too busyThe bottom line is that adults are busy creatures – even, it appears, in retirement! And, if we want to retain our adult learners, then we have to be mindful of this – and consider how flexible we are willing and able to be to accommodate their schedules. Now I’m definitely not saying that you make yourself available 24/7 to keep your students happy; but I do wonder can you be more creative in how you bundle up and schedule your own lessons. For example, while we are likely to build our programme for learning based on weekly lessons, is it possible to construct a different model? Might you consider scheduling lessons once every two weeks, or once a month, if the weekly commitment is simply not possible? Yes, this may not be your ideal, and you may be concerned that your students won’t make progress at the pace you would like. But, with a carefully planned out programme for at-home practice and well signposted resources to support this, many adult learners will be well able to continue their learning between lessons with you – and might appreciate (and indeed benefit from) the longer time in between.
#17  The student has health issues and can’t play for a whole class.Some adult learners might present with some existing health issues that may affect their ability to play for long periods of time. This is a really good moment to approach teaching and learning in a holistic way and to plan lessons that integrate all of the other elements that are essential in creating a well-rounded traditional musician. Things like listening skills, music literacy, theory, instrument maintenance and so on. The TradLABB™ cards are the ideal tool for designing and planning your lessons. 
#18 The student can’t afford the lessons Like all of us music students have to factor in the cost of music lessons – and sometimes adults might find it hard to justify the expense on something for themselves. Do not – and I repeat do not – panic if a few students leave and start lowering your prices, thinking that that might be to blame. Do though find ways to articulate the value for money you are offering … and remind them that they are worth it!
#19 The student has decided that this is not for them: the short-term student There are two scenarios here – the short-term student and the longer term student. Let’s look at scenario one first of all. The student has signed up, tried it for a short time (a few weeks, months, maybe even a year) and decided that traditional music is just not for them. You’re sad for your student – for you know what they are missing out on. You may have seen their potential and are disappointed that they are not going to realise this. And you may struggle to understand it – you are so passionate about this how can somebody possible not be! But each to their own and all that. So, with your blessing, set them free and off on their merry way to find their joy! If this is something you encounter a lot though, maybe you might consider offering ‘taster’ sessions. Sometimes adults are not sure if this is really for them, and so can sign up and realise – sooner or later – that no, that rock climbing course or hot yoga was actually their calling instead! And that’s fine. But if this is something you find a lot, then maybe consider offering a taster session – a short block of lessons designed as an introduction to all of the possibilities involved in learning traditional music. The thing about this, of course, is that your adult students won’t want to invest in an expensive instrument if they may not pursue this after 4 or 6 weeks. Do you have instruments you might be able to loan out or rent for this short term? Is there funding you might be able to apply for to help you build up a small instrument bank for this purpose? Alternatively, using tin-whistle as a starter instrument is more feasible (and I’m of the school of thought that ALL learners should start on tin-whistle anyway!) – and they can decide over the course of your taster sessions what instrument they might actually like to pursue. And, of course, if they decide not to continue with lessons, there’s no harm done – you have delivered on what you have said you would do and offered them a (hopefully) fun and interesting few weeks; and you are not left disappointed if they decided that’s it for them – and any conversions into your regular lessons then can be considered a bonus!  What, though, if the reason is that they just didn’t click with you? Do take some time to examine your teaching – and is it appropriate for adult learners. Maybe you teach mostly children and just automatically approach your adult lessons in exactly the same way – hence the disconnect! If that’s the reason, that can be easily remedied with some CPD and support around teaching adult learners.  If it’s simply that your personalities didn’t gel – well, you know what, you are never going to be everybody’s cup of tea. And that’s ok. You just need to be ok with it. A big part of teaching music is about relationship building. And sometimes relationships, with the best will in the world, simply don’t work out. Let it go! And move on!
#20 The student has decided that this is not for them: the long-term studentThis one can be the real kicker – if a student you have had, week in week out for years decides to quit (or simply suddenly disappear). We can really take it personally! So let’s unpack this one. The reality is this. We will not be (nor should be) the only teacher ever  in our students’ lives; they are with us for a season, and that season may be short or long, but it will eventually, inevitably come to an end in its present form. And once we accept this – it frees us up now end. This becomes what we want for our students. We should always be a step or two ahead of them, anticipating when this day might come; preparing them for it; and helping them plan their next steps. For we want them to continue with their journey in music for life, right?  We want them to face into their next season, their next stage of learning feeling confident and empowered and delighted with themselves for what they have achieved with us. We don’t want them skulking away, afraid to tell us they are moving on. Instead we want to plan their next steps with them, and watch them fly towards it, knowing we have done our best for them and with them while it was our season. 
#21 No clear guidance is given about what the student should do if they are considering quittingIn your teaching/studio policy (I’m assuming you charge per term and not per lesson – please tell me that you do this!) highlight this matter. For example, Each 6-week term must be paid in full and in advance. No refunds are possible (unless in exceptional circumstances). Something like this might be valuable … I appreciate that at times life can take over and it’s hard to make time for music lessons and at-home practice. And also, that sometimes, it feels like you are putting in all the time and effort and making no progress. I get it! But these are the times that it is super important to keep going, and not to give up. So, if you are feeling unsure about anything to do with your music lessons and are considering taking a break or giving up it’s really important that we talk about this. We will check in regularly on your goals and progress; but if anything comes up for you outside of these focussed chats please do discuss with me. Don’t make such a big decision on your own. I won’t try and change your mind, but maybe help you to remember why you started your lessons in the first place. And, if you notice particular flashpoints where this occurs (for example at the end of term or year) then highlight this issue and keep ahead of it at all times. And, if you are concerned about a particular student, reach out to them and have a conversation, They might well appreciate that! 

So there you go – 21 possible reasons why your adult learners might consider dropping out of their music lessons – and some suggestions to help you get around it, and try to prevent it from happening. 

I hope there are some ideas here that get you thinking about teaching adult learners, and in particular, how to retain those learners for sustained periods. 

If you have any more suggestions, we’d love to hear from you – so let us know in the comments below.

And if you want to build your skill set and add some new ideas to your own teaching toolkit, remember to check out the TradLABB™ Card Deck – and our flagship teacher training course: A Framework for Teaching & Learning Irish Traditional Music.

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  1. This was great – very thought provoking! I like the fact that this was presented as a table. I copied and pasted it into a word document and added a column to the right for my own thoughts and comments.

  2. Thank you! I also copy pasted it into a word doc. I voted for text because that’s quicker to get through.