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He was only a little kid, but boy; he could explode! Short and skinny—even for a twelve-year-old—he looked as quiet as a mouse. That was deceptive: this guy had a reputation for fury. And here he was, screaming at me – telling me that he hated me.
Before I became a full-time musician, I was a youth worker in my home town. It’s a great place to grow up – the kids play out into the evening, and the bakery sells fresh bread every morning. When I started working with local teenagers, I was surprised to find out how many had a sad story to tell.
A lot of these young people were in danger of failing their studies. I lead workshops in a local school for a time, intending to help these kids get back into the classroom again.
As you can imagine, it could sometimes be a rocky experience! I’m a full-time musician now, and like most drummers, my week usually involves some teaching. I work with adults, teens, and some kids too. I love this side of the work.
Today we’re going be talking about teaching young people in particular. If you’re a drum teacher – and you’re giving it your best shot – your students will learn tons from you.
Not just about drumming either—they’ll learn about life. Sure, you might not set out with that goal in mind, but it’s tough to avoid it!
Your students will learn that consistent work pays off and that there are highs and lows to pursuing a long-term goal. They’ll grow in confidence as they overcome challenges and conquer intricate grooves.
Drum students learn to show up on time, bring the tools for the job (drum sticks, music, and so on), and they’ll learn to manage their time so they can practice each day and still have time to blow some brains out on Call of Duty afterward.
I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea. If you’ve been teaching for a while, though, you’ve probably hit on some frustrations. Nothing can be more frustrating than a kid who won’t behave in your lessons.
Maybe they won’t listen, maybe they’re sarcastic, maybe they take their frustrations out on you or (even worse!) your gear. Thankfully it’s not common, but you’ll probably meet one of these little angels at some point! One problem facing drum teachers is that there’s usually a lack of immediate support from other professionals.
Unless you’re in a school setting, you can’t just send someone to the principle’s office or something. You might be tempted to stop teaching your difficult student altogether, and that would be fair enough. But remember: you can do great things for a young person through your work as a drum teacher (and to be brutally honest, it’s probably worth at least trying to keep hold of the income too).
Here are some tips to keep lessons as clear, fun, and as stress-free as possible. They may also help you to deal with bad behavior when it comes up, too.
1) Set ground rules early
This one is foundational. If you don’t make your ground rules clear on day one, it’s harder to enforce them when you need to.
After your first lesson with a younger student, consider giving their responsible adult a brief letter. Explain how you’d like to be paid, your cancellation policy, some tips for practicing, and so on.
Also, include a brief but precise sentence or two explaining that students are expected to behave as they would in a school setting. Explain that a lesson may be terminated in the event of poor behavior and that refunds won’t be given in this case.
Drum lessons are meant to be fun and relaxed, of course, but having the above clause in writing can be a real lifesaver if things turn south. If you didn’t explain your ground rules at the start, all is not lost! It just makes life much easier if you do.
Remember: As long as you’re being reasonable and doing all you can to make drumming fun, then be confident and make sure people respect your boundaries.
2) Don’t be afraid to insist on good behavior, even if it seems petty
If you’re working with a young person who often misbehaves, you may need to make your boundaries a little firmer. Getting things off on the right foot can help.
For example, there’s a light switch in my teaching studio. I have a rule that I flick that switch on, not the student. Maybe that sounds lame, but I used to teach a student or two who – in their excitement – would push past me, flick the light on, jump on the kit and start hitting things before I’d even said: “Hi!”
By that point, you’re already fighting against the tide. Insist on the basics: make sure they listen while you talk, and that they wait until you’re finished before speaking or drumming.
Don’t talk over them – make sure they’re quiet and paying attention before you begin. When they’re behaving well, you can relax on those details just a little.
3) Don’t take bad behavior personally
As a youth worker, I learned something important: if a student misbehaves for you, they probably misbehave for everyone. It can be helpful to know that it’s not just you.
You’re probably working with someone that a lot of people would find a bit tricky. Don’t let it get to you – staying calm will help you to turn things around.
4) Don’t lose control of your feelings or your actions
This tip follows up from point three, and it’s essential when things get thorny. Consider yourself a special forces soldier: emotion doesn’t come into play when dealing with negative behavior.
If you get mad or become flustered, you won’t think clearly. It’s natural to feel a bit irritated if someone is behaving poorly in your lesson, but be sure that your actions are logical and follow a clear and consistent set of boundaries.
Don’t battle with anyone. It’s as easy as thinking: “If a student behaves like ‘x’, ‘y’ will happen – and I won’t be worried if it does.” (See point nine for more on this.)
5) Don’t be afraid to be firm
Drumming is meant to be fun, but the fun starts with respect (see point ten). Most young people already know this, whether they behave like it or not. Don’t be nervous about being a little bit direct if you need to be.
Shouting rarely helps (and it’s not appropriate in a one-to-one drum lesson), but it’s okay to be firm. Have confidence in yourself and your boundaries.
6) Do ask yourself some questions
If you’ve had a couple of tough lessons, take time to reflect:
- Do you have a clear, understandable objective in each of your lessons?
- Are you explaining yourself clearly?
- Are you making your lessons fun and engaging?
Make sure you get enough sleep, be organized, and eat well on workdays. Find ways to make your thoughts clear and to give yourself more energy and patience.
It’s not your fault if someone misbehaves, but it’s empowering to know that the situation is in your hands. Adapting your approach can lead to significant improvements in student engagement.
7) Do give praise often, when it’s due
If you’re dealing with someone who misbehaves often, then find ways to give praise often. Simple things work well, for example: “You listened great there, well done!” or “Well done for giving that groove your best shot, great effort!”
A student needs to know that their good behavior and genuine efforts will be noticed and appreciated. Many kids who misbehave feel as though they’re always getting told off by some grumpy adult.
Boost their confidence, make them comfortable and happy. You’ll find it can do wonders.
8) Do ask questions at the right time
If your student is struggling to settle, there might be a reason. Wait until they calm down, then ask some questions:
- “Do you find what we’re doing fun?”
- “Do you find this groove extra hard?”
- “Is there something you’d love to learn about?”
- “Have you had a tough/tiring day today?”
The question will depend on the situation, but you might learn something which makes sense of their behavior.
Your student may have had a rough day, or they might find the new groove you’re teaching them confusing. If they seem hesitant to answer, you can move on – no need to dwell on it – but if they sense that you’re interested in them, it’ll make them more likely to respond well to you.
9) Do ask their parent/guardian for feedback
Anyone who’s legally a minor should be accompanied to and from their lesson by a responsible adult. If nothing else, this gives you a chance to form good relationships with them. If behavioral issues come up, let them know and ask if you can do anything differently to help their child to learn.
The responsible adult will probably back you up almost immediately or give you some context to the behavior, making it easier to understand.
Always listen to constructive criticism, but if you feel unsupported, you might choose to stop teaching the student – everyone must be pulling in the same direction.
10) Do calmly enforce consequences if needed
Decide some consequences for poor behavior in advance. Generally, you won’t need many, but you can tell your student either:
- “This behavior isn’t good. If it carries on, we’ll have to talk about it with your parent after the lesson.” or you can say
- “If this behavior happens again, we’ll stop the lesson there. You can head home, think about things a bit, and come back again next week.”
I’ve only had to say this twice (in eight years of teaching), and there’s never been a problem afterward.
11) Do put behavior first and put fun second
It’s effortless to feel pressured into being the ‘cool, fun’ drum teacher. Kids come to lessons, and they’ll probably idolize you slightly for being so good at something so awesome.
It’s easy to want to hold onto that image and to concede a lot of ground to a misbehaving student in the name of protecting your fun persona.
But remember: Respect and kindness are at the forefront of a teacher/student relationship. You respect them wholeheartedly and ask to be treated in kind.
Most students behave well, so the fun can start straight away, but don’t be afraid to be a little more serious for a while if needed. Gently insist on positive behavior, and make sure you’re seeing it before you get back into fun mode.
12) Make friends quickly
Always seek to move towards a good outcome, and make friends with your tricky student quickly, if possible. Compliment them, be warm, smile – show them you like them as a person.
Ultimately you want to show them that you won’t accept their negative behavior, but you will accept them. Show your student that lessons are more fun when they’re behaving well.
If you use good judgment and follow some of the steps above, you should start to see your student coming around within a few lessons. I’ve seen some of my most challenging students become some of my favorites, and it’s so rewarding when that happens.
It can be a great way to grow as a teacher, too, so try not to give up on them unless it is really ruining your week – in which case, don’t feel bad if you need to stop teaching them. In the meantime, though, let me encourage you. Be happy, be confident, and don’t give up just yet. Go win that student over!
About the Author
Chris Witherall is a pro drummer, producer and songwriter from London, England. He loves talking about music, and helping people to reach their music goals.