Thursday, January 8, 2009

Trumpet Lessons

Seve started Middle school this fall, and with that came the opportunity for him to take band. He decided that he wanted to play the trumpet this year. I bought him a trumpet on Ebay and was excited to see him start to learn to play. He tried playing it a lot the first week or so, but was not doing well with it. He came home from school somewhere around the 4th or 5th week of school and said he wanted to quit band. He said he hated the band teacher and wanted out. All sorts of thoughts entered my mind.

I admit that the fact that I had bought the trumpet, and I wanted to get my money's worth out of it was one of the first things I thought of. A second thought, was that he hadn't been playing long enough to decide yet, and the last and best thought I had, was thinking about using this as an opportunity to teach problem-solving. I decided to teach my son how to brainstorm this problem. My hope was that he would learn from this and have a strategy for future issues. He has a history of getting mad and throwing in the towel. It came to me that this would be a good opportunity to help him with that.

I told Seve that we were going to try to solve this problem, and if we weren't able to, he could quit. I told him that quitting is okay after you've truly done your best to figure out the problem. He agreed with me. I think he was sure we wouldn't be able to solve it and he would get out of band. I was ready and prepared to keep my end of the deal on this.

First, I asked him to define the exact problem he was having. We established that he was a bad player and the teacher wanted him to change instruments. I then asked him what he thought about that. He said that he wanted to play that instrument, but agreed with the instructor that he was not a good player.

I told Seve I needed to talk with the teacher so that his teacher knew we were working on this issue. I talked to the teacher, who had no idea how upset he had made Seve. I was very nice, yet let him know that Seve was sensitive to the information he gave him, and that we were prepared to work on his trumpet playing. (Sometimes teachers forget about student's feelings. I think in particular, teachers forget boys have feelings.)

The teacher mentioned Seve switching instruments. His concern was that if a kid isn't picking up how to play an instrument by that point in the year, that to keep them from dropping band, he suggests switching to a new instrument. I agreed with him, but felt that we really hadn't tried enough to justify quitting just yet. I asked him if we could try some things first. He was very nice and suggested I try a few private lessons. He gave me the name of someone he knew. This ended up being a great lead.

After talking with the teacher, I asked Seve to sit with me while we figured out the game plan. I asked him what we could do to solve the problem of him not playing the trumpet well. He said he needed to practice more. I said yes, but how can we make the practices be more fruitful. I played the trumpet when I was a middle school student, so I knew the basics of that instrument and offered to help him. I mentioned that we could try me playing a note, and then hand it to him to try to play it. I also said that we might try a private lesson or two. Maybe a professional trumpet player could tell him what he was doing wrong. This discussion went well.

We made an appointment for a private lesson. A few days later we met Kent. What a gem. He is working on a doctorate in music at ASU and proved to be a fantastic teacher. He was so nice to Seve and recognized anything and everything that Seve did well. I had a private discussion with Kent prior to the lesson and shared my ideas and what I wanted from the lesson. I think this helped set the tone for Seve's lessons, but honestly Kent is so nice, he probably would have been the same regardless. He never criticized Seve, and made him feel very comfortable trying.

He quickly noticed that there were two problems with the trumpet. One of the valves was not screwed in right, and the felt was missing on one of the valves. This made the trumpet very difficult to play. He fixed it on the spot, and Seve was instantly able to make a note that sounded much better. We ended up working once a week with Kent for the next few months.

Seve's trumpet playing has actually gotten to be quite good. He and I have never discussed quitting band again. He is not the best player, but he is holding his own now. It was priceless to see his playing develop and his self-esteem improve.

The biggest thing, of course, is that he also has had practice in problem-solving. I knew Seve would like band if he could get over this hurdle of not being able to play his instrument, which is another reason I wanted him to stick it out for awhile. He now sees that sometimes we aren't really good at something right off the bat. Sometimes it takes some practice. Quitting is okay if you gave it your best. The key is to be able to really create a plan that should move you to where you want to be and to truly put the effort into it. Some people say they "tried" when they really didn't. It feels really good to "try" and see that it works. On the other hand, if "really trying" doesn't work, it's healthy to quit.


  1. I think you have hit on an issue that is larger than just a young man in middle school. We, as a society, seem to demand instant gratification and instant success. I seems as if we are programmed to desire immediate satisfaction.

    I think you are a very ATYPICAL parent and I stand and applaud your decision to work your son through the problem solving aspect instead of just allowing your child to take the easy avenue.

    I see this all the time and I can understand the frustration of educators who have to deal with parents who think that "Little Chucky" can do NO WRONG and it's always the fault of the teacher or the coach, etc.

    Good for you Janet, maybe there is hope for our society.

  2. Thanks for the encouragement, Bob. I agree with you as an educator. Kids need to learn how to work through things, but the adults need to know how to teach the skill. Simply saying "You can't quit band" doesn't dig deep enough and break the issue down into manageable steps. I appreciate your comments.