(This article appears in our Healthy Playing - Healthy Studio Booklet, which is FREE WITH PURCHASE as resource to string teachers. Limit One Booklet per purchase, while supplies last.)
A sure measure of the health of private lesson studio is the rate of attrition. While some factors that may cause a student to leave a studio or program are completely out of the teacher’s control, such as the habit of American families to relocate to other cities, the savvy teacher can employ smart techniques of goal setting to simultaneously decrease student attrition and increase student success.
Goal setting is a two way street: if a goal is set for the student to reach, it is also set for the teacher to get the student there. The pressure goes both ways!
During my first many years of teaching, I systematically approached each lesson with two types of goals in mind: short-term and medium-term. The short-term goal was to make sure that the student left each lesson excited about having learned or improved at least one thing, and looking forward to coming back next week to learn or refine something else. The medium-term goal was to look ahead a bit further and prepare for the next recital or audition. I used this lesson format quite some time – until I learned the value of adding in, to every lesson, even longer term goals.
About ten years ago I started participating in the American String Teachers Association Certificate Advancement Program (ASTA CAP) program through our New Jersey State ASTA Chapter. The ASTA CAP program is available to any ASTA member’s student, whether from school program or private studio. Participation in this program added, among other things, the very important third type of goal to my lesson planning – the long term goal for a year’s worth of accomplishment, and even the “big picture” long term goals of a ten or eleven year program.
I was, and am, also very careful to explain to the students that the ASTA CAP exam is set up so that if the student is prepared, the student should pass. It is a winnable game. I do caution that I have in fact had a few students fail (usually because of scales!), but that all but one student has gone back for a re-test and ultimately passed. All a student has to do is agree to learn the material that we both agree is reasonable, and that I promise to fully teach months in advance. This is our pact. We go over the sample score sheet together so the rubric is completely understood. I have had a few students who simply object to subjecting themselves to yet another test. My response is that, unless the student is in high school, I really don’t care if they actually take the exam. But it is a requirement in my studio that they prepare for it. Even my adult students, who are too old to qualify to take the exam, prepare for the annual exam. High school students like to take the exam, as they appreciate how the certificate may supplement their college applications.
A typical September planning lesson might result in, say, a fourth grade student agreeing that since he was working at level three last year, that we should look at earning his Level 4 Certificate this year. “OK – let’s see what we need to be sure we learn this year. “We then clearly write in his practice book which scales and etudes we need to learn, and select our pieces. Notice the pronoun: we. Suddenly, the teacher becomes the partner in this project; the coach. We are in this together! A lot of times this goal-setting conversation is the first time a child, or parent, even considers violin as being a multi-year activity, or even considers that, given measured work over a long period of time, a rather high level of violin mastery is actually possible. It can really blow an eight year old’s mind to actually talk about setting goals for when they are high school. I want my students to know I do not expect them to be locked into violin as their unwavering primary passion for 10 or eleven years! But that I will help them achieve their long-term target goal to the very best of my ability. I really like this goal setting conversation, and consider it an extremely important part of setting up our year, and years, working together.
Each lesson then includes a conversation about our progress. A scale warm up can include a mention of our goal: “It’s great you’ve learned the fingerings of that first scale on our list, because today we need to add the slurs we need for the exam.” Or, “If we learn these three lines today, we’ll be on track to have the whole piece covered by Winter Break – as I promised you I would!”
I am not going to lie – as the ASTA CAP level number goes up I do have to hustle to get through all the material, on top of all the other things demanding lesson time attention. But as the students see me doing my part of the bargain to prepare them, I think it becomes clearer to them what they need to do to hold up their end of the deal as well. Once we have gone through every note of the material, almost always before Winter Break, then we circle back and refine polish everything in the remaining months before the exam. For example, looking up how many notes in a bow we need, and the required tempo for scales. I love how it’s the rules, rules that we have already agreed were reasonable, that makes these demands.
Overall, my ASTA CAP story is one of many successes. The program is now integral to my studio, and even gets mentioned on my studio website for all potential new students to consider. The students now have their short term goals of what to learn for the next lesson and recital. They have their annual ASTA CAP level goal. And they have their long term goal of the “Black Belt” ASTA CAP Level 10. And they have bought into the program. The students really have, and so have their parents. They have seen the high-schoolers in my program reach that goal, and they know it is an attainable goal if they just achieve their yearly goals along the way. I am in awe of the work these kids have done, which all starts out with them just committing to doing an “average” amount of work per year. Several have gone on to major in music in college. Others are convinced their ASTA CAP credential indeed helped them get into competitive colleges – and some are enjoying playing for fun in college. Did you know Harvard has a Mariachi Club? Just one quick story from my studio: My student Benjy earned his Level One Certificate in 2008. Six years later, when we were planning out his Level 7 year, I said, “Gosh, I can’t believe it, Level 7 this year already!” Benjy replied that no one was more surprised than he. He said that every September he and his parents would sit down and review his slate of extra-curricular activities, such as soccer, karate, violin, etc. to decide which activities to add, keep or drop. And violin somehow always made the cut. Last year he finally earned his Level 10 Certificate – which was quite the accomplishment for him. He had to put some extra months of practice and re-test his Mozart Concerto and his scales, but he was very proud that he finally accomplished his long-term goal that he had set for himself nine years earlier.
When I first adopted ASTA CAP into my studio, I had no idea how big an impact it would have. I had simply been looking for a nice way of recognizing student achievement, and thought I had hit the jackpot when I found a system already in place by an esteemed national organization. But there have been long-term effects in both my studio and my teaching. I predicted that the top students in my students would like the program – and they did! They ate it up, and were eager to learn both the required materials and what they would need to do to earn an “Honors” designation. But I found I didn’t really need ASTA CAP for my top students, even though they were glad to do it. The top students are already self-motivated and are dictated repertoire and scales through the competitive youth orchestra systems, such as Region and All-State competitions. The biggest impact ASTA CAP has had in my studio has definitely been with the “average” and “challenging” students. First of all, I have not had one conversation with a parent worried about whether or not their child is progressing well enough. Not one conversation like that in the last ten years. Not. One. Because the goals are clear and reasonable, the preparation is offered, and the third party exam feedback in black and white. Students who barely pass the exam one year learn that perhaps they had better prepare a little harder and a little sooner the next year. And as the years go by the students get further and further invested in succeeding the following year. The students that struggle to earn their certificates are the proudest of their success. I have to admit I have a few students in my studio that I thought that while violin lessons are probably really good for them, that they would never amount to much of anything. But they have plugged along level by level and are now playing at a higher level than I ever would have dreamed for them. Goal setting/goal achieving has kept them in the game, and studio attrition rates are near zero. When I first adopted ASTA CAP into my studio, I was uncomfortable with the feeling of “teaching to the test.” I had already been teaching for over a quarter of a century and had it kind of down to a system and what I expected from each piece in the repertoire I taught. I had each student move on the next piece once the skills required by the previous piece had been mastered. After all, isn’t a private lesson setting all about the student learning at their own pace? And, especially with the lower end of my studio, I was finding I might have to hop and skip through the repertoire sequence I had been teaching in order to prepare the kids for their next ASTA CAP levels. Oh, the guilt! But now, ten years later, I see how the program has improved my teaching, my students and my studio. I feel more directed and supported in my teaching, my students are all steadily progressing through the sequence, and my studio parents are all clear and on board with our shared goals. I am very glad I elected to participate in ASTA CAP when I first learned about it ten years ago.