With increased awareness of mental health issues worldwide, it is important that we, as educators, pay particular attention to our students' well-being. According to the American Psychological Association, statistics show anxiety and depression in students have been on the rise in the past decade. Further studies available on health.com suggest that musicians are particularly susceptible.
As private lesson teachers, we have the rare benefit of one-on-one interactions with students, organically establishing a greater degree of familiarity than is present in larger classrooms. These solo interactions mean that we have the potential to develop a deeper awareness of a student’s mental and physical well-being. In my experience, these interactions allow students to be honest and open, making us great barometers for assessing a student’s emotional state, and increasing the likelihood of the educator being one of the first people to become aware of any problems. Although our focus is teaching music, we are in the unique position to have a broader impact on those we teach. By being aware of students’ abilities, time constraints, and personal hardships, we educators can help students find resources and provide appropriate guidance in emotionally confusing times to help them grow as people as well as musicians.
DAY ONE: GET THEM TALKING
Private lessons provide the occasion for private conversation at a time in life when young people rarely get an opportunity to speak alone with adults other than their parents. Engaging in short conversation at the beginning of each lesson will not only help your student relax around you, but you can also learn about them. By getting them talking, you can gauge their general mindset and learn about their interests and other activities. By establishing this rapport and showing interest in their life outside the practice room, you will also learn how to better teach them. When we understand how a student thinks and learns best, we can develop a personalized education strategy. This type of teacher-student relationship opens lines of communication where students can come to you if they have questions, even ones not related to music.
Engaging in short, weekly conversation before the lesson begins will also help you identify any anomalies in a student’s mental or physical state; compromised health or schedule disruptions are just two of the external pressures that can affect a students’ level of preparation. Showing genuine concern for your students’ well-being can establish a level of trust, allowing them to disclose information they might not share with friends or relatives, be it trouble at home or at school. According to Ron Smith of the Stephen F. Austin Counseling Services, “Being involved in music means you’re already making more of an emotional connection.” This connection is a powerful teaching tool, allowing you to see a side of students that most teachers will never see, and one that we, as music educators, must not take for granted.
WHEN A STUDENT SEEMS “OUT OF SORTS”
In all of our lives, we will face hardships that weigh on our emotions, be it the death of a pet, a breakup, or being a victim of bullying. Experiences like this can be divided into healthy and unhealthy stress. Sometimes students will need help assessing the effect new situations can have on them. Usually we can tell when our students are disturbed by noticing changes in behavior during lessons, whether it’s an obvious emotional change, being distracted, or sometimes by them simply revealing it during a conversation. Depending on how we react to this, we can either be an aid or a detriment to their emotional growth. Sometimes a student will want to talk about complicated issues, and it’s important that we, as teachers, can lead them in the right direction. With the abundance of information on the internet, we can direct them to the proper resources on mental and physical health, time-management skills, and even simple life lessons like doing laundry or filling out a job application.
The advantage to seeing students every week is that we can monitor how they evolve emotionally. Our weekly lessons provide insight into minute changes in student attitudes than many other professionals, such as counsellors, have when they see a student privately once every two weeks. Constant awareness and interest on the teacher’s part are the keys to determining the difference between periodic sadness and sustaining depression.
WHEN THE PROBLEM PERSISTS
If you sense your student is in a state of distress, your actions may mean the difference in whether or not he or she seeks professional help. While the National Institute of Mental Health suggests that symptoms must be present for two weeks, those who do not see a student every day must use their best judgement in the situation. Paying attention to how long a student’s attitude persists is the simplest thing an educator can do. Before determining whether to reach out, there are a few important things to keep in mind:
You are NOT a doctor, and there are limits to how much help you can be without proper training. For any minors, you should always go to their parents before you do anything else. For any adults, know how HIPAA regulates who you share information with. Know your administration’s policy regarding when you are legally obligated to report concern over students who you think might inflict harm on themselves or another person.
If you feel you can communicate freely with a student, and that student is not in any immediate danger, a great first step is to provide a list of local mental health resources the student may utilize. A current and updated list of doctors, guidance counselors, or social workers is a great place to start, especially for college students who may not be familiar with resources provided by the institution. When presented with a physical list, students are more likely to utilize them. According to social worker Sarah McGuire, “If you tell a student to find resources themselves, they probably won’t, and you don’t need anything fancy to present information or provide options. A paper list is fine.”
A great preemptive option, particularly for anyone working at a college, high school, or grade school, is to contact the Counseling Services for your institution and ask them to speak with your students as a group. Putting a face to the counseling center is important for people who may be resistant to utilizing these services, and speaking to your students as a group lowers the pressure when discussing this serious topic.
For teachers and students, there are courses focused on depression recognition through organizations like the QPR Institute (Question. Persuade. Refer; qprinstitute.com), who have a history of providing suicide intervention training. Courses such as this are offered nationwide for individuals or groups. This course helps students recognize symptoms in themselves and their peers. Education like this helps remove the stigma of discussing depression in our society and helps students accept, confront, and discuss their emotions rather than feel ashamed or hopeless.
WHAT TO DO IN THE MEANTIME
Diagnosing and treating emotional distress can be a lengthy process, and students are bound to experience highs and lows that teachers must be aware of during their coping and healing process. Our job as music educators is to make the most of every lesson, regardless of the student’s level of preparation. Therefore, it is important to use lesson time as an opportunity to teach something that will keep them interested and engaged, even if they do not seem to be practicing at home. Here are a few activities I have used as a percussion instructor to engage students in an intellectually stimulating way, even if they do not practice due to mental or emotional issues.
Teach them scales and modes through improvisation at keyboard instruments. Using scales as a basis for improvisation teaches two fundamental concepts for making music at the same time. Experiment with duets on snare drum, mallets, and timpani in order to improve sight-reading. Working with a partner not only helps build consistency in tempo and pushes the student to continue through mistakes, but also builds confidence and awareness in small ensemble settings.
Bring in auxiliary percussion instruments and do a small workshop on each, involving proper playing technique and involvement in the classical orchestra. If you can, use two sets so the student can play while you demonstrate; if students are actively participating, they are focused on the task rather than occupied with other thoughts. Improvise and sight-read on these as well; snare drum etudes work perfectly fine for most auxiliary instruments.
Teach basic drum set technique. This can be done with an actual kit or by playing “air drums” to develop four-way coordination. Performing duets (with the teacher improvising basic 8-, 12-, or 16-bar forms on a keyboard instrument) can help the student learn to perform and respond to other musicians musically while keeping track of phrase lengths.
Introduce traditional hand drums such as djembes, congas, cajon, or frame drums, and teach how they are used in their respective authentic music. Recordings and videos should be used in this instance to teach the cultural side of these instruments and can be especially helpful for the student to play along with.
Introduce them to multiple-percussion solos. This can be done by improvising on multiple instruments, especially “found” instruments, to demonstrate the importance of timbre and attention to sound quality. Show simple exercises to demonstrate how multi-percussion scores look. You can also show videos of important or interesting multi-percussion solos if you are introducing the genre for the first time.
The goal of teaching students with depression is keeping them interested in music while pushing the boundaries of their abilities and knowledge without overwhelming them. By knowing a student’s skill level, the successful teacher can help anyone improve in a clear and effective way without causing frustration or resignation.
BIG PICTURE GOALS
Without proper consideration, mental health issues can easily be written off as a late adolescent being hormonal, too emotional, or just sad. As music teachers, it is important for us to work to get to know our students and realize the difference between occasional sadness, burnout, and serious depression. More importantly, we should also help our students recognize it themselves; developing emotional maturity is an important part of growing up. Therefore, I encourage all music teachers to educate themselves about the warning signs and causes of depression (nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression/index.shtml). It is most important for people who have never been diagnosed with clinical depression to investigate the causes and warning signs, and learn ways to help students who exhibit the warning signs of depression. As music educators, the rare opportunity to interact with students one-on-one means we might be the only people who see an issue. Intervention with something as simple as a conversation might make the biggest difference in your students' life.
RESOURCES FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION
Nathaniel Gworek is on the faculty at Georgia College and State University, where he teaches percussion and music history. He works within the percussion community commissioning new music and performing recitals and clinics in the area. He is a member of the PAS Health and Wellness Committee, serves the Georgia PAS Chapter Vice President, and has previously served on the Board of Directors for the Women Composers Festival of Hartford. Interested in playing many different styles of music, he has toured the Northeast with percussion ensembles, orchestras, wind ensembles, rock and jazz bands, Mexican and African music groups, and a Renaissance Music Ensemble. Dr. Gworek has played with the Tuscaloosa Symphony Orchestra, Finger Lakes Symphony Orchestra, UConn Opera Company, and the Hartford City Singers. He has studied with Keith Aleo, Kay Stonefelt, and Jim Tiller. He has previously worked as an instructor at Stephen F. Austin State University, Manchester Community College, and as a student, was a Teacher’s Assistant at the University of Connecticut, SUNY Fredonia, the New York Summer Music Festival, and the Interlochen Center for the Arts.