Music Anxiety

numeracy leaders teachers Sep 06, 2023

When I was in Year 7 I remember being excited to learn music. I had never played an instrument and I was looking forward to seeing what 'real' music was all about.

It took me exactly 10 minutes to decide I hated music and did not want to go to another class.

You might be wondering what made me feel like this? (if you are not, feel free to click away from this blog post now!) 😂

Let me paint the picture…

In my Year 7 class we sat in rows in a 'keyboard lab'. We each wore a set of gigantic early 1990's earphones.🎧

I remember starting the year with some instruction around the notes and how to read them. We were then told to open the keyboard songbook the school provided and begin moving our way through the songs. Each time we were confident playing a song, we could call the teacher and be 'assessed' before we were allowed to move onto the next song.

This was the very first time I had encountered music notation or a keyboard, and I started to feel very out of my comfort zone.

Lesson after lesson I went into the class feeling absolute dread for the whole 45 minutes. Everyone seemed to be flying through the songs in the book and I was going a snail’s pace.

I went home and told my mum I hated music… she asked 'why?'

I told her... "because I am no good at it"…

She said "how do you know that?"

I replied, "because everyone else is so much better than me... they all know what to do".

Sensibly, my Mum reassured me, "they are not ‘better’ than you… maybe they are practicing between the sessions.'

I hadn't even considered that my classmates may have pianos at home to practice on, or that they may have learnt an instrument previously, and thus had arrived with some prior knowledge.

I just assumed there was something 'wrong' with the music part of my brain!

I probably would have fallen deeper and deeper into my negative thoughts around music, but mum was on a mission to help me.

She borrowed a keyboard from a family friend, found the exact songbook we were using in class at the local library, and encouraged me to practice.

I remember sitting at home every night for 10 minutes practicing the songs.

At first I really disliked it... but then...

I quickly started to improve.

I felt less anxious walking into the keyboard lab at school.

I even started to enjoy the sessions!

I was experiencing success. And success breeds success!

Looking back, I can now clearly see there were a few things working against me in my early music career.

  1. I had no prior knowledge to draw upon. I was a complete novice. I later found out that my mum was correct, most of my classmates had either learnt an instrument privately, or had played the recorder at Primary School. This meant they were in a different phase of learning. I was in the acquisition phase (everything was new), while most of my classmates were in the fluency or generalisation phase (they already knew how to read notes for the recorder, they just had to transfer that knowledge to the keyboard). This meant I required different instruction to align with where I was in my learning journey (more explicit teaching, less go and 'discover' how to play the songs independently).
  2.  I didn’t have a piano at home so I couldn’t practice between sessions. We had keyboard classes timetabled once a week. This meant by the time it came around to the next lesson I had forgotten most of the song I had learnt the week before. To learn we need to move a skill into long term memory. Playing the keyboard once a week was not frequent enough for the learning to 'stick'. As soon as I started to regularly practice using short, sharp sessions, I rapidly improved and my fluency developed. 
  3. The instruction I was receiving didn't match where I was in my learning journey, so I found myself constantly in the 'frustration zone'. I was not experiencing success. I needed to be explicitly shown some of the basics. Moving your way independently through the songbook was suitable for almost everyone in my class, except me, who had no prior experience with music (in hindsight I should have asked for more help from the teacher!)   
  4. My lack of success made me feel anxious and lose confidence

I found myself thinking about these classes this week (because my daughter asked to learn the piano)! Not surprisingly I made several connections with how students can feel in our maths class. 

Here are the connections I came up with:

  1. Prior experience can make a BIG difference. Many students come to school having used maths in sport, puzzles, boardgames (or simply watching "Numberblocks") at home. Others have not had any of this prior experience. Does it mean they are not good at maths? No! It just means they need to be given more opportunities.
  2. Practice is super important. The brain requires practice to encode information into long term memory. If we don’t provide our students regular opportunities to recall and practice skills they will not experience success and will quickly lose confidence. 
  3. Learners have different needs. We need to make sure we think about where our students are in their learning of a particular skill. If the skill is new to them, explicit teaching can be a great place to start. If they are fluent, then they are ready to apply their knowledge in the generalisation phase of learning. Here, more open ended, problem solving, inquiry based tasks are valuable.

This week  I encourage you to have a think about those students in you class who are struggling with maths. Is there something simple you can do to support them? Can you send home some dice or flashcards to allow them opportunity to regularly practice some basic facts during the week? Can you have them use an app every morning before school for a week to see if the practice helps them improve and develops their confidence? (I would suggest the Quick Maths App or my place value app Zero Our Hero).

We all want to experience success, but sometimes we have to take conscious steps to ensure this happens for our students.

I was never going to be Mozart, but a small amount of help from my mum and targeted practice really built my confidence and helped me to actually enjoy my keyboard lessons!

Have a great week!

Ange 🎲🎓

Want to learn more from Dr Ange Rogers? Click here to find out about her 'Quality Place Value Assessment in Years 3-6 Mini Course'

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