Moving Forward With Transfer Students

At one time or another, most instrumental teachers, wherever they work, will inherit a student who previously had lessons with another music teacher.

Turning it round the other way, many of the students we ourselves teach, will also be inherited by another music teacher in the future.

There can be a number of reasons why a student might leave one teacher and move to another, and not all these, as some might think, are negative, for example:

  • Positive reasons: a student may move to a new teacher because they want to specialise in a new area of learning or a particular genre of music, or they might move to a new teacher who specialises in more advanced students;
  • ‘By necessity’ reasons: students may move house or school which might mean finding a new teacher – circumstances change;
  • Negative reasons: a student may not ‘gel’ with a previous teacher or not feel they’re making sufficient progress – they may simply not be enjoying lessons with their current teacher.

Here are some ideas for making the experience as positive as possible:

Meet them where they are…

When students transfer to us, it is easy to be critical of their previous teacher. We all work in different ways, and in the past I’ve been guilty of highlighting what I perceive to be the inadequacies of the previous teacher. Ultimately, there are many things we don’t know about and we’re only getting one side of the story.

We cannot change the past, we can only work in the present and move towards the future. We have to meet the student where they are now. They’ve been learning with another teacher, and now they’re learning with us.

As their new teacher, we have to acknowledge that we are just another step, another signpost on the student’s musical journey. They are not starting from scratch and going back to the beginning, they’re simply taking the next step on that journey.

It takes time…

Whatever the student’s previous experience of lessons, it will take time to adjust to a new teacher, and most likely, a new way of working. If we acknowledge that, as their teacher, we’re accompanying them on the next leg of their musical journey, it’s going to take time before we feel in sync walking alongside one another. The initial path may seem uneven, but that’s OK.

Maximise on what they already do well…

When we inherit a student who’s transferred from another teacher, like it or not, we inevitably have to make an assessment of where they’re at: what do they know, and what don’t they know. I think it’s easy to dwell on the latter, but this doesn’t help the student to move forward. As I’ve said, it will take time to build up a relationship with the transfer student and for them to trust us. This relationship is best built around a sense of positivity.

It’s like mayonnaise…

I liken transfer students to making mayonnaise. For anyone who’s done this, you’ll know that you take a fairly unpromising set of ingredients (egg yolks, mustard, vinegar and oil) and attempt to make them into a silky smooth and unctuous sauce. When we inherit a student, it can feel like we’ve been put in a bowl with them, their previous teacher, they’re experiences, and more often than not, their parents. In that bowl, we somehow have to bring all these things together and make something of it.

If you’ve made mayonnaise before, you’ll also know that if you add the oil to the rest of the ingredients too quickly, the mixture will curdle, and ironically can usually only be saved by adding boiling water. I cannot emphasise enough the need to take your time and to allow the student to grow in a way which is true to them.

Plan ahead…

I find it useful to make sure I have some activities up my sleeve I can use with transfer students which mean we’re not working on anything they’ve brought with them from the previous lessons, and we’re not starting on something new. Improvisation can be a great starter activity for transfer students, as can games and other activities. These can often provide a platform on which we can indirectly assess the student’s skills.

Avoid the quiz…

As I alluded above, it can be tempting to quiz the transfer student to find out what they know (and what they don’t know), but this can be overwhelming, and if handled badly, can leave the student feeling there are huge gaps in their knowledge. If you have activities to hand, there is no immediate rush to make such an assessment, and given time, it will become clear where the student is currently working. Remember that music is why they’re here so make sure that the primary focus of those early post-transfer lessons is on playing and making music.

Learn from them (and their previous teacher)…

There is no one right way to teach and no pre-agreed instrumental curriculum, so as teachers, if we allow ourselves to remain open to the possibility, we have a lot to learn from transfer students, and, believe it or not, from their previous teacher. I have picked up many tips and exercises over the years like this, and some lovely new repertoire ideas too.

Proceed with caution…

Whilst we need to acknowledge the student’s musical journey to-date, we also get to the stage where we’ll want to take them forward on it. Students need to be given the opportunity to transition between teachers, but we need to be aware when we reach the point when it’s time to move forward with a new teacher. We can never be a replacement for the previous teacher, so it’s important to remain true to yourself as you go forward with the transfer student. If you like, be conscious of the reaching the stage where the student is now, just that, a student, and no longer a transfer student.

Above all, enjoy the journey. Maximise on the positives, embrace the possibilities, and create an environment in which the student can move forward on their musical journey with renewed enthusiasm and purpose.

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Moving Forward with Transfer Students. Pinterest graphic.