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“The Teacher Becomes the Student”

Several of my most brilliant, naturally talented guitar students have also had ADHD. In music, they have soared beyond my expectations and worked harder to master their instruments than I thought possible. Which makes saying goodbye — always too early and all too often abruptly — all the more heartbreaking.

My first encounters with kids with ADHD were not as a parent but as a music teacher. When I taught my first private guitar lesson at age 18, most of my students were in middle or high school. I was closer in age to my students than I was to their parents, and so I related and empathized when they told me about school.

One of my first students was an excellent player named Caleb. After only a few lessons, he told me, “The chords on the page sound different than the song. But I figured out if I move this finger here it sounds better.” I told him, “I gave you easier versions of the chords because you’re a beginner. But you figured out the real way to play the song?! That’s incredible!” After the lesson, I went on and on about him to his mom. “He’ll practice for hours and hours,” she told me. “I wish I could get him to focus like that on his schoolwork.”

I continued to give him harder songs, and he always came back the next week and killed it. He played me songs he’d learned by ear that were outside our lesson plan. Then he started writing songs of his own. No matter how hard I challenged him, he consistently nailed what I gave him and did more. At the end of every lesson, I relayed to his mom how extraordinary I thought he was. “He’s naturally talented AND he works hard,” I told her.

“I’m so glad,” she told me. “School’s not going well. He’s failing a number of classes. He was recently diagnosed with ADHD so we’re trying out some medication. But we’ve had to pull him out of some classes and put him in remedial. He’s pretty down about the whole thing, so I’m glad he has the guitar because it always puts him in a better mood.”

I thought, “How can he be such a naturally gifted musician and so smart, and struggle so much in school?”

Caleb stayed in lessons with me for a few more months before his parents gave me a two-week notice. “He’s just too far behind in school,” they told me. “It was a difficult decision, so hopefully he can come back this summer.” I was discouraged, but I knew my feelings paled to how Caleb felt. At our last lesson, I sent him home with tons of paperwork I hoped would keep him busy until I saw him again. Months passed, summer came and went, but his parents never started lessons again.

Over the last 20 years I’ve had countless students who display incredible natural musical talent but struggle in school. They do well with me for a while, but their grades slip and their parents have to pull them out. Before I had kids, I judged the parents’ decision to quit lessons. I thought, “If it’s the one thing they have going for them, why take it away?”

Then I became a parent, and I learned how to make tough decisions for my kids, decisions I hoped would benefit them in the long run but in the moment discouraged them. And I understood how difficult these decisions were for the parents, and felt bad for judging them.

My kids are the same age as my students now, so I’m the same age as their parents. I’ve had countless students with ADHD, and I’ve become a more equipped parent. And as a parent of kids with ADHD, I’ve become a more equipped teacher. I’ve met with teachers and doctors. I learned about right-brain dominance — that many people with ADHD have high-functioning right brains that process abstract thought and creative thinking, but struggle in left-brain functions like facts and details. I’m more equipped to meet the needs of my kids and my students who do well in music but struggle in school. A lot of my students have been with me for more than five years. With the parents, I give advice and guidance, and share my stories about my kids and past students. With my students, I’m always encouraging. They have enough discouragement at school. So I make a big deal about their accomplishments in lessons.

And I take pride in my students who dislike school but never miss a lesson.

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  1. I passed through 70 years not knowing I was ADHD. Like your student, I loved music and everything to do with it except Violin practising at age 10. Of course I was left handed but played the violin right handed. I am right brain dominant and excel at math, sciemces physics and history. Giving up the violin at age 13 Was replaced by an introduction to music as a chorister. It has brought that right brain dominance to music (bass) with an ability to memorise pieces in a few practises…good thing, as I am easily bored, I participate in three choirs which attempt well over a hundred new pieces a year . At this time it is Mozarts Requiem in D Minor. A brilliant composition of 80 pages. Most of the pices are somewhat less intensive.
    Music and coffee in great quantities, and smoking many many years ago, were my medication as they all produce the Neurotransmitter boost we adhders need to function at a “normal”. Level. Giving up caffinated coffee was replaced by two additional choirs and ADHD meds.
    Music participation including dancing. produces an increase in dopamine rush that brings on a high, normal activities dont, Something those who study while listening seem to know. It is also an activity that does not diminish with age nor are the memories of it lost with dementia.
    Thank you for being one of those educators who have learned how to turn on our hyper focus and who has encouraged our successes at a young age.

  2. I know this is not recent, but I hope you can answer. My nine-year-old son loves music and started guitar lessons a couple of months ago. At first he loved the lessons and the practicing. Now he still loves the lessons, but HATES to practice — he really can’t concentrate on what he has to do. I don’t want to stop the lessons, but I also don’t want to fight about practicing every day. And I’m not sure I see the point of lessons without practicing. Do you have any suggestions? Thanks in advance.

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