Teaching Tips

Tips for teaching music

So you want to explain a music theory concept simply and then give your student an exercise to help reenforce the point. Enter the website musictheory.net. This is a fabulous resource for teachers and students alike. Best of all it’s free!

Lessons

Here are a series of diagrams laid out logically with little animations to explain various topics of music theory. Although there is accompanying text for self-study, these resources are flexible enough for a music teacher to give their own customised commentary. Using the forward and back arrows, it is easy to navigate through the presentations.

Exercises

This has definitely been a very useful area of the website for my students over the years. There are a great many exercises to test theory concepts. What I’ve appreciated about the design of these tests is that there is no time pressure, which is helpful for allowing some thinking time to the student grappling with a new concept. The best thing about this area is, right towards the bottom of the list, under the heading “FOR TEACHERS” is a page called “Exercise Customizer.” Here you can go to town very easily perfecting the test for the individual needs of your student and then you can copy and paste the unique link to share with them via email or another messaging service. Some of the tests are generic to all instruments and others are specific to keyboards and guitars.

Tools

There are some handy utilities under this section like “Tempo Tapper” which very quickly analyses the speed of your tapping and generates a metronome figure in beats per minute. This is useful for discreetly working out how fast or slow a student is playing their piece compared with what tempo it should be. “Staff Paper Generator” quickly produces manuscript paper you can print for free. “Pop-up Piano” is useful to play or mark notes on a virtual piano keyboard.

Products

The man who has provided this wonderful website for free, helps fund the project from the sales of his two apps for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. One is called “Theory Lessons” and the other “Tenuto” which are basically enhanced and offline versions of his website materials. The quality of these two apps is outstanding and make a nice progression if you wish to support his work.

This website is a gem of a find and infinitely useful. If you haven’t already done so, I would strongly recommend you take a look at musictheory.net

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Teaching mature students

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every adult is good at something. As people get older, they often build their sense of self-worth on the skills they’re good at. So when an older adult decides to learn an instrument from scratch or after many years of not playing, they can feel pretty vulnerable.  The teacher’s agenda may therefore need to be flexible.

There are no sure-fire devices or formulas for teaching anything to anybody, but the more you understand a student’s goals and personality, the more adaptable and helpful you can be as a teacher.

I should probably explain what I mean by “older”.  Mostly I’m thinking of seniors, people who are retirement age picking up an instrument or revisiting one they used to play.  But much of this article could also apply to students in their 40s and 50s — it all depends on the student’s self image.

Some older beginners set a time limit for themselves, figuring that they’ll invest in learning the instrument for, say, two years, and if they’re not good enough by then, move on to another project.  While it can be fun for people to try out new things for a few years each, aiming to “get good” at something within a time limit is a false goal.  Part of a teacher’s job is to set expectations.  In that vein, I like to make it clear that “getting good” at an instrument is purely in the eyes of whoever happens to listening at any given time.  The only thing a student can truly aim for, week to week, and year to year, is to get better.  Of course, another part of a teacher’s job is to set no limits and allow a student to go as far as possible, hopefully defying all expectations!

Some older students take on a new instrument because they have always loved music and are thrilled to participate in making it.  They need to learn to make a good sound so they can enjoy working on any melodies they may attempt.  Criticism needs to be always constructive.  Older players know quite well when something doesn’t sound good; what they need most are specific goals for improving each element of their playing.

I mentioned the improvement of “each element of their playing” — this is probably the key point.  Many students, of any age, are discouraged by the slightest bad sound or “mistake”.  It’s the teacher’s job to help them maintain perspective, and balance intonation vs continuity, timing vs sound quality, expression vs precision.  If they succeed in playing a phrase of music in time, for example, they should be made aware of the importance of that accomplishment.  Playing a note out of tune could be quite a minor flaw by comparison, and yet that’s the kind of mistake older players often focus on, sometimes to the point of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  There are some adults who are very quick to say they “can’t play” something, but it may well be that they simply missed a few obvious elements while doing very well with basic music and technique of it.  To such students I joke that if I ever hear them say they “can’t” do something, they’ll have to do 5 pushups!

Learning an instrument is often quite different than anything some people have ever done.  Whereas much of an office job is about checking off tasks on a to-do list, music is never about that; it’s more of an appointment calendar, where you have to get to your next measure on time regardless of whether you finished the previous one.  People have to accept that playing a beautiful sound in time is worth more than playing a string of correct notes out of time.

Above all, older adults have to come to understand that music is not played by the eyes or brain, but by the hands and ears.  Their eyes and brain can’t control everything.  Knowing how to do something is not equivalent to doing it.  Practicing involves giving the muscle memory a chance to sink in.

Much of this is true of all students, but particularly older students can be self-conscious about memory gaps, and may fear seeing their hands be uncooperative or fear not being able to remember some of the music or finger patterns.  It’s essential that the teacher point out that these problems are no different for students of any age.  Memorizing strings of individual notes instead of learning patterns and phrases of music is no more effective for young students as old; it’s just that the older ones might fear that it’s their age that’s keeping them from remembering everything.

In the end, learning music as an older adult is beneficial for people’s mental abilities, expands people’s understanding of themselves and how they learn, and is a pleasure in and of itself.  It’s great to give older students a chance to play with others in a class or in a music party, and while pursuing your own agenda to help them improve musically and technically, it’s an excellent idea to allow them to learn their favorite music, even if you have to work on one measure or two a week on top of their other work.  You may need to simplify the music to make it easier to learn, but they’ll love making progress on it.  Even the most difficult music can be broken into manageable pieces.

There are many retired people who wish they had taken up music, or wish they had continued it instead of quitting as kids.  It’s a pleasure and a life skill that they should not deny themselves, and neither should any teacher!

 

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Ok, this is going to be controversial!

It is competition season where I live. We just had the Southern California Junior Bach Festival (read my previous blog), and last weekend we had the Temecula Young Artist Piano Competition. I have established a reputation of being a teacher who prepares students for competitions, so obviously for me the answer is yes – I believe in competitions!

Here are my reasons:

  1. Provides motivation – This is the biggest reason. Just like preparing for exams, competitions motivate students to practice more. They put in extra effort because there is the potential to win something. Kids love medals and trophies, and teenagers love cash! Money motivates!
  2. Opportunity to learn – Listening to others perform in competitions can be extremely beneficial for a student’s growth as a musician. Sometimes a fellow competitor may play something they learned in the past – they learn to critique and form an opinion on whether they did a better or worse job. Sometimes they hear someone play something that they don’t know and they are inspired and want to learn it, too. They can also learn a great deal about stage presence and expression from watching others. 
  3. Life is a series of competitions – Whether we like it or not, competition is a very real fact of life. Most people have no problems with sports competitions. Think Super Bowl. When it comes to music competitions however, many people frown. “Competition is for horses” they say. Getting into a good college is a competition. Getting a good job is a competition. If we shelter students from competitions because we do not want their feelings hurt, well they are going to get the shock of their life eventually. 
  4. Reality check – Sometimes, students or parents have a different perception of how good they are. Competitions can open their eyes and ears. The world is full of very talented and hard-working students!
  5. I learn, too – I learn a great deal from attending my students’ competitions. Especially when other competitors play a familiar piece, it is good to hear a different interpretation than the one I have taught my students. It also opens my eyes to some amazing performances by other teachers’ students. 
  6. Dealing with unfavorable results – Sometimes the results of a competition is strange. We can never understand the judges! For the most part, they do a great job selecting the winners, but sometimes, it is very different from our own selections as to who the winners should be. Oh well – that is life! Music is subjective. Don’t let one competition result destroy your faith. Here is an open letter I wrote to my students about dealing with competition results.
  7. Keeps us all humble – No one wins all of the time. This is good for students to learn. We can never take success for granted. If we are not successful this time, it is ok. Try again next time!

This does not mean that I think every student should do competitions. I also have students that don’t compete at all, and I love teaching them just as much! But certainly, if a student wants to compete, or if I feel they are ready and will benefit from competing, I will not hold them back. 

What are your thoughts regarding competitions?

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