Teaching Tips

Tips for teaching music

One of my students is a professional educator who has gone through all the ranks of teaching, on up to top positions in education administration. You would think he would be a good student, and in some ways he really is: he respects my suggestions, works to understand them, comes faithfully to lessons, is proactive with ideas he wants to pursue, and is generally patient and persistent.

But there are often moments when he can’t seem to do the simplest actions, or even follow the simplest instructions. And if I insist he focus on those simple instructions, he can eventually get it, but there is an unspoken sense that I’m treating him a little like a child, even though I have no intention to do so.

The problem, I think, comes down to acknowledging one of the ways in which learning music is different from other kinds of learning.

In many arenas of education, the instructor wants to teach a piece of information but knows it isn’t helpful simply to give it out when the student isn’t ready to understand it. Sometimes I like to test people out by offering advanced information to see if it makes sense–my own judgment of whether they’re ready to understand may not be perfect. But more often than not, if someone doesn’t know enough to ask the right questions, they aren’t ready to hear the answer.

So it is a common teaching strategy to lead the student bit by bit to where s/he is ready to grasp the new information. And it is common learning strategy, in response, for a student to try to figure out what the teacher is getting at, because if the student can go there and understand the point, s/he can grasp it and move on. This is especially important to an adult student paying good money for lessons!

But music isn’t like that. It is a combination of information and physical sensation, and it comes to nothing if not set in motion, down the river of time.

When I ask my student who is a professional educator to try a simple exercise with three notes, and he can’t seem to get it, sometimes I think he is just trying to figure out in his head what exactly I’m getting at, so he can understand the point and move on, rather than follow the simple instructions as if being led by baby steps.

What he may not realize, though, is that I’m not always getting at anything other than exactly what I’m asking him to do. Sometimes in music, you need to experience the smoothness of playing two notes on the upbow leading into a strong downbow on a beat note, and this feeling needs to be felt and built into the hands and ears several times in a row, for its own sake. It’s not always a mental exercise or a piece of information to understand. There’s no ulterior motive to jump to. It is what it is. And when that bowing in that spot becomes comfortable, that spot in the music flows better, and the mind can focus on more important things. The repertoire of muscle memory has just broadened, and doors to better musicianship have opened.

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tuning instruments for students

Does teaching students how to tune their instrument ever feel like a necessary evil?

You can’t learn to play very well on an out-of-tune instrument, and yet the act of tuning does not connect very directly to learning how to play.  Of course, we want students to train their ears, but that’s part of learning to play music.  So when it comes to tuning, maybe it’s okay for them to cut to the chase and use electronic tuners. (I must admit I’ve only recently come to accept this!)

I once tried tuning my violin entirely with an electronic tuner.  It took a lot longer than usual.  But then, this should not be surprising–our ears are more responsive than our eyes.  I remember a science museum exhibit which asked the visitor to squeeze a handle as soon as possible after a starting signal. When the signal was a beep,  reaction time was always quicker than when the signal was a light.  (This raises interesting questions about the role of reading music vs. learning by ear.)

How do you teach tuning?  (Pianists, please take out your harpsichords for this discussion.  And harpists, don’t worry, I won’t tell tasteless jokes such as the one about how they spend half their time tuning and the other half playing out of tune!  Ouch.)

The principle I go by is that while it can be difficult to identify whether one pitch is higher or lower than another, it’s pretty easy to tell when two pitches are the same. They have the same frequency, and a peaceful, harmonic sound. Two out-of-tune pitches create a buzz, a dissonance that is obvious when compared to the clarity of two identical pitches.

The key words are “when compared.” If two pitches slide toward each other,  people can almost always hear the point at which the two pitches match.  If two pitches are static, it can be daunting for some students to identify whether they are out of tune, and if so, to tell which pitch is higher.

Perhaps the most important skill used in tuning is getting the ears to trump the physical senses.  A singer may sing off key because s/he feels comfortable with the physical sensation of it, rather than guiding the pitch with the ears.  A violinist who keeps turning the peg to the same wrong place is guided more by the muscle memory of turning the peg than by the ears.

For this reason, it’s sometimes important to have a student go beyond the correct position and then come back to it.  This unfreezes the physical presumptions of how far a peg should be turned, or how tight the vocal cords feel, etc., and throws the responsibility back to listening.  This idea can be used in some intonation exercises.

With the violin, I like to have students first hear the correct pitch using a pitchpipe or tuner, and continue hearing that pitch as they bring their string up to match it.  I tell them to allow themselves many trials–after all, pros take 5 or 6 times to get a string tuned, so students should allow themselves lots of chances, always tuning up from below.  If they match pitches, they will know; if they’re not sure, they should try again.

I think it’s best for students to keep trying to tune using their ears, in order to make progress and to keep training their ears.  But it’s probably a good idea for them to check their work with an electronic tuner, or even to rely on the tuner to avoid frustration.

It’s pretty hard to fully address the skill of tuning and still have time for everything else.

What do you think? I’m sure everyone would like to read about your thoughts and experiences.  How do your students learn to tune their instruments?

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music student stage freight

Do teachers contribute to stagefright? Can we help students avoid it?

Stagefright seems to happen when performers focus too much on themselves–what people think, whether they’ll get through a tricky spot, whether some unforeseen problem will throw them off, whether they’re deserving of being out on stage.

It seems to me that when the focus is on the music, rather than the performer–when a performer has something musical he or she really wants to say–there’s much less of a chance for stagefright to take hold.

Some teachers are anxious to impress upon students the gravity of their practicing and performing responsibilities. They sometimes use lessons to put students through the ringer, essentially making students feel chronically underpracticed, underprepared, and liable to make a mistake at any moment. Performance can be portrayed as extremely serious, requiring the proper dress, the proper entrance, the proper demeanor.

Few students could get through lessons like that without feeling fearful of performing. For some, that fear becomes stagefright; for others, with courage and determination, it doesn’t.

But what happens when a teacher helps a student become invested in the musicality of a piece, the feeling behind it, the composer’s intent, and even the background of how and why it was written and used? Then the student can offer listeners something more meaningful than whether a certain passage was rendered perfectly.

Those who strive for technical perfection only to impress people or win them over are focused on themselves. Mistakes can be painful and humiliating for them, as if their fingers betrayed them.

A student personally involved in the musicality of a piece, rather than its virtuosity, is probably better equipped to put mistakes in perspective, and not be afraid of them in performance. This student may be more motivated to work on technique in order to make a piece music effective and compelling, rather than to make the performance perfect.

It’s fun to encourage students at all levels to experiment with musical phrasing. They can discover why the composer or editor wrote in certain dynamic markings–or perhaps find a new but convincing musical presentation. They can create a storyline and think of their music as its soundtrack.

We can also help students put mistakes in perspective. One basic way is to appreciate a student for getting what we are asking for, even if something else didn’t work. It’s great to be able to focus on a problem and solve it; it’s a bit daunting to focus on one problem but still get yelled at if you didn’t also happen to solve all the other problems at the same time!

Maybe in a future blog I’ll list some ways I like to help students explore musicality, and keep their mistakes in perspective. If you have some ideas you’d like to share, I’m sure we’d all like to read your comments!

Fear isn’t a very healthy motivator, nor does it have much connection to making music. I suspect that stagefright is one proof of this, and we teachers can do something about it.

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