Teaching Tips

Tips for teaching music

How we think about musical mistakes has a huge impact on how we practice, how we learn, how we perform.

One student told me that when she makes a mistake, it’s like falling off a bicycle. Another said it’s like finding herself down the wrong path in the woods. Still another says it’s like tripping on a tree root while hiking. Or like hitting the wrong floor button in an elevator.

Or is it like dropping tomato sauce on a white sleeve, or dropping the wrong ingredient in a recipe? Maybe it’s like saying the wrong word in the middle of a speech, or like missing a fly you’re trying to swat.

Choosing a response

Each of these possible ways to think of musical mistakes implies a completely different response. It may well be that each of your students thinks of mistakes a very different way and therefore responds differently to them.

Do you want a student to feel derailed by a mistake and have to start over, hoping to get it right the next time? Or should they catch themselves after tripping and keep hiking?

Is a musical mistake sometimes equivalent to having taken the wrong trail, and if so, do we start over, or go back 20 feet, or do we go back to a meaningful fork in the trail and choose the right path?

If we hit the wrong button on the elevator, are we humiliated, get out and wait for another elevator, or do we hit the correct button without thinking twice? Is making a mistake like a stain we can’t clean, or a wrong ingredient that ruins the flavor of a recipe–or is it a mispronounced word that is forgotten as the flow of ideas moves forward?

The Donut or the Hole?

Some students seem so worried about hitting the wrong note or making a bad sound that they sound like they are tiptoeing through the music, afraid of being mugged by a mistake. Since there are always going to be mistakes,  [···]

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It’s ironic that beginners in music often have to weigh their budgets, and their sometimes insecure hopes of learning to play music decently, against the quality of their musical equipment, their choice of teacher, and their commitment to lesson time.

Beginners (or parents of beginners) are legitimately hesitant to invest unless they feel their musical interest will stick, or until they understand why the investments are needed. The teacher can make demands but it’s important to respect the dilemma the beginners feel.

And yet, if they have an instrument that is difficult to play, or has a bad sound, or if they have a beginning method book with music of limited quality, or insufficient lesson time, how can they get a fair exposure to the joys of making music?

Have you ever dealt with the equivalent in your field of a cheap, wire-strung violin that even I can’t make good sound on, a small plastic chin rest with a huge uncomfortable ridge in it, a cheap unadjustable shoulder rest, or tuning pegs made of softwood that can even break off in your aching hand?!

Sometimes you have to wait until the student has come along a bit, and then encourage them to make a few investments in better strings, a good shoulder rest, even to spend a few dollars more per month to rent a good quality instrument.

But apart from equipment, there are musical decisions about quality that we can certainly make.  [···]

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Memorizing a piece of music is different from learning it. Musicians who rely on written music, and then memorize it, have taken only a first step toward learning it.

Learning a piece of music involves making it your own, not just remembering the notes.

As I understand it, research shows that playing music involves many areas of the whole brain, whereas reading music focuses on the visual and language centers. When we learn a piece of music we give it a much broader dimension than we can when we read it.

Reading music is essential for tapping into the vast repertoire of music available to us. But learning by ear is a skill and a strategy that quickly gives a musician a direct relationship to the music.

Incorporating teaching by ear into your methods, even if only a little here and there, can add confidence, musicality, and dimension to a student’s playing.

As one who teaches mostly by ear, I often  [···]

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