Teaching Tips

Tips for teaching music

1. In learning music, as with many other skills, good habits lead to good results. All music teachers seek to build good habits.

2. Good habits come from discipline. The dictionary lists a dozen definitions of “discipline” but I suspect the most important types of discipline are only two: external and internal.

3. Musicianship, though it requires discipline, is more than a skill. It draws upon something deeper than habit. Some teachers consider musicianship fundamental; others feel technical skill must be established first.

4. Being aware of differences between external and internal discipline can help us lead students to good habits, good results, and good musicianship. Sometimes teachers and parents, or adult students, seem to have very different presumptions about what discipline is. Some uses of external discipline confuse management with teaching (school systems often carry this to an extreme).

5. “Internal” discipline is shaped by inspiration, pride, determination. It can be built [···]

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Do you have any rhythm war stories–student rhythm problems that have seemed intractable, or bizarre, or puzzling, or just comical?

Here are a few of mine, following up on last week’s blog. I hope you’ll add some of your experiences by clicking “Add Comment” below; I’m sure others, like me, would like to hear more!

Carol could not count beats as she was playing. After some experimentation we found that if she moved enough physically while playing, she could feel the beats and play the timings of the piece quite well. It turned out that she was so visually oriented that if she thought of “beat one,” for example, she would actually visualize the letters “O-N-E” and become distracted.

In an October blog (Music is Time) I mentioned my 72-year-old student, Harry, who at one lesson reduced all the quarters and eighths of a piece to straight eighth notes in order to “save time.”

Ruth and Christine had very unusual rhythm problems. One performed with a group regularly but came to me with a “rhythm problem” that involved a simple rhythm in 4/4 time. The other was the leader of an amateur group but always managed to rush the beat while leading her players. Both had such puzzling and persistent rhythm issues that I was suddenly reminded of the book, Soprano On Her Head, and tried a radical approach. I got up the nerve to ask a seemingly weird question [···]

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It’s pretty common for people to think they have “rhythm problems.” But what do people really mean by this?

Consider how natural it is for us to have excellent rhythm in daily life, and then go figure why people draw a blank when it comes to musical rhythms. For example, if we were to measure our stride as we walk down the street, I’ll bet our steps would probably be so regular as to be milliseconds apart in timing. If we wrote down the rhythms of our daily conversations, they would be much more complex than almost any music we play. In fact, talking is the best example of how rhythmic we are, because music is so closely related to talking and singing.

I recently had a student who claimed he had a “rhythm problem” and couldn’t play with the proper timings. I asked him to pretend there was a servant at the door, and asked him to order his servant to take out the garbage. (I suggested this because we always issue commands with a strong rhythm…but it is amusing, the ideas that pop out in the heat of a lesson, no?)

musical examples

He said, “Take the GARbage out!” with “take the” as pickup notes to the “GAR” downbeat. In 6/8 time, this would have been written: quarter, eighth (bar line) quarter, eighth, quarter (see example above).

Then I asked him to say it three times in a row.  [···]

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