Teaching Tips

Tips for teaching music

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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teaching older music students

I once had a beginning student named Harry, who was 72 years old. He did quite well, generally, but one day I heard him playing a tune all wrong.

The tune had the rhythm of quarter, eighth, eighth, repeated four times.  Then there were two quarter notes and a run of eighths.

He had played this tune fine before, but that day, he played all the notes straight through as eighth notes–da da da da da da–regardless of the written rhythms.

I said, “Harry, what are you doing? You know this tune.  See the quarter notes, and the eighth notes?”

Said Harry, “I didn’t want to waste time.”

Well, maybe this says something about older students.  After all, I have noticed that some of my older students allot a fixed time for themselves to “get good” at the instrument. But it’s true for kids, lawyers, business people–there always seem to be reasons to “not waste time.”

The thing is, music is time.

Sometimes I will play a tune like Happy Birthday to a student, with beautiful tone and intonation, but in all sixteenth notes.  They never recognize the melody.

Then I play the same tune with the right rhythm and they light up.  I even play it badly, with horrible sound and pitches but in the right rhythm.  They still know what melody it is, and they still like the song.

Sometimes people get so focused on pitches and tone that they sacrifice good timing, or destroy the continuity of a passage just to fix the pitch of one note.

But in the end, it seems to me, music is timing.

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