Music Teacher's Helper Blog

It’s all about the student…

I’m going back to grad school tomorrow for the first time in 14 years.  I’m scared.  I’ve applied what I learned last time around throughout the years, but writing a paper? Taking a theory test?  It’s 4 am and I’m writing this.  Need I say more?

This makes me really appreciate my students as they come into the studio for the first time.  Or even the 50th time.  How can I make this experience the most positive possible?  How can I help them to overcome their fears of singing in front of someone who is SUPPOSED to critique them and tell them what they’re doing wrong?

1) Make them laugh: bring some silliness to the lesson, no matter the age of the student

2) Stay with positive directives: always focus on what we are working to achieve. Take the time to identify what needs work, but the focus should be then “This is what we’re going to do to replace that habit/sound.”

3) Share some of your struggles, BUT make sure that you’re telling them in order to help THEM, not as therapy for you. Talking should not be the largest portion of the lesson, unless the student needs it; making music should always be the focus.

4) Be flexible in your approach.  Students have very different learning styles. I find that I have to change the words I use and even the approach to correction depending on the student.  I have one student who likes it very blunt – just tell it like it is, then give her the tools to correct it. She’s been studying with me off & on for 15 years.  My student who has only had 4 lessons in her life needs a much more delicate approach and much more imagery and less obvious pedagogy.

5) Make sure you know your facts and share that knowledge.  ALWAYS base everything you tell your student upon sound pedagogy.  Many teachers like to tell students what to do, but often forget to give them the HOW and WHY.  I have found, even with beginning students, that the old school way of correcting a sound (especially in my field of singing) without repeating it at least three times, results in students who go home to practice and get completely lost/frustrated.  If I make sure that the student really understands why we made the change and then how to make the change, the student tends to progress much more rapidly.  Yes, at times it gets a little technical, but using imagery (that the student comes up with) helps a lot – making sure that the student understands the pedagogical goal and the purpose behind the imagery.

What kinds of approaches do you take in the studio to ensure student success and increase enjoyment?  What rate of progress do you expect from your students?  How do you gauge the effectiveness of your teaching?  Please share in the comments.

About the Author

Rachel Velarde
I began my music career in Bloomington, Indiana. After receiving my B.A. in Music from Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, I earned two Master of Music degrees at Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona. Luminaries I have worked with include Vernon Hartman, James Caraher, Lorenzo Malfatti, Shirlee Emmons, Mary Sue Hyatt, John Sikora, David Jones, David Britton, and Carol Smith.

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  1. Dan Severino

    I think that what the teacher PROJECTS to the student is the crux of the matter. A teacher can say all the correct words, but if the teacher is internally “out of sorts” (with personal lack of confidence, personal frustrations, lack of confidence in the student, has personal anxiety concerning performances) this is going to come across LOUD AND CLEAR to the student. The student is going to pick up on your “internal attitude” more than your outward words.

    So, I think it’s vital that the teacher address her personal issues and “fix them”. Here is how I deal with this topic. The performance isn’t THE END. It’s just one step in a very long process. In that very long process that single performance isn’t all that critical. It is intellectually logical to look at the “big picture” and to put this single performance in perspective. So, for me, it’s important to project to the student that I’m taking their performance as a small snapshot that really will not effect my overall impression of the student. I let the student know that I’m pleased with their efforts and their preparations for the performance and that I really would like to see them do well because I feel their performance is special and worthy of hearing. I have found that my students still may have some nervousness BUT it’s very manageable and almost always play well. Also, for added measure I will often have a few “chit chat” words with my students when they arrive for the performance – I don’t even talk much about the performance – I just let them know I’m glad to see them.

  2. Craig Tompkins


    You are so brave heading back to school! I’m looking forward to reading your reports (when you have time to write them!).

    For me, #1 trumps everything. If the student can laugh, they are at ease and can make rapid progress. Even if they’re having a bad day and can laugh at the crap that’s happening, they realize that it’s only temporary and likely the result of the body/mind processing or reprocessing some new pieces of information. Of course basing everything on accurate physiological and acoustic information, appropriate to the age/stage of the student is the basis of a good learning experience.
    Repetition of the correct way numerous times is the way to ingrain new habits. Repeating something 10 times in order to get it right once, means that you’ve done it 10 times wrong and only correct once! Practice makes permanent, so make sure that the practicing is already perfect!

  3. Natalie

    Thank you for this post. I really enjoyed it. I’m actually a recent high school graduate and will be heading to college this fall to study Piano Pedagogy. So, I appreciate this sound advice. Number three is especially important to me because I’ve experienced, as a music student, what it’s like when a teacher doesn’t follow your advice. My piano teacher used to talk to me for sometimes twenty minutes about random things ranging from his abusive father to why he divorced his wife. Needless to say, i didn’t study with him for very long. Experiences like this help me understand how NOT to teach. Thank you for all your tips. I will put them into practice.

  4. Ed Pearlman

    Thanks for posting these comments; they’re right on target and it’s great for teachers to have a good attitude, as you outline it here. Best of luck in school!

  5. Rachel Velarde

    Thanks Ed! Sorry it took so long to respond. I just surfaced from 3-weeks of 5 hours of class daily (Ethnomusicology: SE Asian Gamelan and Jazz Theory) of classes where I’d never delved into the subject before. June 6th was my first day (the day you commented) and I just couldn’t focus on anything but school for those three weeks. It’s going well so far and I have a plan to be finished with my DMA by May 2013. Happy Music Making!

  6. Rachel Velarde

    Jia – You’re welcome. I do hope my thoughts help students to evaluate their teachers and make sure that they are receiving the kind of lesson they deserve. Best of luck in all you do!
    Happy Music Making,

  7. Rachel Velarde

    Hi Natalie –
    Thanks for the kind words. Sorry it took me so long to respond, I just resurfaced after a 3-week intensive semester (2 classes in 3 weeks) towards my DMA. It was fun, but I had no brain for anything else. Yes, you can learn from bad teaching, sometimes as much as from observing good teaching. Congratulations on knowing that you had a choice in teachers. Many inexperienced students don’t realize that THEY are allowed to leave. If a student and teacher don’t match, it’s not worth persisting and, hopefully, the teacher will be able to help the student find a new teacher who will better suit their learning style.
    Congratulations on you Piano Ped plans and Happy Music Making!

  8. Rachel Velarde

    Hi Craig –
    Well, 2 classes down, 4 to go. I have my plan in place and, if I’m completely insane (which I am), I’ll be done with my coursework by NATS Conference next summer. I agree that laughter is extremely important. I always try to couch my determination to help the student continue to progress with laughing comments “That was good, now give me more,” and “Okay – I just want absolutely everything you have” (both said with a huge smile and an encouraging voice).
    In the past year, I’ve very specifically been putting into practice what you stated about repetition. My students know that I’ll say “That was it. Now, do it again 2 more times JUST that way so you know what to do at home and how you got here.”
    Take care & I hope to see you in Orlando. 😀

  9. Rachel Velarde

    Hi Dan –
    Great thoughts about supporting the student – it is all about them, isn’t it? I learned a lot from Shirlee Emmons about how to deal with performance anxiety (which can also occur just during a lesson). What I try to tell my students is, “Have you done the preparation you can? Are you at the best you CAN be, RIGHT NOW, in these circumstances? Then, whatever happens, I am extremely proud of you and your work. This doesn’t mean that you are finished learning – tomorrow is another day for you to learn even more and improve more, but today, this is where you’re at and that’s a great place to be.”
    The student performance is never about the teacher (especially when my students do well, I have to remind myself of that – I sometimes find myself finding personal validation in their performance – NOT the point!) or the teacher’s ego. The student put in the work and delivered. It’s their performance and you were the guide.
    Keep it up and any other thoughts you have, I’d love to hear them!
    Happy Music Making!

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