Music Teacher's Helper Blog

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.

Read More

Last weekend, we were an exhibitor at the Utah Music Teacher’s Association (UMTA) Conference, and it was a great success! This was our first time exhibiting at such a conference, but the response was overwhelmingly positive. Everyone who took more than 30 seconds to see what our booth was amazed at what Music Teacher’s Helper could do to simplify business management in their studio. We also did a showcase and demonstrated Music Teacher’s Helper to a larger group, and got a lot of great interaction and feedback. Some of the most oft-requested features were a photo album on the studio website (to put up recital photos, etc.), and a way to track Federation (NFMC) points and trophies, etc. So, these are things we’re currently looking into. Actually, we already finished the photo album. 🙂

I, personally had a lot of fun getting to meet more teachers out there and learning the different ways teachers have of handling billing and scheduling in their studios. I especially loved seeing their faces light up when they realized how much time and headache Music Teacher’s Helper could save them. We had such a great time that we’re considering going to the Music Teacher’s National Association (MTNA) Conference in Toronto next year. We’re hoping it will be just as big of a hit there as it was here in Utah. What do you think?

Read More

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?

Read More