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Redesigning Music Education

A designer’s goal is to make experiences simple, intuitive and accessible.  It’s all about creating an effective user experience.  What if we could redesign music education?

In many first lessons, teachers start with a symbolic language of staff, treble clef, whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, etc.  The sheer amount of information is so great that most cannot make this leap.

This is from a teacher’s point of view, not a student-centered view.

Student Experience Design

Today, I want to share some simple ways to apply design thinking in your studio and classroom.  

I propose we call it “student experience” (SX) design and “student interface”(SI) design.  We music teachers need to become effective SX designers with excellent and intuitive SI’s.

8 areas to consider – redesigning music education.

1 – Target Student – Who is your audience?

Having a clear understanding of your audience is essential in all of the design.  You can never be all things to all people, so decide.  

Did you know the root of the word decide is to cut off from?  

Middle English, from Latin decidere, literally, to cut off, from de- + caedere to cut

By choosing, we eliminate extraneous and superfluous information.

It enables us to focus on materials, repertoire, and activities that enhance student experience with student interface that is age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate.  

2 – User knowledge – What do they already know?

This is a very powerful question.  The more you know, the easier to find ways to build rapport, connection, and metaphors for learning.  My preschool audience is quite unique in that I needed to learn about the stages of human development which are still rapidly changing at this age.  

There are vast differences between 3, 4 and 5-year-olds from fine motor skills to conceptual knowledge.  In designing my curriculum, the Musicolor Method, I knew my audience understood colors, shapes, and fingers on their hands.  This is used from the very first lesson.

3 – Can you relate to what they already know?

By having a comprehensive understanding of your audience, you can bridge the gap to what you want to new skills, knowledge, and techniques.   This helps in lesson plan design.

You can create metaphors for learning.

For example:  This is called a whole note.  It’s like the whole pizza.  This one is a half note, it’s half of the pie.

4 – User Expectations – What do they want to learn?  

I recently had a mother tell me she wanted to learn enough piano to be able to support her daughter at home and to model the practice behavior.  By knowing this, I could design lesson plans in alignment with what I was teaching her child.

One of my guitar students wants to play lead guitar for his high school band.  I know that I need to introduce how to use a flat pick at some point so that he can play those fast licks he associates with lead guitar.

5 – What do they need to learn this effectively?

Learning is a process that requires a core understanding that builds upon greater understanding at each level.  If done well, it leads to mastery.  In subjects like math, science and computer programming, getting an 85% on a test is not good at all.  It means you didn’t understand 15% and if you go further, you probably only get 75% or less.  It’s cumulative.  Pretty good is not good at all.

The role of the teacher is to guide each and every student up the steps towards mastery.  This requires a structured path.  There are no shortcuts, but there are various approaches.  

Teaching a beginner guitarist etudes by Fernando Sor is one way.  So is using Beatles songs, or Metallica.  One is not more valid than the other, as long as we are moving up the mountain of mastery.

6 – Can you break it into smaller steps?

Just as user interfaces for a website needs to be clear and simple, a music lesson can be designed to deliver just the right amount of information at the right time.   Effective teaching is essentially getting the right dose at the right time.  Too much and you overwhelm.  Too little and you get boredom.  In the Musicolor Method, we call it the Stepping Stone principle.  

One trick I’ve used to cut down the information is a simple Post-It note covering everything I did not want the student to focus on in the music score.  By adding more “white space,” the student can breathe a sigh of relief and not be overwhelmed.

7 – How can you test this?

In all of design, user testing and feedback is extremely important.  Without it, we suffer from a blindness called the Curse of Knowledge.  This is because you can never un-know what you know.  You need to see it through the eyes of your audience.  

You as the teacher and expert are too close to the subject matter.  It’s the reason coaches are so popular these days.  They can see you in a way you can never see yourself and offer you valuable feedback.

Musicians have a built in user feedback mechanism:  the audience.  Applause is usually good.  Boos bad.  You immediately know if you are connecting with your audience.

Teachers need feedback too and it comes first from the students.  Then the parents.  

If you can’t seem to attract enough students or retain the ones you have, that may be useful feedback that your lessons are not delivering what the student is expecting.

8 – How does it make you feel?

A big part of SX design is the feeling of the experience.  Luckily for us, it’s usually pretty evident when a student is enjoying the experience.  Music is infectious and when something is resonating and grooving we just can’t keep still.   It’s something that can be shared with family, friends and the world.

In Conclusion

By redesigning the student interface, we can greatly enrich the student experience.  

What do you think?

I look forward to your thoughts in the comments below.

About the Author

Andrew Ingkavet
Andrew Ingkavet believes that learning a musical instrument builds skills vital to success in life which has led to a thriving music school in Brooklyn, NY. Andrew supports music teachers with the Musicolor Method®, an online curriculum/training as well as 5 star-rated book, The Game of Practice: with 53 Tips to Make Pr... [Read more]

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