Hello (musical) world!
Welcome to my first post on the MTH blog. I’m looking forward to getting started, and to sharing my thoughts about music with fellow teachers, students, performers, and music lovers.
I’ve spent a lot of time working as a performer, and also an academic researcher, and I love both these pursuits. But it is teaching music that I always come back to, and that I find the most fascinating and surprising. Teaching offers me the wonderful opportunity to pass on my love of and interest in music and music making, and to learn from my students in studio lessons, masterclasses, tutorials, and performances.
Teaching creates a wonderful space in which we can connect the practical making of music with ideas about music as part of our discussions with students who are coming to the different aspects of music for the first time. We can chat about, play through, experiment with, and ponder all that puzzles and moves us about music in all its beauty and complexity as part of a natural learning process. As we all know, teachers can learn as much from their students as their students learn from them, both from students’ questions, and from their comments and musical responses.
Keeping the love alive
One of the most difficult tasks teachers face is keeping the love of music alive for students, whether the students be school-age children, teenagers or adults balancing their musical life with social and family pressures, or university-level performers- and teachers-in-training concerned with maintaining good grades and securing a good position.
Music is without a doubt its own best advertisement here. There is no greater feeling than the one we get when the notes are in our fingers or in our voice and our heart and we can just let go and play and sing freely with our colleagues, friends, and family. But few students really get the chance to get up-and-running and be free in this way with their music making. The majority of students practice alone week to week, take lessons because their parents want them to or for adult students because it is a requirement of a college course or to help them meet performance deadlines in community choirs or ensembles.
Even those who intend to have careers as performers will often only engage in real music-making when they enter competitions, sit exams, or participate in end-of-term recitals. These help develop performance skills, of course, and they are an important rite-of-passage for all those who want to be musicians. But these events can also be stressful, and usually involve judgement: performers get a grade or a prize or, in most cases, no prize at all.
It’s not surprising to find that, under these conditions, many children stop lessons when they finally can, or that those on a classical career track will have some alternate ‘free performance’ outlet such as a jazz group or a rock or folk band. (I myself play the ukulele, which allows me to jam with friends and is a source of endless cheery pleasure.)
We as teachers can help.
Teachers can help to keep the love of music alive by maintaining access to and participation in the up-and-running part of music-making as part of their training of students as much as possible. Not to do so is to cut students off from the very best part of being musician – the bit that is really worth hanging around for.
We can also help in our choice and use of materials and how much time we devote to these materials in lessons and classes. Many of the books and study programs we use in home studios, conservatories, and universities, break music down into discrete units designed to help students understand how music works when it is in pieces, or how to acquire essential technical skill.
It’s of course necessary for teachers to shepherd their students through these primers and treatises so they turn into literate musicians who can think, read, and play, both on their own and with colleagues. But it’s also hugely important – and I would argue, one of our greatest responsibilities – that we go beyond the scales, forms, style studies, and fingerings, and teach our students from the very beginning to be curious about music. Curiosity, after all, is the first step on the way to interest, and interest leads to understanding and affection – the two most important ingredients in love.
Music sells itself.
Encouraging your students to play and sing with others, whether it is with us, their teachers, with their siblings, or with other students in their class or studio, is one of the best thing we can do to foster a love of music in our students.
Duets with roughly equal parts, no matter how simple the music, are much more engaging than solo pieces with accompaniment, which are easily played as if the other person were not there. Students should be encouraged to play one part and sing the other. This is challenging, but hugely fun, and will get students thinking completely differently than if they were playing on their own.
Starting the conversation
Talking about music, whether in a lesson, in masterclasses, on a studio blog, or during concert or style projects with students, is also a hugely impactful way we teachers can plant the seeds of curiosity that will keep students making music long after they have left your studio.
In my MTH blog, I’ll be writing around a number of ‘talking about music’ themes that I have found work well to foster engagement with and affection for music in students of all ages. I’ll be looking at aspects of how music works and why that might be, how music reflects the peoples and cultures that make it, and how music helps us express ourselves, exploring our similarities and differences in unique ways. I’ll also be writing about one of my pet themes: how the connection between ideas and sounds forms the basis of music, and the important role performers – both professional and student performers – have to play in keeping that connection current, relevant, and vital.
As my students and colleagues well know, I could talk about music almost endlessly – long after the class is finished, the concert over, and the pub is closed. It’s a good thing I am also a bit obsessive about keeping to time in my studio and rehearsals or my schedule would collapse completely! So it’s not surprising that my first blog post is a little long… in future, I’ll aim to strike a good balance between content, levity, and brevity.
I’m looking forward to talking to you about music, and especially to reading your comments. I hope that, wherever you are in the world, you’ll join me in my pondering and puzzling and chatting about music and music teaching, and that together we’ll learn more about how best to foster a love of music for our students, our audiences, and our colleagues.