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When To Present Advanced Musical Ideas?

Many teachers settle into a routine set of materials or a method such as Suzuki, or a method of their own making, and find it awkward to break out of the routine if a student asks about more advanced musical ideas.
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Is it really something to worry about?  Do students need to be guided along a groomed path, or can a change of scenery, or a glimpse of the road ahead, do them good?

There are, in fact, some great benefits to exposing beginners or intermediate students to advanced ideas.  There are also some drawbacks, which is why teachers are often reluctant to depart from an orderly presentation of material.

One of the benefits to presenting advanced ideas is to open a student’s mind to the richness of music.  Teaching, like parenting, is most effective when done by example.  If you as the teacher share some of the interests, passions, and thought processes that go into your own practicing and performing, the student will have a concrete sense of what it’s like to delve deeply into learning and playing music.

Advanced ideas can also inspire and motivate.  Discussing or demonstrating how a student’s musical selection might be performed, complete with ornamentation, dynamics and expression that might be beyond the student’s current ability, can inspire the student to work harder on the basics in order to rise to the challenge.  This can also expand the student’s appreciation of beauty and expression in music that might otherwise seem a chore to work on.

Learning of a student’s hopes can help you understand their motivations better.  There have been times when a student came to me with an ambitious agenda to learn an advanced piece of music that was well beyond their ability.  On a number of occasions I have allowed them to work on it anyway, but in very small segments and in a simplified form.  This was very exciting for the student, to feel they were actually working on a piece they dreamed of playing.  While doing this, we also worked on material at their level, but the advanced piece provided great motivation.  Even if you choose to delay introducing the more advanced piece, allowing their dream piece to become a part of their future lesson plans not only motivates a student but also helps you learn more about what they are interested in learning.  Techniques can then be presented partly in conjunction with how they will be used in the future piece of music.

Another good effect of discussing and presenting material that is beyond the student’s current level is that it gives the student a broader perspective of their learning process.  Looking ahead to future challenges can make current challenges seem less daunting, while also providing more desire to overcome obstacles.  Focusing only on today’s problem allows it to seem bigger than it needs to be, and perfectionists (see previous blog for tips on perfectionists)  may well fixate on today’s problem and take a long time to perfect it without recognizing that there are more exciting doors yet to open.

There are, of course, a few reasons to be cautious in revealing advanced material.  I mentioned the benefits first because often teachers are hesitant to depart from a set course, worried more about the problems and not thinking so much of the benefits.

In my view, any advanced musical idea is worth sharing with a student — unless it is confusing, and blocks the student from understanding and mastering a current skill.  Simple exercises are sometimes the best builders of muscle memory in playing music, but their simplicity is often deceptive, and students sometimes try to “cut to the chase” by figuring out where they think you’re going with the exercise before they’ve mastered the simpler movement.  This is especially true when a student is reading notes and wants to play all the notes of a passage in sequence instead of mastering the movements that makes this passage and future similar passages easy to play.  So for example, presenting an advanced bowing pattern to a student, when they haven’t mastered the basics, may make them impatient with learning the basics.  However, a good teacher can still play a piece with advanced bowing, expression, etc., and get across the musical spirit of it, to inspire the student, without focusing too much on the technical requirements that might seem confusing.

There is another potential drawback to presenting more advanced material, and this one is dependent on the student’s personality, and on the persistence and patience of the teacher.  Some students have a very competitive attitude, or have set for themselves a goal of being “good at” their instrument within a certain period of time.  Sometimes such students are discouraged when they see someone play music well that they are struggling with.  This is very sad, for one would hope that hearing music played well would only provide inspiration, not discouragement.  In this case it’s nice to include a group experience for the student so they can enjoy the spirit of the group without comparing themselves one on one with other students, at least not until they gain more confidence and pleasure in their own progress.

To sum up, three benefits of sharing material beyond the student’s level are:  1) opening a student’s mind to the richness of music, and inspiring by example; 2) learning more about a student’s motivation; 3) giving a broader persective on the learning process.

Two drawbacks of exposing a student to advanced material are: 1) overwhelming or confusing a student about current tasks they are working on; 2) discouraging a student if they are particularly competitive.

As always, it would be interesting to hear your experiences on this topic, in the comments to this post!

About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]

2 Comments

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  2. Phyllis Calderon

    I think that exposure to more advanced material provides motivation, inspiration and joy to students. An example: Many years ago I taught a Suzuki piano student who was growing bored. She wanted to learn a piece by Alicia Keys. This particular piece was, in my opinion, too advanced for her. But I thought that allowing her to learn it would motivate her to practice her current material. As a result, not only did her enthusiasm and motivation grow, but she learned some advanced chords and learned to play this popular piece really well!

    I often allow my violin students to preview sections of a slightly more advanced piece as a way to keep them engaged and motivated. They love challenges. Also, allowing them to explore with new, higher advanced material also helps them to see what they need to master in current skills before advancing to new ones.