Musical Mondays: Teaching Music, Part 1 (What’s the Point?)

piano teacher

I would like to take you on a little trip into the not-so-distant past. The year is 2013, and I am on my way to a new piano student’s house for her very first lesson. There is some apprehension concerning this student, for one simple reason: she is a transfer student. Music teachers everywhere, feel free to shudder along with me at this point. For everyone else, let me explain. A transfer student means, obviously, that they’ve had at least one previous teacher before. That might not sound so bad, but I’ve had enough transfer students by now to realize that you never really know what to expect. Unfortunately, my experience has not been very flattering to music teachers. This example student was no exception.

The first thing I did at the lesson was ask to see her old books she had used with her previous teacher. I was pleasantly surprised to find that they had used the exact same books I normally use. That meant I had a very good idea of what she had been taught so far. Or so I thought. Then she opened the first book–and let the horror commence.

Before she even played one song, before her fingers so much as touched the keys, I knew I was in for a struggle. How could I tell? Because every…single…song…had every…single…note name…written in. No joke! With great trepidation, I opened to a song near the end of the book (which she had supposedly “passed”) and asked her to play it. As I expected, she couldn’t play it at all on her own. Even with the letters written in, she couldn’t figure out which “C” or “E”, etc. on the keyboard corresponded to which “C” or “E” on the staff. She didn’t even understand that the top staff is for right hand and the bottom staff is for left hand, and that when notes go up on the staff, she likewise goes higher on the keys, and vice versa. Over the next few weeks, I would continue to be surprised by her lack of visual observation–not to mention that, once all the pencil markings were erased, she really couldn’t read the notes for herself.


I was horrified. This poor girl had gone through an entire lesson book and was ignorant of the most basic concepts. What’s more, she had no finger control at all, and no sense of steady beat. However, it is my firm belief that this was not a bad reflection on her, but of the teacher. It wasn’t her fault she didn’t know any of these things, because that was how she had been taught. She didn’t know any better.

Sadly, every single one of my transfer students have suffered in similar ways. Now don’t get me wrong–I’m not saying that I’m a perfect teacher by any means. I’ve made my fair share of mistakes and will continue to do so, without any doubt. Nor am I saying that teachers should never write on their students’ music. There is a time and place for it–but it shouldn’t hinder the student’s development and learning. What I am saying, then, is that experiencing firsthand the trials of teaching transfer students has taught me to examine and critique my own teaching habits in this light and strive to hold myself up to a higher standard. I may not always succeed, but it is a constant struggle I must be engaged in if I (and my students) hope to improve.

Why as teachers would we ever want our students to get away with “learning” songs without actually learning anything from them? What’s the point of teaching them if we don’t even help them  master the most basic concepts? The answer, I’m sorry to say, is human pride. Too often nowadays, a teacher’s success is related inaccurately to the number of songs their students know. The “level” of their student becomes more important than the development of a true musician, thus the temptation is greater to just teach everything by rote regardless of the student’s understanding or skill. But what good is a student’s “level” if they can’t learn anything on their own?

Let me introduce you to my favorite teaching philosophy: Quality vs. Quantity. It’s not about how many songs a child can play or how quickly they “progress.” It’s how they play the songs they do know. It’s time that we teachers stopped worrying about our image and spent more time concerned about our students’ best interests. How do we do this? Simple. We stop the short-term egocentric style of teaching that includes learning songs by rote, skipping (or rushing over) basic concepts and “passing” songs too quickly just to create the illusion of progress. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh, but sometimes we all need a good kick in the seat of the pants (myself included).

Develop musicians, not parrots.

Develop musicians, not parrots.

Here’s an idea: what would happen if we all began long-term teaching? What would that look like? For starters, it would mean developing musicians, not parrots. In other words, we should be nurturing our students’ creativity and love for music, and improving their knowledge and skills at their pace rather than simply teaching them to copy what we say. As much as I love my students, I don’t want them to be dependent on me forever. The point, then, is to create musicians who know how to teach themselves. That doesn’t mean they should never listen to constructive criticism, or take advice from others. But it does mean that they should be able to one day open up a brand new piece, sit down, and figure it out on their own without a teacher leaning over their shoulder whispering every note into their ear.

If we’re truly going to give our students long-term skills, they have to have a solid foundation first. We need to take more time at the beginning to ensure students are strong in their understanding of basic concepts and technique, so that they won’t suffer for it later. Eventually, they will be able to advance easier and faster, because they already have those concepts well-instilled and good learning habits developed. They will be able to focus more on musicality and interpretation because less time is spent learning the notes and rhythms.

The most important thing we will ever teach our students is independent, self-disciplined study. I do this a certain way in my studio (or, more accurately, I try). You may have your own ideas and methods, and if they work for you, then keep doing it! I’m not suggesting that everybody conform to my specific teaching methods. Our wise and loving Creator made us unique beings. That means everybody’s different and the same method of teaching won’t necessarily work for everyone. However, I do have a few general suggestions:

First, a good teacher is always teachable. Be open to the advice and ideas of other teachers. Learn from their mistakes and successes. Seek out those with more experience. Ask questions! How can we expect our students to listen to us, if we’re not willing to listen to the advice of others?

Second, stop letting them pass songs if they play them incorrectly! You’d think that’s a given, but experience has proven otherwise. And I completely understand the temptations involved–particularly if they’ve been stuck on a song forever and you’re tired of hearing it for the thousandth time. Add to that the temptation to compare them to others in their age group who maybe grasped certain concepts more quickly, or dealing with frustrated parents, and it’s not always easy. I often have to remind myself of my duty to my students–and that each of them is different–whenever I have that little nagging desire to say “close enough” and move on. I’m far from perfect at it, so I’m preaching to myself as much as to others here. And as far as parents are concerned, I have found that, in most cases, if you take the time to explain to them the importance of quality vs. quantity and of creating that solid foundation, they will usually not only be understanding, but willing to support you and help their child work at your suggestions at home. If we take the little extra time to fix mistakes and make sure our students actually retain what they’re being taught, they will improve so much more in the long run.

Third, and I think this is the most important of all, teach students proper practicing habits. Don’t assume they practice perfectly every time on their own–in fact, we should probably assume the opposite. That’s right, assume your students never practice correctly on their own. That sounds cynical, perhaps, but it’s usually closer to the truth. Obviously, I would suggest you keep this assumption to yourself and be more encouraging to your students. But it helps put the importance of weekly one-on-one lessons in better perspective. It means the lesson should be as “perfect” an environment as possible. You can’t control how they practice when you’re not there, but you can control how they practice at the lesson. And that’s really one of the essential purposes of private lessons–we’re teaching them how to practice correctly. If that’s the case, then we should practice their assignments with them exactly how we want them to do it on their own. Because eventually, some of it just might rub off and find its way into their personal practicing as well. It takes time, but I guarantee it’s worth it when you begin to see the improvements taking place.

Remember the transfer student I mentioned earlier? Well, I obviously had to do quite a bit of backtracking to help her actually learn those basic concepts before she was ready to move on. It was hard going for awhile, having to unlearn bad habits and teach things that she should have already known. But you know what? A year later, she can read music (both staves) much more easily and her finger control is light years ahead of where she used to be. She can also play correct rhythms with a steady beat on her own for the first time since I met her. So was it worth it? Absolutely!

In the second part of this post, I will go into more detail about the last point, teaching proper practicing habits. It’s so important, and I feel the only way to do it justice is to give it a separate post. So stay tuned for Part 2!

Finally, I would like to end on a note of encouragement. This post may seem a little harsh, but that is far from my purpose. Rather, it is my hope that we as teachers may take more time to examine our personal teaching habits and to remember to put our students’ best interests at the forefront of our teaching. It is important, and helpful I think, to remember that we are never above reproach, and there’s always room for improvement. If we teach consistently with a long-term perspective, we should begin to see students who grow into true musicians and aren’t held back by the deceptive allurement of short-term success. So make sure you teach your students in a way that they will benefit in the long run. Teach them to be musicians, not parrots. Teach them to teach themselves. I promise they will thank you for it later!

What are your thoughts or ideas on long-term teaching? Do you have specific methods that work for you? Remember, teachers should always be listening and giving advice to each other, so feel free to share!



9 thoughts on “Musical Mondays: Teaching Music, Part 1 (What’s the Point?)

  1. Pingback: Musical Mondays Continued (or Teaching Tuesday): The Practice Directions | The Gathering Fire

  2. Pingback: Musical Mondays: Teaching Music, Part 3 (Don’t Just Practice…Practice Well) | The Gathering Fire

  3. Pingback: Musical Mondays: Teaching Music, Part 2 (Practice, Practice, Practice!) | The Gathering Fire

  4. This was wonderful! I don’t teach music, but having taken my share of music classes, being homeschooled, and teaching writing, this gave me a lot to think about. I may be picking your brain soon about how I can be a better writing teacher. Thank you for the food for thought!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I somewhat know how you feel. 😛 My very first student has been taking voice lessons for a few years now so I was terrified not knowing how far along she was… But come to find out she can’t hardly read music or count. Most of what she has learned its from being in choir, not her private lessons. I was so surprised.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was really surprised when I first started how prevalent this problem is, and it took me a few years to sort of figure out how to handle these cases, although I wouldn’t say I have a perdect hold on it yet. So it’s been a learning area for me definitely. Perhaps it’s my past experience, but I am rather passionate about this issue, in case you couldn’t tell. 😉


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