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Teaching Music: Let the Student Play

Early in my private teaching career, my philosophy regarding the structure of a typical lesson was that it is preferable to encourage the student to practice independently, so that lesson time can be spent discussing finer points. “I cannot provide the experience in a half-hour lesson that a week’s worth of solid practice will give you,” I advised. “My job is to speed up the learning process, but the physical act of performing is developed solely through your efforts.” Wise words, but over the years I learned that simply assigning material and expecting to see progress stems from an overestimation of the average student’s drive and resourcefulness. Students need to learn how to practice effectively. I’d like to discuss some ways to hone students’ practicing skills, beginning with simply letting them play.

As instructors, we are passionate about sharing our knowledge — to a point that it often gets in the way. Some things that we probably do more often than we should:

  1. Provide historical or theoretical support for the material under study.
  2. Correct an error in the student’s performance.
  3. Play an excerpt of the material ourselves, to provide a model for emulation.
  4. Point out how a specific learning moment relates to previously discussed material.
  5. Instruct the student to skip past a section of material that is obviously well-prepared.

None of the above examples are entirely out of place in a lesson. In fact, each one is quite appropriate in certain situations. But they can easily be overdone.

Allow your students as much uninterrupted time as possible with their hands on their instruments. When they are performing in a lesson for you, they are rehearsing for larger audiences.

The self-taught among us should recall what our most crucial learning moments were like. For me, they were usually enjoyed in solitude, under quiet reflection. If I made a connection between a passage I had just played an some abstract theoretical concept, it was through discovery, not instruction.

Your job as a private lessons instructor is easier than you probably expected, or even wanted it to be. Be there to field the tough questions, and guide your students through the moments that truly need hand-holding, but otherwise get out of the way and let them play for you.

The chief benefit of giving your students as much performance time as possible is that you will learn what they need to learn. When you are talking, you are dominating the lesson agenda. But when you are listening, you are allowing your student to set her own agenda. You are allowing the student to reveal her areas of opportunity. Ask your students to play their assigned material, then patiently listen and take notes. That last part is very useful; take real notes, with a pen and paper. It shows you’re listening, and it gives you some bullet points to address.

With regards to the above list of well-intentioned pitfalls, here are some countermeasures:

  1. Remember that your student has a lifetime to learn minutiae. Keep nerdy details to yourself unless you can offer knowledge that helps your student with his immediate objective. And even then, try to limit yourself to dispensing about one factoid every few weeks. You don’t want to create a guitar lover, you want to create a guitar player.
  2. Correct weaknesses, not errors. Students are quite likely to recognize errors on their own. Telling your student, “You slowed down here” is merely pointing out the obvious. Do you tell your spouse he gained weight? If you must correct an error you feel a student missed, try opening the discussion with a question: “What happened here?” or, “Let’s play this phrase again. I’d like to see if you hear what I heard.” Weaknesses, or bad habits, on the other hand, are worth pointing out: “I just wanted to hear that a few times to make sure it wasn’t a one-time thing, but let’s talk about the intonation on this bend.”
  3. Are you demonstrating, or showing off? I understand how important it is for students to hear exemplary performance; they need models for good sound and execution. But don’t play for the sake of hearing yourself play. Your students already know you’re the pro, or they wouldn’t be coming to you for lessons. There are indeed situations in which a student would be grateful for hearing something played properly. Ask yourself, what are these situations? How can I recognize them?
  4. Don’t force connections. Have you ever noticed that you can create a diminished seventh chord by forming a dominant seventh chord one half-step lower and simply changing the root? When I noticed this during a practice session, the experience was more meaningful and the knowledge I gained was more lasting. I’m certain that if a teacher spelled it out for me, I could have easily forgotten it as soon as I heard it. You’re not cheating your student out of a learning experience by withholding unsolicited knowledge; you’re providing a chance to discover it independently. Remember point one: Your students’ journeys are in their early stages. Each of the myriad of patterns that exist on the fretboard will reveal themselves when the moment is right.
  5. Avoid the phrase, “Sounds good, moving on…” First of all, you’re trying to teach good practice habits. I believe that if you’re playing through a selection (versus repetitious drilling of smaller fragments within the selection), you must play it as you would on stage. That means slow passages aren’t rushed, repeats are observed, and easy sections are not skimmed or skipped. Naturally, if assigned material is mastered, you should move on to the next item in your curriculum. But allow run-throughs to be performed in their entirety, uninterrupted. Look for opportunities to discuss finer points that usually don’t come up when you’re drilling smaller fragments, like variation between repeats, dynamics, and rubato. In short, if the material is under-prepared, focus on tiny fragments (more on that later); but if the student can play a piece comfortably, for Pete’s sake, sit back and enjoy listening to it for a while!

You can sum up this whole article with one simple rule: Let your student play as much as possible. The weak students might be practicing more in your lessons than during the week, in which case they’ll leave with a sense of accomplishment; and your stronger students will benefit from the more informed insight you can give after listening very intently to their performance.

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