Teaching Music: Pace Yourself

The accumulation of knowledge is empowering, but it is also inspiring: We feel compelled to seek out others who share our knowledge, even if we have to first teach them what we know. This is why fan cultures develop around highly specific topics. It’s why adults seek communities of fellow hobbyists. And it’s one reason why musicians teach.

This urge to share can disrupt the private lesson experience. I often find myself having to restrain an urge to lecture. A mundane topic, like how to bend a note, can easily grow into a dissertation on various bending techniques if I allow it. For me, one of the principal traits of an effective private music instructor is restraint.

As an undergrad I learned that, when directing a band rehearsal, one should only stop to work on one thing at a time. This principle applies to private lessons. If you hear a lot of things that need attention, don’t expect your student to remember a laundry list of corrections. Fix one problem, rehearse it, and then move on to the next. And by “rehearse it,” I mean repeat the living crap out of the passage you’re fixing. I would rather have my student spend a half hour repeating the same passage than listen to me regurgitate facts or expound philosophies.

Speaking of regurgitating and expounding, never assume that your student is interested in the vast array of information that you no doubt are prepared to unleash on the slightest prompt. If you feel that sharing a factoid will enhance the learning experience without distracting your student from just playing, then go for it. As a case in point, I was working with a student on a transcription of a fiddle tune, and suggested that she check out Doc Watson if she wants to see more good examples of fiddle tunes played on guitar. She seemed to appreciate the suggestion. On the other hand, if I followed the urge to interrupt rehearsal of the tune to watch a Doc Watson video on YouTube, or told a long anecdote about my having to learn a fiddle tune for a gig, I would be utterly destroying the pace of the lesson.

Your best students will use lessons as a springboard for further explorations, but your least motivated students are unlikely to find motivation in your demonstrations of superior knowledge. Remember that your best students are practically teaching themselves; you’re lucky to keep them. What can you do to keep the less motivated students engaged? Make them play.

Naturally, there will be plenty of opportunities to take advantage of “learning moments.” But the art of teaching depends upon your ability to sieze only the best opportunities and leave the rest for later. Even learning moments are, at their onset, distractions. Think of the best possible learning moments as climactic points in an ongoing TV series, and each of your lessons is an episode. Leave your audience wanting more.

Remember that every fiber in your web of knowledge and proficiency was woven days, weeks, months, and years at a time. You want to see your students progress, but avoid the temptation to cram all their learning into small periods of time. Let the process of their development breathe. Focus on simple, incremental steps.

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