Friday, October 21, 2011

How I Teach

I once had a prospective student ask me what I was going to teach him. I suppose the answer would have been easy if he had been a beginner, but he had been playing for a few years. So my answer was, "I haven't the faintest idea!" Which puzzled him no end. I really don't know how I am going to teach someone until I hear them play. My method varies with every student because every student has different strengths and weaknesses. I loaned a book on technique to a student once who came back complaining that after reading the section on slur problems she had worked hard on her slurs and didn't see any improvement. "But you don't have any problems with your slurs!" was my reply.

I want to help each student improve their playing and musical understanding. This means working with them on technical weaknesses they have; filling in gaps in their repertoire; exposing them to ideas they haven't encountered and increasing their level of confidence. The details are different with each student. This is, by the way, why you can't really learn an instrument from a book.

Sometimes I tell a student that I can't really teach them how to play; they have to teach themselves. The reason for this is so they know that their own efforts are what is crucial. A teacher just guides, encourages and introduces. The actual work in the trenches is all up to the student. You can inspire a bit and point in certain directions, but all the wood-shedding is the job of the student. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!

I wonder how much of this is true of disciplines other than music?

Pretty good playing for her age!!


RG said...

"This is, by the way, why you can't really learn an instrument from a book."

The weasel "really" in this aside takes some of the wind out of its claim, so I want to ask for more commitment. I have never "really" tried to learn to play -- working through the Grade 1 Piano book was only so that I could make out the bits ofnotation in histories of music. But I was having coffee with a friend the other day (a famous scholar of 17thC philosophy) who has played his guitar for many years and recently turned to piano. He told me that he had begun by first engaging a teacher of repute, who subjected him to a miserable first (and last) session. He now believes (tentatively?) that the only way for him to learn is just to take a score and work through it. He admitted wistfully that this procedure will not likely lead to a level of skill where he could enjoy listening himself. I wanted to suggest that he get over his bad experience and find a more congenial teacher. But I did not -- not being sure that his method, or a book, or a teacher would be best.

What would you recommend?

Bryan Townsend said...

I do try to eliminate the weasel words from my posts, but they just creep in!

By the way, I am heartened to hear of someone learning a bit of music notation so they can make sense of books on music. This is the way it should be instead of efficiently eliminating every trace of music notation from books on music.

I just started an adult beginner on guitar perhaps two months ago. He is a psychologist and painter of some level of accomplishment, but had never played an instrument before. He was reading simple music by the end of the first lesson, playing his first simple piece a week later and, believe it or not, I lured him to a "guitar night" where players and students gather to listen to one another about a month later. He actually performed a simple piece in front of the others (some of whom were professional musicians) and did well.

A teacher is best, but you need the right teacher. I am amazed at how many so-so and even bad music teachers there are...