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My Approach To Teaching Music To Beginners

Anyone who has read the blogs I have posted so far on this site may be wondering by now whether I only teach advanced students, or do I teach beginners as well.

The answer to that is Yes! I most certainly do teach beginners as well. In the course of my career I have taught hundreds, if not thousands of beginners, both private individual lessons, and in classroom situations too. And over those many years, I've learned a thing or two, through trial and error, about how to motivate beginners to learn.

The most important thing, I have found, for me, is to learn about my student. Because I have found that the only answer to the question of what will motivate my student, lies in the student. For example, there are students who have a natural feel for rhythm, while others don't. There are students that have a natural feel for melody, while others don't. Some students are excited about learning how to read music, while others may have a mental block about it, or even an aversion to it. Does this mean I can't teach them how to read music? No, of course not! But it may mean I need to adjust my teaching approach with them accordingly.

Now, of course, it is very important that beginners learn the basics of how to play their instrument, and the basics of the musical elements (rhythm, melody, harmony, form, expression, etc), and I generally include music theory and reading music in that, although that does not need to be approached directly, and in the case of music that involves improvisation, it is possible to bypass reading music altogether. Reading music is merely a skill which enables musical ideas to be conveyed in a way where everyone involved can be “on the same page” so to speak. It just makes things more efficient, especially in a group situation, where everyone has a different musical part to learn.

So, yes, of course, teaching all the basics is foremost in my mind whenever I am teaching beginners. However, my approach is not rigid, and I do not necessarily approach it the same way with every student.

However, one thing that is universal with all students about learning to play an instrument, is the fact that playing an instrument is first and foremost a physical activity. The two instruments I teach are drums and piano. Now, when I first started teaching drums, the first thing I taught was the “correct” way to hold the drumsticks. So, before I even gave myself a chance to observe my student's natural instinct to hitting a drum with a stick, I began teaching him/her the “correct” way. Same with piano. My lessons would always be about two main things: correct hand position and correct finger motion. That, and finding “middle C” on the piano. Now, of course all this was and still is the right place to start, however, it's the approach to this beginning that I have changed over the years. Because now, instead of me sitting the student down and trying to teach them the “rights and wrongs” about playing music, before even observing anything about the student, the first thing I do is simply invite the student to try his hand at playing the instrument. Some of them will say “What do I play?” I answer, “Play anything you want. Don't worry about whether it's correct or not.”

Now some students will still be stuck for what to do, but that already tells me something about that student. They like and need to have a little more direction and guidance, before attempting to do something. And so with them, I will then give them a little something more to go by – a suggestion of some kind – but I will still keep it very open, meaning I still am giving them as much free reign as possible to explore the instrument on their own.

And of course there are other students that take to this free, open approach like a fish takes to water. I generally find this happens most often with very young children. They tend to have less preconceptions, and consequently less inhibitions.

Usually a very young child is totally captured by just the sound of the instrument alone. Whether the sounds that come out as he plays with it are right, wrong, correct, incorrect, musical, unmusical, beautiful, ugly, is simply not a concern for these children. But they are totally captivated by the mere sounds that come out of the instrument and the joy it gives them when they make these sounds happen. For example, a child will hit a stick once on a cymbal, then put his ear up to the cymbal to hear it close up. Or strike some random keys on the piano, then hold them down and just listen to the sustained sound as it slowly dies away.

Well, these children are doing exactly what any musician and music teacher would want them to do. They are listening. And listening is the foremost important thing to do while making music. So naturally, it should be encouraged, right from the start. And for most children, it seems the first natural thing they want to do.

So after a while of letting students explore the instrument on their own, I will begin to try to help them become more aware of what it is they are listening to. And if they like something they hear, how can they capture it and begin improving upon it? In other words, how can they begin to acquire the skills needed to play what they want to play? It becomes a creative process as well a lesson in basic technique, which are the dry nuts and bolts, but not approached rigidly as such.

Sometimes a student is not very discerning about what he likes or doesn't like as he bangs around and explores. Or he's not sure of what has musical potential and what doesn't. But as teacher, I always try to be careful as to how I word my suggestions. Often, instead of just telling the student “Do this”, or “Don't do that”, I will try to approach it more like: “Hey, I really liked what you just played there. Can you play it again?” Of course, students do need some direction and guidance , and I will give it when it is needed, but I will always try to do it in a way whereby I am first encouraging the student to make his own discoveries. Often I will hint or suggest at a solution to a problem, but will hold off on the answer until it becomes clear that the student is not discovering it for himself.

And of course, asking a student to re-play something he played, immediately becomes a learning exercise in itself, because it involves both ear training and the process of developing physical technique.

Before I close out on this blog, I do want to also put in a word for the value of humor in teaching. I have often found that laughter is a great way to break the ice and release inhibitions. I find this with human relations in general, and it is, of course, no exception between a teacher and student. Often if I have a particularly difficult problem that I am trying to work on with my student, a little humor can help ease any tension or stress that may arise from it. And usually, along with that comes a release of inhibition, from which often comes some sort of creative breakthrough, and the problem gets solved. Or, if not, it's OK. We put that one aside for now, and move on to something else. We can always return to it another time. And that also helps to put the student more at ease, I find. He comes to feel more comfortable, because I am not expecting perfection from him. I do try to get as much out of the student as I can, but whereas perfection may be a desirable goal, I feel it's important to know and to let the student know that, above all, learning is a process. We would not strive for perfection if we were not imperfect to begin with, so we should learn to become comfortable with our imperfection, as we go through the learning process. And most importantly, it should be fun, and creative!

Creativity is a joyful energy, and musical creativity is no exception. The thing that truly captivates a child in a musical environment where he is free to explore, is the sheer fun and joy in making new sounds. Though “improvisation” is often considered to be something that is very advanced, the fact is that any kind of musical exploration that happens “in the moment” is improvisation on some level.

As a music teacher, I feel my job is to try to listen for any musical potential in whatever a student plays, and try to nurture that, however small it might be, for no amount of musicality is insignificant. I try, as much as possible, to draw the incentive to learn from the student himself, with the belief that every student has an innate will to learn, which is driven by the natural joy of learning anything that sparks his interest. Because that spark is the very spark of joy itself.

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