Teaching Music

Music has been a part of education programs since ancient times. Its emotional as well as practical significance in our lives was clearly realized by ancient Greeks, who taught it as part of mathematics. The teaching approach to either theoretical or practical music is quite different today and the calculation of intervallic ratios is rather a minor (if not entirely non-existent) part of the curriculum. This is not a shortcoming but rather a reflection of how the world and the approach to music have changed throughout the centuries. It is essential for any music teacher to realize this and to address problems within the larger context of modern life.

In my general approach to teaching music I start by asking myself two essential questions:

  1. What is the place of music in the world today?
  2. How can I help an individual to find himself/herself through music?

The first question is not easy to answer, because the world itself is changing at an unprecedented rate in the 21st century. Accordingly, the music and its perception at large, its meaning and place in our lives is constantly transforming. A good teacher should be able to not only realistically identify the context of music in his/her own time but also estimate its future position in society, or at least in the near future. This is very important, since being aware of modern developments in music throughout the world helps one to assess the problems a student is going to be facing after his/her graduation. This in turn makes it possible to arrange a curriculum that addresses most if not all aspects of a musical career in the modern world. Additionally, if any of the changes seem to be negatively affecting the fundamentals of teaching music or performance, it will be possible to address these changes before a student has gone off track with them.

The answer to the second question is essentially contingent to the realization of the first. If a teacher has a more or less accurate perception of the place of the music in a given period of time, he/she will be able to prepare a student accordingly. For example, taking orchestral excerpts to a violin lesson or performing Bach using a baroque bow would be quite an exception fifty years ago. Today even relatively small music departments in universities worldwide often boast a baroque ensemble and Orchestral Studies programs.

I do not assume that one has to change his/her teaching philosophy and methodology entirely, according to social changes in the status of one’s profession. There are fundamentals developed throughout centuries of work and experience that should always be there. But in today’s world the dynamics of communication and student-teacher interaction are quite different from the past, as well as the market and the general perception of music. Globalization, economic changes and free market have affected the world of music and communication reasonably. Growing numbers of international music students with different backgrounds and training are seeking high-quality instruction in the USA as well as Western European countries. While the basics will usually be the same for everyone, a modern teacher should be more sensitive to the cultural, social, emotional and physical differences of his/her students.

The era of great pedagogues with a lofty patriarchal image and unquestioned authority is gone. Students like asking questions, as well as disputing answers. It’s not enough today to just say how but also why and based on what logic. History has proven that there is more than one way to do things in music, and while a teacher should certainly have his/her own principles of technique, ethics and interpretation, it is important to keep an open mind to other ideas and possibilities. In fact, this is the only way that real communication, real “sharing” comes to work effectively.

An important element in the communication of knowledge is the human communication and understanding between teacher and student. Essential to this communication is mutual trust; a powerful constructive bond. To make the distinction from the beginning, I am not talking about the slavishly impersonal trust of the student to the authority of the teacher, so common half a century ago. This is the trust of good intentions, good will, and mutual respect that will create an atmosphere of sharing, learning, and improvement for both teacher and student. This trust is developed through different aspects of teaching, from the competence and enthusiasm of the teacher to the choice of the repertoire.

The repertoire, seemingly negligible, can in fact be a matter of critical importance for the improvement of the student (and subsequently also the development of the atmosphere of trust). Here is where a pedagogue can earn real bonuses if he/she is willing to be also a bit of a psychologist. For example, some students are at home with the traditional 19th century repertoire, while others need more unconventional pieces to “open up.” The fact that a piece is very well-known and has been extensively recorded can encourage one to want to perform it, because it is already quite familiar. That same idea of familiarity and popularity of the piece may be a restraining factor for another. Some may find the “heavyweight” Brahms piano concertos the best way to express themselves, while others may feel liberated by the exalted beauty of Handel arias or the sarcastic chaos of the finale of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto.

While it is not possible for a teacher to always guess which composition will be absolutely the best choice for a student, it never hearts to ask. If a student has a choice and it is beneficial to assign him/her that piece, this truly becomes a win-win situation. Apart from the resulting enthusiasm and confidence, presumably more hours of practice and study, more animated and productive lessons, it will also fasten the bond of trust between the student and teacher. Additionally, having assigned a student a piece of their liking, the teacher can feel freer to insist in return, on more exercise time (usually not a favorite topic with students) as well as to assign other works, possibly from a different era or character, providing a student with a healthy and pleasant repertoire.

Finally, one of the most important aspects of teaching a performing art is teaching how to practice. I can hardly overemphasize the importance of this aspect in teaching. After all, I believe the best results are achieved not necessarily through the “hours of practice” but the quality of the work during these hours. In fact, practicing can do more harm than good if it becomes merely automatic repetition of patterns and pitches, and especially repetition of mistakes. Not once have I heard a student desperately playing the same passage over and over and failing to address a certain note, shift or fingering that is actually causing a problem. Whether it’s a wrong note or an awkward shift, tasteless phrasing or unnecessary/harmful muscle movement, their repeated occurrences harm the student, often wasting scarce practice time and energy, and sometimes resulting in physical injuries or psychological breakdown. Indeed, teaching how to play is primarily teaching how to practice.#

#It is important for a student to start teaching as early as possible, as it opens countless possibilities of learning. For example, having to address a certain problem with their own student, they will have to start analyzing how they do certain things themselves, and this process, especially when shared and consulted with a competent teacher of their own, can be most revealing. As not every freshman or sophomore will readily have a full studio of students handy for this kind of experience, I suggest that my students attend their peers’ lessons at least once a month and observe the teaching as well as offering their own critiques, however subjective. This way they will become aware of wider range of problems that can be addressed in teaching music, as well as learning to be constructively critical and develop a keener ear and sensitivity. Recording oneself and playing back is another extremely useful tool.