What Makes a Great Music Teacher

January 20, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Posted in Music Teacher Profession, Music Teaching Tips, My Experinces | 6 Comments
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What makes a great music teacher? Someone with years of expert training and dedication? Someone who knows all the answers to music students’ questions?  Someone with a track record of incredible students?

It would be easy to say yes. Music teachers like that are very impressive. And certainly training and dedication are essential. But over the years I’ve realized that there are other qualities even more important than these.

I had a friend who majored in Music and French at University who ended up teaching German, her second foreign language, in a high school. One day, in the midst of a German lesson, she taught her students a German word that she later discovered did not exist. Mortified, she was hoping that her students would forget it along with all the other vocabulary they frequently forgot, but no such luck. The students remembered and continue to use this invented German word, and she did not have the heart or the courage to tell them the truth.

This story made a great impression on me when I heard it, and I determined at that moment that I would never pretend to know all the answers. As a child, I had thought my teachers had all the answers. Now as an adult, I know they did not. And so if a student asks me a question and I don’t know the answer, I tell them truthfully that I will find out for them and let them know. They don’t seem to have a problem with that.

What about having impressive students? Isn’t that an important yardstick by which to measure a teacher? My take on this is that it’s more important to have students who love what they do, and to have a good relationship with them. Worrying about whether they are excelling can get in the way of these other more important aspects.

On that note, are you aware of what your beliefs are about your students and about your teaching? If your students don’t excel, are you taking it personally, blaming your own teaching, or, conversely, blaming your students for being lazy or unmotivated? If you are driven by the need for recognition, it is easy to fall into this trap. Notice what drives you, and whether it is working for you. I decided a long time ago, when I was teaching some students with some personal challenges, that it was more important to give them love and attention, than for them to succeed at the piano. I’ve noticed that this works much better for me as a general rule.   If they are talented, it certainly can be more stimulating to teach them, and I love to hear the results, but I have developed some really close relationships with more typical students that were far more satisfying.

Another important issue is boundaries. Be clear about what you are able to offer.  What has worked best for me is to be friendly and warm, but not to try to be a best friend. To be clear about starting and ending times, fees, cancellations, and about the structure of the lesson. To be focused and not overly chatty. To give the students space to make discoveries, and to be objective as far as possible.

The bottom line here is about awareness. When you are teaching, are you aware of your breathing? Is your body relaxed? What thoughts do you have in your mind? How are you feeling? Are you present with the student? Do you feel in balance? Are you taking care of yourself? Are you still learning and growing as a musician and a person every day? Are you open to having fun? Are you genuinely enthusiastic? Are you even willing to look silly if it will help the student understand a certain principle or connect to a certain piece of music?

One of my advanced students, a teenage boy of 17, was learning a contemporary piano piece written for dancers. He was finding it difficult to connect to the piece, and I suddenly had the idea that maybe it would help him if I moved around the room and danced to it myself. I remember blushing as I had the idea. Although I often danced to music, I was in no way a professional, and I was afraid of embarrassing myself. But here we were in a large empty studio, and it just seemed like the right thing to do. I suggested it to my student, and he was very receptive. So I got up and started moving and dancing to the music. And an amazing thing happened. As he accompanied my movements, and I expressed physically and emotionally what I was hearing, the piece transformed. And neither he nor I have ever forgotten the experience.

Know more tips and ideas on how to become a great music teacher; visit these music teaching resources. – Earl Marsden

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Piano Teaching Resources: Teaching Music Improvisation and Composition from a Familiar Starting Point

January 18, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Posted in Music Teachers Resources, My Experinces | 1 Comment
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When first starting to improvise or compose, the silence surrounding the instrument or the piece of blank manuscript paper in front of students can be rather daunting. Therefore I always begin creative activities within a genre that is familiar to music students. Sometimes, the best piano teaching resources come from our own experience, and I would like to share some of my observations here.

Outside your music studio, what engagement do your students have with music? Do they practice what you have just taught? Do they apply what they have learned and understood from their music lessons? These are some of the questions that music teachers may to ask new students. And that includes me.

Being a music teacher for several years, I observed that majority of my students hear pop music on the radio, ‘muzak’ in shopping centres, soundtracks in movies, ring tones and advertising jingles from different media while only a small minority of them are interested in hearing live music regularly, and a much smaller minority are exposed to new classical repertoire outside of their lessons.

With this in mind, the first improvisational or compositional activities in a music studio usually stem from a response to a visual stimulus and more often than not, they are a response to a short film. This has many advantages. Firstly, students are already familiar with the genre and do not need to spend much time studying the style. Secondly, students are creating works that are appropriate to their everyday environment. And lastly, a film gives the students a starting point in terms of mood and structure.

I find that one of the greatest struggles for young composers is structure. How long should this section be? How do I link all my ideas into one coherent piece? When should the piece end? Where should the climax be? How long is the build up to the climax? Is it too early or late to change mood? When composing or improvising a short film, the structure is largely determined for the student and the film also provides answers to other variables that can often be a stumbling block for starting the piece (for example, mood).

I am always fascinated by the different approaches my music students take to creative tasks. Some students study the film intently, watching it three or four times before starting to tinker around on the piano for ideas. Other students jump straight in and improvise in real time as the picture changes on the screen, always a second or two behind the action. And then there are the students who watch, furiously scribble notes and leave the lesson, turning up the following week with a completely notated, fully scored composition.

My younger students use film as an improvisatory starting point. I use it to encourage them to explore the piano – the range as well as both the timbral and textural possibilities. I also use these piano teaching resources to introduce the concepts of mood, expression and the communicative nature of music. For my older or more advanced students, writing a film score is a way for them to consolidate their theoretical knowledge and to express themselves creatively. Some questions that I ask my older students to consider are:

1. What is the mood of each scene? When does this change?

2. Should this scene be scored with silence or music?

3. Are you driving the action or commentating? (For example, is the composer creating suspense that might not yet be present on the screen, or are they scoring the moment as it happens, or even after it happens?)

4. Is there a climax?

5. Which character’s mood/opinion are you scoring?

6. Is the genre of the music being composed relevant to the people, the time and the place where the film is set?

I would love to hear how other music and piano teachers like you begin to teach improvisation and composition, how you use innovative piano teaching resources, and how you incorporate other arts disciplines into your studio. If you do not currently include improvisation or composition in your lessons or if it is a skill that is unfamiliar to you as a piano teacher, I strongly encourage you to head to YouTube, find a short film and begin creating! Good luck!

Visit these piano teaching resources and learn how you can benefit from this piano teacher software. – Earl Marsden

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