What’s The Goal Here Anyway?

When we music teachers tell people what we do, there is a reply which we hear all too frequently, and it goes something like this:  “Oh really?  I learned the [insert instrument] when I was [insert age] and I got to grade [insert grade] but I didn’t keep it up.  I really wish I had now, but it was just too much hard work.  I’d like to do it again now, but I don’t have the time.”

We reply with interest, we say that they did well to get that far and the conversation meanders onto a different topic.  But this reply we hear so frequently tells us something very important about how so many people view learning an instrument.  There is an implicit assumption that the study of music is hard work.  Or rather, that it is necessarily hard work, and there is no other way to approach it except as a serious, time-consuming activity.  If you don’t have the time or the motivation to approach it with this commitment and discipline there is no point and you must give up.  Is this true?

No, it’s not.  I know many self-taught musicians (more and more frequent in the internet age where online lessons are in abundance) who have never considered that music should be, for them, such an arduous study.  They have approached it with discipline at times when they wanted to make some serious progress, but at other times they have considered it fine for music to take a back seat, maybe just picking up their instrument for half an hour at the weekend until, if at all, they feel like becoming more committed again.  They don’t see their periods of lack of commitment as bad or wrong, it’s natural that they should pick what hobbies they want to spend their leisure time doing and that their interests will not stay fixed on the same thing all the time.  Variety is the spice of life.

Are they missing something by taking this approach?  They might lack the technique and finesse of someone who has had traditional, disciplined music lessons.  Their lack of knowledge in some areas might make their playing seem a little clunky to the critical ear or the examiner, but their answer would be that they don’t care.  They never intended to be a professional musician or virtuoso, but to enjoy themselves in their spare time without any pressure.  If they enjoy their music then they have achieved their goal.  Most importantly, where so many adults who have had the experience of traditional, disciplined lessons have given up through lack of time or motivation, “giving up” has never crossed their mind because they never approached it as a commitment in the first place.  It’s there when they want to do it and it’s fine when they don’t, unlike those who have been made to feel it is a choice between a serious commitment or nothing at all.

The Classical Approach

Most of us who have had music lessons are familiar with what I call the classical approach.  Daily practice is a precondition and obligation, as is making constant tangible progress.  We learn very serious skills like technique, sight reading and so on, for the purposes of best interpreting classical works.  We work through the grade exams, providing both goals and milestones.  It is, indeed, a very serious and disciplined study and involves commitment and hard work.

There is huge merit to the classical approach.  Many people, both musicians and non-musicians, believe that there is “no substitute” for classical training and that the classically trained musician will always be better than one who has learned through a more casual approach.  While this is not strictly true and one can gain the same skills and ability in a non-classical framework, classical training provides a wonderful system to create seriously good musicians who really understand how to play and the finer points of musical interpretation, while the discipline involved ensures constant progress along the road to mastering these tough skills.

My problem with the standalone classical approach is that I feel its focus is very narrow.  We are trained to be able to pick a piece of sheet music and learn to play it well, but little or nothing else.  Unless the teacher digresses from the syllabus we are not shown any other application of how we could use these skills or the knowledge that we need to branch into other styles of music should we want to.  Because of this narrow focus, regular practice and discipline is indeed a prerequisite.  If all we are doing is learning to play a piece, then if we come to the lesson without having practiced, the teacher has nothing to offer but tediously talking you through a practice session that you should have done at home.  As a result we are led to believe there is no other approach, that if we’re not going to take it seriously and practice hard we should give up.  Add to this a bunch of value judgements about laziness and lack of commitment, and we end up scared to even pick up our instrument unless we are going to take things really seriously.

The other problem is that as you go along classical study gets harder, not easier.  As you work your way forward the time and commitment required increases.  Probably the best pianist I personally know told me once that the reason most concert pianists practice 6-8 hours per day is not (only) because they’re obsessed, but because what they have to do is just so difficult.  Whereas a student might learn their grade one tunes in a couple of months from first looking at them, their grade five pieces might take six months of study.  Their grade eight performance may well represent a few hundred hours practice just on those three pieces.  If we’re not going to become professional classical musicians (10,000 hours practice, so they say) then we are setting ourselves harder and harder tasks, taking longer to achieve each goal, and for what?  To pass an exam?  To learn a piece?  Then what once we’ve learned it?  We play it at home for a bit and eventually lose interest, then when we come back to it in a month we’ve forgotten how to play it.  As the tasks get harder and the demands on the student’s time become greater they lose interest, and with no alternative approach to fall back on, we decide we don’t have the time or the commitment, and have no alternative but to give up.

And this is the problem with the classical approach when used in isolation.  It instils in people the belief that there is only one path to music.  That it’s hard work and discipline or nothing.  Since only a very small fraction of our students will have the inclination or commitment to get to a professional or semi-professional level and find more options opening up to what they can use their music for (concerts, teaching, repetiteuring etc), more often than not we do not create musicians.  What we create is adults who say they wish they had carried on, but didn’t.

As teachers we often seem to assume this is simply the way it is.  We struggle on, martyrs that we are, trying to stop our students falling by the wayside but, you know, they just didn’t have it in them, they didn’t have enough commitment, and our precious skills and wisdom have once again fallen on stony ground.  But in the meantime, my self-taught friends are having loads of fun enjoying a fulfilling hobby on their own terms.  If the people having lessons are stopping and saying they wish they’d continued while the people who didn’t have lessons are not only continuing but loving it, then there is only one conclusion: our approach is flawed.  We, as a profession, are failing.

What’s the solution?

To simply discard the classical approach with all the benefits of its structured framework and proven track record in creating accomplished musicians, would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  What we need to do is not take away from this approach but to add to it, to show that music can be a very serious study and that you will reap the benefits of that dedication and hard work, but that there are many other ways to skin your musical cat.  We need to elaborate on the purely classical approach and present it as one possible path within a much wider world of approaches to learning and, more importantly, enjoying music.  If only the most dedicated are going to see the classical approach through to some kind of fruition, then we need other strategies that the others can fall back on when the classical discipline becomes inappropriate.  After all, it is easy enough to keep a child motivated within the classical framework when they have Mum and Dad to do their cooking and cleaning, pay for lessons and ensure they stay on track with practice, but will this approach still work for them when they are an adult trying to balance music with work, family, and doing the laundry, and when classical music alone may not reflect their wide range of musical tastes?  Probably not.

So we begin by broadening the skills which we are teaching.  We think what else will be useful to our student’s musical interests in ten, twenty or thirty years time.  They might want to play different styles of music which necessitates being able to “busk” from chord sheets and PVG style arrangements.  They might want to play blues or jazz and improvise.  They might want to write their own songs or compositions, or start a band.  We cannot possibly know what our young student will feel like doing with their music when they are an adult and we are long off the scene, so we give them as broad a foundation as possible.

In doing so we open up the possibilities to what we can do in lessons at times when our student may not have the time or inclination to do much practice.  Yes the classical approach is still there; it has much to offer you, and you can pick that up any time you please, but it’s fine to choose your own level of commitment and to have other activities which you can dip into during periods where music takes more of a back seat in your life.  On the piano, we can start to look at playing a few simple chords and how those chords are derived from the scales you learned in your classical study.  We see how those chords are represented in modern notation and what different chord symbols actually mean.  We start to look at the relationship between those chords and the melody which goes over the top of them.  In doing this we learn to compose.  In learning to compose we learn to improvise.  We look at what creates the distinctive sounds of different musical genres and how to create those sounds ourselves.  We take lead sheets and PVG and look at how we might arrange and interpret what is written on the stave.  In all of this, the option to practice and make progress is still there, but it’s not a necessity.  We can easily work through a songbook where I play the melody and you play the chords – or vice versa – for an entire lesson.  You could try improvising a melody while I play an accompaniment, experimenting with the sounds that different scales have to offer.  You could try composing a short piece using these skills, or you might just want to come along and say there’s a song you like, we can get the music from the internet and have a go at it.  The point is that when you come along and haven’t practiced, we are not stuck for things to do and left painfully trudging through a piece which you have little interest in and are making no progress with.  We accept that there are times when our student will practice little, if at all, and show them that during those times there is a whole world of musical activities which you can dip into for half an hour without needing loads of pressure or commitment, and that in doing so you can build skills which will open up other areas of music for your enjoyment.

What’s the goal here anyway?

One of my pretentious little sayings is that I’m not teaching the child but the adult they’re going to become.  So when I’m teaching I’m not really thinking about the six year old girl sitting next to me at the piano.  I’m thinking about the sixteen year old girl who wants to start a band with her friends, the thirty year old woman who wants to sing and play nursery rhymes to her own children, the forty year old woman downloading the music to a song she just heard on the radio, the fifty year old woman who decides she’d like to go back to Bach and Mozart, and so on.  So what’s the goal here?  Not to pass an exam or play a certain tune, our goal is much grander.  Our goal is to nurture music into a rich and fulfilling extra dimension in our student’s life, for life.

As with much of my pretty rhetoric, this is one thing to say and quite another to do, particularly if our own musical background is quite narrow.  As teachers we need to do some work.  Of course we all have our specialisms, but if we are to offer our students the most useful musical foundation we can, then at the same time we need to constantly broaden our own understanding of music, of different styles and approaches to playing and learning.  We need to think about what amateur adult musicians like to do, and we need to have a bunch of lessons and activities up our musical sleeves that can fill up a lesson and be fun and interesting, that do not necessitate regular practice (although, of course, we still encourage it) but build the skills they will one day want to use.

Another part of the problem is that all us teachers have of course approached music as a very serious study in order to get to the level where we can teach it.  We teach in our own image, not stopping to think that unless we are teaching music students per se (in a college, university etc) that this one-size-fits-all approach may not be appropriate.  Also, we are proud of our musical skills and accomplishments. We feel that they deserve respect and as such we can demand a certain level of commitment from our students.  We do not want to be reduced to a child’s musical playdate.  This is where our approach is flawed.  Sometimes that is exactly what we need to be.

It’s particularly important to take this broad approach before our student gets to a point where they are finding the classical approach to be a strain but have absolutely no other model for music.  Therefore, we do well to teach holistically, to integrate this approach alongside the progress-focused classical approach right from the start.  If we encourage our students to practice rather than ordering them to practice, suggest classical studies instead of assigning classical studies, and include interesting and low-pressure activities in our lessons where practice isn’t a necessity, we may feel progress may be a little slower, but we are creating an adult who loves their music, rather than an adult who wishes they’d carried on.  We would still like our student to practice and make tangible progress, but we respect the fact that we are there to serve them, not the other way round, and to keep the big picture, the lifelong picture, in mind.


Can we try it out and see if it’s fun?

It’s a common request.  Parents contact a music teacher to ask if their child can try out a few lessons to see if they take to it.  Nothing too serious, no hard work, we’ll see how they get on and maybe buy an instrument if they enjoy it.

A reasonable and sensible enough approach, you would think.  But nothing seems to cause as much contempt among music teachers as this “dipping a toe in the water” approach.  Let’s take a look at why that is, and whether the teacher’s approach is justified.


The teacher’s point of view

 The philosophy among many teachers is that music is a serious study.  It takes commitment and hard work before you can get to a standard that music becomes “fun”, but the rewards are worth it when you do.  If you don’t approach it with commitment, discipline and the willingness to do daily practice, you’ll get nowhere and it will be no fun at all, so “having a few lessons to see if it’s fun” is impossible, and “focus on lessons until it becomes fun” would be a more appropriate approach.  It’s fun once you’re good at it.

The “tryout” lessons, reluctantly agreed to on the part of the teacher, show this to be true (or to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, depending on whose side you’re on.)  Progress is much slower than the teacher wants or is used to.  The teacher spends lesson time going through things which they feel should have been done in practice time and starts to become visibly frustrated with the child.  The child will react with some combination of resistance and introversion, and the atmosphere starts to sink.  Lessons become a battle of wills and practice becomes a miserable chore.  The lessons have failed, because the student did not have the right attitude.

As a consequence, many teachers try to get students to commit to half an hour a day’s practice before they even begin.  The parents of one of my students told me that one teacher they contacted wanted them to commit to one year of lessons before even having the first one.  Teachers want to know that their students are going to work hard and take it seriously, so the lessons will be worthwhile.  After all, if the student isn’t going to take it seriously, there’s really no point at all, and lessons will only serve to frustrate the teacher, demotivate the child and waste the parent’s money.


The Parents’ Point Of View

For the purposes of our example, a non-musical parent has a child in the 5-10 year bracket, which is typical of most of my new students.

At this age (and indeed up to adulthood) children are discovering their interests in life and seeing what the world has to offer.  They are forging their own identity, character, opinions and tastes.  Not knowing what their child will enjoy or take to, parents are generally keen to expose them to as many different activities as possible.  Not only does it give the child a broader experience of the world, but it helps them to forge their own tastes and discover who they are.  Even the activities they don’t enjoy will help them to be able to express their own interests through articulating their dislikes, and thus a step towards finding out what they do in fact enjoy.

Naturally music is one of the activities parents want to offer to their children.  Being able to play an instrument is fantastic.  It is a fulfilling hobby or an exciting career, it’s social, expressive, and brings people together in all kinds of ways.  All throughout our society music is associated with fun and enjoyment and generally considered a cool and exciting thing to do, so naturally parents want to give their children the opportunity to take up such a rewarding activity.

Given they’re trying out lots of different activities to see what their child enjoys, the parent doesn’t want something high pressure with lots of work which is likely to put their child off from the start.  They don’t want to invest a lot of money when their child might not carry on, they just want their child to do some fun music activities and see if they like it.  If they do, the interest will grow from there and they will be able to take it seriously further down the line if they want to.

But no, says the teacher, you can’t approach it like that.  You have to make a commitment.  Parents often reluctantly agree, it doesn’t work out, and we are back to square one.


What’s the solution?

Who’s right?  I come down on the side of the parents.  As I see it, the teachers are wrong.  It seems to go against the very ethos of teaching to try to adapt the child to suit the way we want to teach and to project our own goals onto them.  Instead, we need to adapt the way we teach to suit the child, and reassess what we consider “results” and “progress” in lessons for young beginners.

Think about the way we develop interests and passions in our lives.  You might have some friends that like cricket.  You go along to a game with them and quite like it, so you go to some more games.  Then you start playing with friends for fun.  Then you decide to take it more seriously and join a club.  You start training hard and after a couple of years make the team.  Now cricket is really important to you and you work hard at it.  But you didn’t suddenly go from having no thoughts of cricket in your head to buying all the gear and training for hours every week.  The interest, passion and self-belief grew organically over time.

If this is true for adults then it’s ten times more so for children, whose interest in any given activity will naturally wax and wane over time as they discover other new interests and explore the world, as well it should.  It’s putting the cart before the horse to jump in with serious lessons and half an hour’s daily practice before the interest is there on the child’s part to sustain it.  We’re just going to make music seem a dull and pointless chore and put them off.

What we need to do first is develop the passion for the activity, then their interest will be self-sustaining.  This developing of interest in the activity and the self-belief that they can do it is for me the most important function of the music teacher with young children.  Once they both enjoy lessons and are confident in their abilities then we can start to take it a bit more seriously and the benefits of regular practice will be self-evident.  That’s not to say they won’t occasionally need to be motivated, cajoled or bribed into practice, but it’s to keep them on the track that they have chosen of their own accord and are on the whole very happy with, not because we as parents and teachers have unilaterally made the decision for them.

For me then, “ability”, as we generally see it, is a poor measure of success in music lessons for young beginners.  We can force our students to achieve a certain technical level without them really enjoying it, but as long as we are still forcing we are not developing the enthusiasm and self-determination which will keep them interested in the longer term.

I don’t really care if a child has made very little progress in the first few months of lessons, my measures of success would be whether they enjoy and look forward to the classes, whether I’ve made them see music as a big, exciting fascinating world with a myriad of paths and styles they could choose, and whether I’ve made them believe that whatever path they want to take in music, they can do it, both in terms of “having it in them” and trusting that I will be keen to facilitate them in developing their own musical interests.

If in a few months I can wire a child’s mind to think of music and music lessons as a joyous, exciting thing where they are autonomous and respected, then we have a solid foundation for musical progress for life.  Not only does it mean that we can now start to make some actual progress in the lessons and look at taking things a bit more seriously (if this is right for them) but more importantly, it means this first impression will stay with them.  Even if they don’t continue now, I want them to believe that should they want to learn an instrument one day, long after I am off the scene, that they have the ability to do it and that it doesn’t have to be a slog.  That is a massive and meaningful achievement.  Pushing a kid to grade 1 in super-quick time only for them to give up immediately afterwards hasn’t achieved anything, it’s just created obstacles to them doing music in the future.

Well that’s some lovely rhetoric, but how do we actually put this into practice with real children and the real challenges they bring?  What strategies can we use to allow this mindspace, this paradigm, to develop?  For me it breaks down into two things which I’ll discuss separately: firstly what activities we do in lessons, and secondly, my manner as a teacher in delivering those lessons.


Filling lessons with fun activities

Kids have a limited attention span.  Kids aged 5-10 have an attention span of about 15-25 minutes before we’re wasting our time with anything difficult.  Also, if we’re working on anything that takes some real brain power (as learning to read music and play an instrument does) then their attention for that particular activity will wane sooner then their overall attention span starts to fade.

So we dive in with the “meat” of the lesson, if you like, which is generally working through a tutor book or on the particular tune they happen to be working on.  This is concentrated, focused time where we work on the tune they’re currently playing, and it’s the hardest thing we’ll do.

Usually after 7-8 minutes, I will notice the attention start to fade.  They become a little restless, look around the room, conversation starts to digress, and so on.  At this point I wrap that activity up and move onto a different activity.  We might look at another song, clap some rhythms or do some sight reading.  I want an activity that backs up the learning objectives of the first activity and still requires some concentration, but which allows them to relax a little.

At 15-20 minutes we simply can’t get the same level of focus out of a child so I move on to lower pressure activities like familiar scales, aural skills, Italian terms, asking questions about what the different things on the stave mean and so on.  The last 5 minutes (or more if necessary) are fun activities like playing music cards or talking about music and me showing them things on YouTube or showing them some fun tunes by rote.

I won’t force a child to do any activity they don’t want to do.  Obviously I’ll push through any token resistance to doing hard work instead of chatting, but if they don’t like what we’re doing I might ask them to do it for 5 more minutes or we might just move onto something else.  The thing is I have a stack of different activities to cover any particular area of learning so it doesn’t matter.  If we’re practicing the notes around middle C we can do that with the tutor book, with flashcards, with my own book, with them writing down a tune that they watch me play, playing back a tune that I sing and so on.  Your imagination is the only limit.  I could easily change activities every 4-5 minutes in a 30 minute lesson without running out of ideas and constantly working with the child’s level of energy and attention (although my student would probably end up quite bewildered).  It’s a very different prospect to slugging through the same activity long after the child’s attention and energy has faded.

That’s a typical lesson, but it’s not set in stone.  On a day when I get more attention I’ll do more serious stuff, and on another day when there’s no attention I’ll have to settle for less.  Like all of us, kids have good days and bad days, serious days and frivolous days.  It’s important to roll with that, to find activities suitable for the student’s level of attention rather than locking horns and trying to force them to concentrate when they’re frazzled.

At the end of the lesson there’s a prize, either a sweet from the sweet jar or one of the toys and trinkets that I’m constantly scouring Amazon for.  It’s not a reward or bribe and there’s no “if you’re good” conditions attached.  It’s a thank you for doing some music with me and a congratulations for doing the lesson.


How to actually make music lessons fun

The real key to making lessons fun though, isn’t what lesson you give, it’s how you give it.  The real key is me, the teacher.  If I am fun to be around and interact with then the lesson is fun, and if I’m not, it’s not.  My priority in early music lessons is nothing to do with music.  It’s not what the child learns, it’s what they feel and think about music and the associations they make with it.  It doesn’t matter how many exams they pass if the feeling that pops up every time they think of music lessons is of being told off, criticised and made to feel small.

I have three priorities regarding the way children feel in my lessons.  They are that they feel safe and confident, that they can speak freely and spontaneously, and that we are following their interests enthusiastically.  We’ll look at each of these in turn.

We assume (and hope) that a child’s physical safety is a given.  By feeling safe I mean not ever having to feel on the defensive.  Not feeling like someone is angry, frustrated or disappointed with you, trusting that the teacher will always be kind and not get angry with you, criticise you and tell you off.  Everything we do in teaching will be from a position of positive regard and approval.

This is safety.  It allows our young students to relax.  It’s the safety you feel when you’re with a close and supportive friend, as opposed to a job interview or being cross-examined in court, where you feel people are there to challenge you and knock you down.  We need this dynamic.  We simply can’t work with a child who is nervous around us, we need them to relax and be happy if we are to get anywhere.

Safe and confident also means I’m not going to start dictating to my student.  We come from the position that music is there for the child to enjoy and explore.  Our job as teacher is to be their guide and facilitator on that journey.  We don’t set conditions and obligations for them or get angry when they don’t do this or that because it’s for them to decide their level of commitment.  If we want a student to try harder, we need to kindle the enthusiasm rather than simply demanding more.  If a child doesn’t practice we might discuss it with them, encourage them, reward them and so on, but getting angry, punishing and laying down the law are ultimately self-defeating.

Through our consistent behaviour over time, children begin to trust that we are not going to get angry with them or be difficult, that they can relax and that the lesson environment is a safe and supportive place.  One angry outburst can ruin all that hard work, so we have to be on guard in our weaker and more stressful moments.  We treat criticism very gently and focus on positives and praise, celebrating every small success.  It’s not enough to talk the talk, we have to live this approach and demonstrate it in every single lesson so our student can build trust.

After several weeks or months of seeing that you’ve always been cheerful and friendly and everything you’ve said has been to make them feel good about themselves, children start to relax, let their guard down and be themselves because they know they don’t have to worry about you judging them or flying off the handle.  Now they feel safe and confident, and we have ticked off our first objective.

Next I want children to be able to speak freely and spontaneously.  Some kids are chatterboxes anyway so that’s easy, I just have to keep the balance right so we chat but still get the lesson done.  When kids are a shyer that’s obviously fine, but I will still be chatty with them.  I tell them funny little stories about my day or whatever and let them listen, dropping in the odd little small-talk question like did they have a nice day at school or get wet in the rain earlier.  I have conversation starters on the piano; my transparent metronome, Mr Tickle toy, neon erasers, model snails and violin rosin all have little anecdotes behind them which I can tell.  The point isn’t the stories I am telling, the point is that I am demonstrating I am coming from a relaxed and free-speaking point of view.  If I am relaxed and chatty the child can relax and chat, and that sets the tone for the lessons.

Fun and interesting things on the piano help to create a relaxed atmosphere and to get chatting with shyer children.
Fun and interesting things on the piano help to create a relaxed atmosphere and to get chatting with shyer children.

The chatty atmosphere is important because as children become secure in the knowledge that they can speak freely and spontaneously in lessons, they will be more ready to ask questions and discuss things they don’t understand, and feel they are able to articulate their own tastes and ideas without judgement, both of which makes it possible for me to pitch my lessons to their level of understanding and better direct lessons towards wherever their interest lies.

The chattiness also makes it easy for me to go off on musical tangents and tell them about different musicians, instruments and so on.  Children need a broad view of music to understand what they like and don’t like and to be inspired.  So it’s important that in those low-energy minutes towards the end of the lesson I can tell some funny stories about the composer whose music they’re learning, or watch someone play their music on YouTube.  I particularly want to show them children or young musicians in their teens and twenties.  I’m constantly trying to make the associations that music is fun, music is cool, and you can do this.

This brings me to my last objective, which is that the child feels we’re enthusiastically following their own interests and not forcing them to do what we want them to do.  I give them choices in repertoire and what songs they want to learn, encourage them to bring their own song choices to me, and give them choices throughout the lesson.  As mentioned earlier I can have many different activities to practice one thing, so it’s easy to give a choice of activity.  It allows the child to pick what suits their way of learning best, but more importantly it backs up that I am there to facilitate, to allow them to choose their own musical direction and co-direct what they want to do in the lesson rather than dictating everything regardless of their wishes.  Even if I’ve given the choice of three similar activities, the point that they’re doing something they’ve chosen to do makes a big difference.

At the end every lesson, the child’s experience is that they’ve come to a safe place with someone who’s nice to them, done a range of interesting musical activities while chatting and joking, learned some fun things about music, been praised for doing well and gone away with a toy or sweet.

There, now wasn’t that fun?


But does it work?

This can all sound a bit too wishy washy, too much power to the child and this hands-off, child-led approach does bring new challenges.  I still have to deal with behavioural issues within the framework of not telling a child off or labelling them good or bad.  And although my principle aim in the beginning isn’t musical progress, equally I don’t want to be in a situation where after a year of lessons a child has had loads of fun and learned next to nothing.  So the great challenge with this approach is in its application, and in future posts I’ll cover things like practice and dealing with negative behaviour within this framework.

But yes it does work.  Often we make little tangible progress for some time but then kids suddenly take the ball and run with it.  They practice of their own accord and music becomes very important to them.  They are making the choices and doing what they want to do, they own the activity rather than being obligated to it.  It takes patience to get there but once we do they simply fly.  Once we’ve got the foundations right, the sky’s the limit.

Parents seem to understand too.  I always used to feel pressure as a teacher to deliver tangible progress so the parents would see we were doing well.  But now when I take time to goof around and to consistently build the child up without complaining about lack of practice or telling them off for this and that, parents seem to feel more comfortable with my approach.  Also it is in step with what they are trying to do with their child, to build their confidence and self-belief and to expose them to as much as possible of the world.

I think the biggest obstacle to this method of teaching is leaving our pride at the door.  Many teachers, having studied for years to achieve their instrumental standard, like to be the omniscient oracle who must be respected at all times during the serious study of music.  The way I teach involves constantly capitulating to six year olds.  It may be frustrating and insulting to you that they’re not really in the mood and won’t do what you ask, but you have to roll with that, change the game and try and get their attention another way rather than getting angry and saying why aren’t you listening to me, do what I say and so on.  The atmosphere has to take priority.  That’s not always easy when a kid is being difficult to work with, but if your ego is so big that you can’t handle not having total authority over a small child, you’re in the wrong job.  We’re not mere lecturers who sit and dryly impart information.  We swallow our pride, we get inside the heads of our students, we roll our sleeves up and we teach.

So can you try a few lessons out and see if it’s fun?  Please do.  In fact, it’s exactly what you should be doing.