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.