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Asian family, mother  and daughter playing Piano,father playing guitar in family band at h

How to teach for (rather than at) our students

Updated: Mar 14


We've all done it - gotten so frustrated, tired, or just plain bored in a music class or lesson that we accidentally become less of a mentor and more of a dictator. Instead of helping the student understand a musical concept and how to master it, we start doing the work for them. We don't explain a complicated rhythm, but instead say, "no, play it like this!" as we impatiently demonstrate. Instead of explaining why and how the articulation contributes to the style of the piece, we say, "Play legato! Play staccato!"


Teaching at a student is so easy to do. God knows I've done it myself and sometimes still do, when I'm not at my best. (Or as a last resort. There are only so many times any of us can hear the wrong notes or rhythm in Hot Cross Buns without losing our minds.)


But we all know the adage "Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for his lifetime."


Teaching "at" a student is like feeding them for the day. It solves a problem at a particular spot in a particular piece. But it doesn't help them understand why the musical element is important to the piece in the first place, or learn strategies to approach similar challenges in the future.

My goal here is to help your students understand how to practice more intentionally so music mastery happens faster and more efficiently. This will save you precious resources like time, energy, and patience.

Helping them practice well means engaging them in the music process - from understanding the character of a piece and how the musical elements relate to it, to providing them with multiple strategies for fixing particular problems. If we explain the logic behind any instruction we give, and guide the students in the process of self-assessment and strategic practice, they begin to take charge of their own musical growth.


Here are some practical steps:


  1. Have the student play the whole song for you - no matter how bad it is. I think there's nothing more frustrating to a student than starting to play the song they worked so hard on and getting stopped and corrected five measures in (I did this just the other day and wanted to kick myself when I saw the deflated look on the kid's face.) Let them play through the piece first, no matter how bad it is or hard it is to hear. (This is a great time to go to your happy place...) Allowing the student to play through also gives you a chance to identify mistakes made consistently through the piece so you can address them altogether at the end rather than one at a time.

  2. Ask the student to assess their playing. Refer the musical elements on my FREE piano rubric or woodwind rubric as a framework for self-assessment. To encourage them to listen carefully when they play, ask them to identify which elements need work before you point anything out.

  3. Help them understand the piece. Before outlining a practice plan, ask the student what the mood or character of the piece is. Is this piece energetic, joyful, humorous, sad? Then help them connect the elements to this character. Which elements are most effective in making this piece sound joyful? Are the dynamic changes important to the energy of this piece? Understanding the character or style of the music and its connection to the specific elements makes the music come alive for the student, and inspires them to practice with more attention to detail.

  4. Focus on one or two elements. Choose one or two elements most expressive of the character that the student will improve over the upcoming week. Give the student specific steps they can take to improve these elements, which forms the practice plan they will use.

  5. Reassess in the next lesson. The beauty of this approach is that it's cyclic. Each week when you hear the piece again, you can review with the student the character, and assess the musical elements in relation to it. The student's goal is essentially to make the piece sound like its meant to - with fluid technique and great expression.


Hopefully, this approach does for your students what it does for mine: engages them fully in the music-making process and excites them to improve each week.


Happy teaching!


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