Learning How to Learn

Lately, I have been thinking a great deal about what motivates me as a teacher.  Am I getting the right message across to my students, and am I helping them learn practical skills that will benefit them as musicians?  Sometimes, I find myself getting caught up in the time frame in which things are getting done (or not getting done, as it were) rather than WHY things are not getting done.  It can be easy to yield to the pressure of preparing students for juries, competitions, college auditions, etc. and miss the fact that some students are struggling, not just coming into lessons unprepared.  It is easier to pull the old “practice more” than to sit down and really try to help the students approach the problems in a disciplined manner and explain how to fix them.

The more students I meet and the longer I teach, the more I have realized how few of my students will realistically go on to be professional musicians, much less professional pianists.  Most of the students I teach are are young, intelligent people who have other subjects and interests in which they excel.  Most of them are worldly enough to understand that in terms of practicality, music may not be their best option.  That’s fine.  Everyone has bills to pay and other people in their lives to think about, and sometimes the most practical option really is the best option.  Basically, how can I make music into a practical skill for people whose goals are not to become professional musicians?

As we watch our school systems change and morph into things that we have started to fear and resent, it has become clear that most children and even adults are not learning how to learn.  They are learning how to regurgitate.  They are learning how to memorize information with no insight into its practical use, spit that information out on a test, and promptly forget it.  This is what our modern school system emphasizes.  We, as instructors of music, are not the modern school system.  It is not our job to make sure that all of our students get A’s.  It is our job to teach our students practical methods of approaching an “impractical” subject.  It is our job to teach our students how to learn and continue to build on that knowledge.

In one of my recent piano classes, I started getting frustrated with my students’ lack of attention to the dynamic markings.  No matter how many times I reminded them, they continued to just play notes.  Notes, notes, notes.  Boring notes.  Consistently loud notes.  This time, I decided to approach it from another angle.  I asked them why one line was marked “forte” and the next line “piano?”  “What’s the point of the dynamics?  Are you just doing them because I’m telling you to?  Don’t do anything because I tell you to do it.  Do it because you have thought about it and it makes sense.  And if it doesn’t make sense, then you challenge me on that.  The point is to make music.  Do it because you want to make music.”  It was as if I had given a 5 year old permission to eat candy for every meal.  Giving a student permission to make their own choices and to think rather than accept as fact is hugely empowering.  Nobody should need their teacher’s permission to disagree.

Since this class, I have been spending a great deal of time working with my students to help them understand why they have problems with certain concepts and techniques and not with others.  More importantly, if we can identify the problems, then we can identify the solutions.  Every single person is different, and every single person should know that the way they think is never wrong. What is wrong is working against your “problems” rather than working with them.

I do not need all of my students to go on to be professional musicians.  What I do need them to do is to come out of lessons having learned something about themselves that they didn’t know before.  Learning about yourself through music inspires a desire to share what you have learned with others.  This is when music can become an outlet to express yourself articulately and uniquely.  That is my job as a teacher: creating a safe space for students to question and learn from those questions.

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