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Ten important tips for music parents and teachers with private music studios.

This article is intended to help to parents, teachers, and the young people for whom they wish to provide private music education. It's long overdue for the "guided self-teaching" tradition or "monitoring" as it's often called, to be abandoned in favour of actual "teaching", because parents and students deserve better. Practice has never made perfect, but rather only permanence. Only perfect practice makes perfect, as legendary football coach Vince Lombardi said. And relegating students, especially novices, to teach themselves through independent practice only serves to create a mine field across which it is very difficult for them to navigate successfully.

Many of you may be familiar with the comic strip "Peanuts" featuring Charlie Brown, Lucy, and the various other characters created by Charles Schultz. One of my favourite Peanuts comic strips is the one where every fall during football season, Lucy would come up with new ways to convince Charlie Brown that this time, she would actually hold the football for him to kick. But every year, Lucy would pull the ball away just as he was about to kick it, and he would wind up lying on his back. Aarghh!

For many years, the same thing has been happening in the private music lesson industry, as parents, students, and teachers engage in strategies for learning that I refer to as "the failing traditions". These strategies have consistently resulted in a nearly 100% drop-out rate every three years. I write about this in my recently published book called "Talent CAN Be Taught The Book on Creating Music Ability" in which I also explain my revolutionary new system for ensuring student success. Most of the following refer to trends happening in piano keyboard instruction, and studying piano keyboard certainly provides an excellent foundation for studies in all instruments, voice, or theory. However all of the principles about which I've written do apply to music instruction in general regardless of the choice of instrument.

Here are ten important key points that I've selected from the book that need to be understood if the long-term successful development of usable music skills is the goal of music lessons, rather than to have just a bit of a temporary recreational music experience with no expectation for a lifetime of enjoyment.

1. Aptitude Tests are IRRELEVANT. In the first place, they only measure the amount of pre-existing music talent that has already been developed at the time of testing, and have no bearing on what aptitude can be developed in the future. So, at best they are only a diagnostic tool, and should never be used, as sometimes does happen, as an excuse for the failure of teachers and students to work together to develop music skills in general and create greater music aptitude in particular.

2. Music Talent CAN be Taught. As I explain in my book, we recognize that people have talent when they exhibit certain skills. And all skills can be taught. Even Mozart was not born with music skills. He had to be taught. Mozart had probably had about 1500 music lessons from his father by the time he was 5 years old, not to mention all of the music that he heard in his home on a daily basis from his father's professional connections that contributed to building his music aptitude.

A teacher's responsibility is to develop music skills in their students. Among the skills that must be taught is how to read music notation, how to play by ear, and how to practice. Many students struggle up the ladder to as far as Grade Eight piano without ever learning any of these vitally important skills. And, their struggles are often a very painful experience.

3. A teacher's job should be to TEACH. On the surface that may seem to be self-evident. But in practice, some teachers and studios consider that a teacher's role is simply to "monitor" how well the students are teaching themselves between lessons, often for six days out of seven. Some in the industry call this "guided self-teaching". Even the word "guided" is a stretch in some cases, however, because many teachers only point out errors that the students have taught themselves, and assign new work for the next week. And neither of those practices can be described as "teaching".

4. Independent practice is NOT the key to student success. Many very bad things happen to students who cannot read music notation, cannot play by ear, and do not know how to practice. Only perfect practice makes perfect. And beginners have no idea how to practice perfectly. And so, things that students teach themselves sometimes have to be unlearned. Then, lessons become less productive because lesson time must be spent undoing things that have been learned incorrectly. In all of this, the learning process is slowed to a crawl. And sometimes, attitude issues develop because of these frustrations that cause relationship issues with parents and the music teacher that leads to everyone giving up on the dream to develop music talent.

5. ALL students need to benefit from a synergy of learning. Even one very good lesson a week is rarely enough to create any momentum even for students who have developed good skills. One half-hour per week is simply too infrequent to develop what I call the MAGIC of Synergy, which is an acronym for momentum, acceleration, growth, inspiration, and competition. Once students do develop a synergy of learning, however, the growth experience becomes very enjoyable for everyone.

6. Curriculum materials should NOT be used haphazardly or sporadically. All teachers should follow the best possible progressive and sequential curriculum available, and follow it in its entirety. Not all curricula are created equal, of course, and teachers need to study the differences before making a choice. But the common practice of skipping pages within books, skipping books within levels, and even skipping levels of the curriculum altogether is a very bad practice which is one contributor to the very high drop-out rate of private music students.

7. Royal Conservatory of Music materials are NOT a curriculum at all. They are simply anthologies or carefully graded collections of materials that may be used by the teacher for the purpose of teaching important musical concepts or preparing for exams. Students should only use RCM materials after completing a very good curriculum or in conjunction with one. It should be noted, also, that the widespread practice of learning only 3 pieces per grade level simply does not provide a broad enough base for developing the stylistic awareness that is increasingly important as students advance to the higher levels.

8. RCM Certificates should measure actual SKILL development. Achieving music skills should be the real goal, not achieving a certificate. Unfortunately, many students who have acquired RCM certificates are unable to demonstrate the very skills that the certificates are intended to represent. Shortcuts to certificates are never shortcuts to the actual skill development.

9. The TWO most important keys for learning are also the two most neglected. In the quest for accelerated learning, many parents, students, and teachers engage in selective learning. Unfortunately, the learning materials which are skipped inevitably cause learning to actually slow down. Then, out of necessity, spending time on developing reading skills and ear training skills are further neglected in order to spend more time learning pieces which now must be learned largely by rote in order to pass the exam. This is a downward spiral that always leads to frustration and quitting.

10. This frequent teaching strategy has my vote as the single worst one EVER! Many students and teachers collaborate on a process of writing letter names under notes. This is by far the most useless activity ever engaged in or permitted by a music educator except during the very first phase or introduction to music lessons. I've witnessed Grade Eight piano students who have come to me for help who still write letter names under notes. Writing the letter E under a note doesn't say which of the seven E's on the keyboard is required. It also gives no information about the rhythm, the articulations, the dynamics or any number of other pieces of information that are provided by the actual system of notating music.

Worst of all, students who do this never learn to read music at all, any more than you can learn any language at all by simply reading a translation. There is only one way for students who have advanced to higher levels of performance before developing the necessary reading and ear training skills to improve these skills. And that is to go back to a basic level and start the process the right way, one step at a time. It's a challenge that may take up to a year of review to address, but it's well worth the effort in the long run. Better still, is that by following a good curriculum from the beginning, and engaging in strategies that create a synergy of learning, students receive a solid foundation that will enable rapid development of music skills from the start, along with a much more enjoyable experience for everyone.

Stephen Riches holds Bachelor of Music and Bachelor of Education degrees from the University of Toronto, and an ARCT in Piano Performance. In 1977 he was the winner of Canada's prestigious Dr Heinz Unger Conducting Competition. In addition to teaching and conducting, he also has experience as an accompanist, adjudicator, vocal coach, arranger, and composer. As a music teacher he has directed elementary and secondary school wind instrumental and string orchestra programs in both public and private sectors. He also provides leadership in both contemporary and traditional Christian Music Ministries. Currently, Stephen is Principal of Talent CAN Be Taught Music Schools, and his recently published book by the same name which addresses this very important topic of the need for renewal in private music education is also the name for the proven system for success that he has developed. More information on the book, the studio, and the TCBT system are available at
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Title Annotation:studio music teaching
Author:Riches, Stephen
Publication:Canadian Music Educator
Date:Jun 22, 2014
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