A whole new music lesson

Have you ever thought about expanding the boundaries of the traditional music lesson? What might that lesson look like? What if instrument proficiency was no longer the primary objective of all music lessons?¬†How might those lessons change and how might students benefit? Can teachers increase their bottom lines with this approach? Could this new purpose ‘spice up’ the day-to-day work in your music studio? Could the music lesson be designed to specifically prepare students for non-music careers? In other words, why not create a whole new music lesson?

I think most music teachers — from pre-college private studio to college/university level — are well-aware that the vast majority of their music students do not go on to support themselves in music after graduation. In light of this reality, how might we better serve our students in improving their chances for make a living in music while at the same time better preparing them for the very real eventuality that music will not become their career? Can we accomplish both? Yes!

Here’s how: Universal skills must be systematically and comprehensively taught in every lesson. They are, quite simply, the very best tools you can provide your students. Wonderfully for us, music learning is one of the best platforms (if not the best) for learning universal skills in great depth. In my book, I have chosen eight universal skills that I believe are the most important for musicians: problem-solving, creativity, focus, critical thinking, communication, patience, collaboration, and improvisation.

You must think of universal skills in the same way athletic coaches regard core-strength conditioning — a component that is vitally important to improving performance. Can you name one sport where core-strength is not tremendously beneficial (tennis, swimming, baseball, track, soccer, weight lifting, skiing, etc.)? If athletes are not consistently working on this component of their game, they just won’t be competitive. Period. This is exactly how I see universal skills for the music student — they are profoundly important tools to maximize practice and performance. And not just on their instrument, but in any endeavor. Universal skills must be well-learned, applied, and practiced constantly to achieve their full benefit. If you are training the next Josh Bell, you would still employ universal skills in the lesson in order for them to extract the most from their practice.

What might this whole new music lesson look like?

A universal skill is chosen according to the needs of a student. (I find problem-solving almost always to be the skill my freshman university piano students most need.) Then: introduce the skill and its benefits, break down all the component steps of the skill, help your student apply those steps to every aspect of their practice and performance (over months and years). Repeat with every universal skill you believe will benefit the student. Say a student has great imagination but poor focus…then spend more time on developing that skill and less time on creativity. This is how you apply the music portion of universal skill training — all within the context of the music lesson.

Next, after the student understands and begins applying a universal skill in their music with some level of competence, it is time to introduce them to the idea of using the skill universally. Why not maximize the effort you put in the music lesson to help your student become an expert problem-solver on their instrument by also helping them understand the value of transferring the skill to any application? Could that not be even more beneficial in the long run? It’s the bigger picture. Not only will students enjoy a far wider range of benefits by applying a skill outside the field of music, but they will learn the skill far more deeply than one application alone can provide.

In this stage, you help your student understand the principle of transference and give them assignments to try the skill in multiple non-music applications. It’s a very important step in becoming a Transposed Musician! Help students understand how they can, for example, use the problem-solving tool to great benefit, not only in music, but in almost any aspect of life, including non-music careers. This transference idea must be explored and developed consistently, if only for a few minutes, in weekly lessons if the student is going to realize much benefit. For example, you might ask: “Mary, have you thought about how the problem-solving skill that you apply so well in you weekly music practice could also help you in that tough chemistry class you have fretted about?” Fear not! As a music teacher, you don’t have to have any knowledge of chemistry (or any other non-music discipline); you merely steer your student through the same steps you did in the music application of the skill. Those steps include: recognizing a problem exists, forming a plan of action, trying the plan, determining what worked and what didn’t, adjusting, retrying, etc. This weekly ‘conditioning’ is critical if the student is to fully realize the benefits of applying universal skills in every nook and corner of their lives.

If you have a student planning on a different career than music (and there are many such a students), how might you redirect the course of the music lesson to reflect this path and to ultimately benefit them more? Could the music lesson dramatically change in purpose to where you are specifically preparing them for a career in, say, one of the STEM fields? We all get to know, soon enough, in what career direction our students are leaning. Say it’s engineering. Why not actively engage the student in applying every universal skill you have taught them through music to engineering. But how, you ask!

Thankfully, you already have the information you need and you do not need to become an expert in another field. For example, when you develop your students’ musical skills, you are actually helping them to learn to express themselves. Communication! When they learn how to tease the beauty out of a melodic line in a Chopin Nocturne, they are actually becoming better communicators. Expound upon this concept in the lesson. The more you do this sort of thing, the easier and more rewarding it becomes. Try taking a tentative step.

It is here that you could follow the transference aspect of the communication skill further with your student’s engineering career in mind. How might they transfer their communication skills from the music performance stage to where they can also clearly articulate a mechanical engineering concept through word? If we think about it, the principles of rhetoric in music and speaking are almost synonymous. (See my chapter on communication.) How might your ideas in music improvisation be transferred to a student going into business? Things are past-paced and often change abruptly in the world of business — the music student who studied improvisation is better prepared to see a new twist as an opportunity than as a closed door. Especially if you were to help them see those connections!

This way of transforming the music lesson can develop into something quite fascinating! I find it so. I am always trying to connect the dots with my students in a way for them to see how the music lesson is actually a microcosm for all of life. It has tremendously reinvigorated the music lesson for me, and my students have responded with more enthusiasm than I could ever have imagined.

Do you begin to see now how you can profoundly change the course of the traditional music lesson? Do you see how this wider approach could attract more students? What parent wouldn’t leap at the chance for music lessons for their child if the primary objective was to use every skill learned through music for the primary purpose of improving their chances for admission to a top-ranked college or university? There is tremendous potential here.

How you put some or all of these ideas into your lesson plan is totally up to you. You can begin ‘poco un poco’ and see how things go. I began in much the same way some twenty years ago — although for me, I had no guide. My book was written so you don’t have to re-invent this particular wheel.

I hope this blog has stimulated some new thinking. I believe the music lesson can be so much more than what the model of our treasured Western European Conservatory tradition has advocated for so long. Time to explore! Expand! Our profession very much needs this sort of inventiveness in order to sustain itself long into the future.