4 Tips to Instantly Become a Better Music Teacher
To become a good music teacher, it’s not enough to use a few hacks. It requires experience, and you need time to get to know your own style. Having said that, there are a few things you can do that will instantly make you a better teacher and as a result, improve your student’s learning experience. In this article, I’m going to reveal 4 of those tips to you.
1. Write thorough lesson notes
The homework notes you make for your students after each lesson often dictate how they will practise for the rest of the week. These notes are all they’ve got to guide them through their practise sessions while you’re not there. It’s your legacy for that week.
Even though you have played through the material in the lesson, it can still be confusing for them when they are left on their own. Your notes can be a reassuring “stand-in tutor” for them, guiding them through the week.
Good lesson notes can really enhance the quality of their learning experience.
But what do great notes consist of?
Make sure you at least include:
– What your student needs to practise before the next lesson.
– How they need to practise.
This is the bare minimum. And often, it’s enough.
A lot of tutors don’t view “writing notes” as part of their job. When the lesson is over, it’s over. Some tutors write a quick note of what to practise, but not more than that. In the lesson, they tell their students how to practise it, and assume they will remember that. Mostly, they don’t. When you leave out the “how” from your lesson notes, you often leave your students in the dark.
Imagine for a second yourself in your student’s shoes. Think back on your time as a student. When your teacher wrote “Practise up to bar 6 of “Irish Lullaby”, how would you practise it?
Would you play it once or twice through, and that’s it? How long would you practise for? Would you include dynamics at this point? What about technique? What would you focus your attention on while you practised it? Should you keep your wrist in a certain angle? Should you relax your hand or tense it really hard?
As a 9-year-old, I would probably play it twice and assume that’s what my teacher meant by “practise”.
Us teachers are painfully aware of all the different nuances of what the word “practise” means. You know there are certain ways of practising that yield better results than others. This should be reflected in your notes.
Don’t automatically assume that your students know what “practise” means. This is something they are supposed to learn from you. How this is taught is often what separates a good teacher from simply a good musician.
Lesson notes is an opportunity to make your students develop good habits while practising.
You are with them 30-60 minutes once a week. The other 6 days, they are left on their own. How they spend their time during these 6 days shape their progress. How you write your lesson notes can determine how they use this time.
If you want to know how to write good lesson notes for your students, we have an article just for that purpose.
2. Just because you’ve started something doesn’t mean you should always finish it
Often, we start working on a piece only to find out that it’s not as suitable as you first thought it was. Maybe your student finds it boring. Or maybe it’s too difficult for them.
This happens all the time, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Sometimes, when this happens to one of your students, you might be inclined to continue with the piece because you are afraid to admit that you chose the wrong piece. You might be embarrassed that you started that piece in the first place. And the longer it goes on, the more you will feel that you have wasted their time if you suddenly make the call to stop working on this piece.
I want to reassure you that it’s totally ok to abandon a piece after you have worked on it for a few weeks. It’s part of the process. Music tutors are not omniscient beings or mind readers. It’s not possible to know everything about your student and how they will react to certain pieces.
If a piece doesn’t seem to work, it’s likely to be because of one of these two reasons:
- It’s too difficult.
- It’s not interesting enough for them.
If you find yourself in this situation, you have to try to read your student a bit. Observe how they react to the piece. You need to figure out the cause of why the piece isn’t working.
Does your student find it boring because it’s too difficult? Then you know that it’s time to confidently abandon this piece and choose an easier one. Don’t beat yourself up about this. You haven’t failed. You’ve simply made the right call.
Or is it the other way around? Are they struggling with the piece because they’re simply not interested in that kind of music? This is usually harder to notice. Most people don’t want to tell you outright when a piece of music doesn’t interest them. So you need to try to read them instead. If you conclude that the piece is not working because they find it boring, you can find another piece of the same difficulty, but something they are more likely to enjoy.
How can you be sure that you’ve chosen something they will truly enjoy? You can often judge this from their reaction when you demonstrate the pieces for them.
Here is how to do it: Play the piece for them. Then ask them what they think about it. Most children are not comfortable with saying “no”. But by observing how they say “yes”, you can find out when they really mean “yes”.
“I don’t know” means “no”.
“Maybe” is also just a synonym for “no”.
“It’s alright” means no.
“Yeah…” means no.
“Oh, wow!” is the only reaction that means “yes”.
You can also judge from their facial expression when they are truly interested in a piece or not.
It’s not wrong to abandon a piece. It’s much better to drop it and spend the time on something that is more suitable for them.
3. The most important question to ask your students
“How did you improve this week? Tell me how your practising went!”
At the beginning of each lesson, ask your student this question, and get them to talk a bit about how they practised this week.
This is a magic question that has so many cool benefits!
If the student is an adult or an older child, and they said they didn’t manage to practise that well, you can give them strategies to help them get more practise done throughout the week.
On the other hand, if your student is a young child, you can get a lot of useful information about your student by simply asking this question. This is another situation where your ability to read people well comes in handy. I am a strong believer that good teachers need to be good at reading people. No matter what the response you get is, you will know your student better. Knowing your student is crucial in order to understand their goals and aspirations, and in order to adapt your teaching style to their learning style.
Here are some more reasons why you should ask them this question:
- It makes them understand that what they do between the lessons has some significance.
- You train their ability to communicate clearly and to reflect.
- They are more likely to notice that they have improved, which might motivate them.
- You get some valuable insights into how they practise when you’re not there. This will give you clues about how to set up a better practise routine for them.
Something to keep in mind… There are several approaches to teaching a skill to children. And it’s ultimately up to you to figure out what’s most suitable for your students.
For some children, an “intrinsic motivation” approach might be better. This consists of letting your student be completely driven by a love for the subject itself, without any external incentives.
In this case, the question we have offered you won’t work since it educates them into thinking that they need to “improve” in some way.
On the other hand, if you notice that your students are already benefiting from practise routines and some external influences, then asking them this question and listening to their response will strengthen them. In other words – there is no need to change approach if the approach you already use is working fine.
4. Be enthusiastic when your student displays a positive attitude towards music (applies mostly to children)
Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of being a music teacher is to foster a joy for music in their students. As musicians, we know that the journey to becoming a good instrumentalist is not always fun. If you want to become skilled, you have to do a lot of repetitive exercises such as scales and arpeggios. That’s something that bores the gut out of a lot of people. But it still has to be done. And this can make it difficult for you to keep lessons fun and interesting.
Is there anything at all that you can do to help your students discover what a wonderful thing music is?
Yes, indeedy! I’m going to share that with you now.
It is about listening to your student.
When your student displays a positive attitude towards music, no matter how tiny it is, you should show an interest in this behaviour. React positively to it. This will make them feel good about their attitude and hopefully want to repeat it. When they express joy towards music on their own accord without you prompting them to do it, this should be celebrated.
When it comes to progressing on a skill, we learn the best and the fastest when we are enjoying learning the subject. Nothing is more powerful than when there is something about the subject itself that you enjoy, rather than enjoying receiving some kind of external reward for having followed instructions. No level of external motivation can compare to intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation doesn’t always happen, so it’s often difficult to base a teaching approach purely on that. But when it does happen, this is an opportunity to take advantage of.
If your student tells you that they have composed a tune or are eager to show you something they have discovered or practised on their instrument that you didn’t tell them to practise, this could be a sign that they are enjoying learning the instrument.
Here are some signs or clues to look out for in your students:
“I want to show you something I’ve practised.”
“I have made my own melody. Do you want to hear it?” (You definitely want to hear this.)
“I went up to bar 12 instead of bar 8.”
If you hear something like this from your students, embrace their suggestion and show your interest in it. If you can share a moment of joy of the music they have created or something they have done of their own accord, you might have planted a powerful seed of inspiration in them that can help fuel their learning and their progress.
Also, if they ask questions about what a new symbol in the sheet music means, that’s a sign that they are being driven by curiosity. If you get questions like this from your students, be enthusiastic about it. Sometimes, the worst thing you can do when they ask you questions you didn’t expect from them is to turn it down. Avoid answers like:
“That’s not what we were supposed to do now. Ask me again later.”
Instead, answer it and show how fascinating you think it is. Try to pass on your fascination to them. Don’t kill their curiosity.
Curiosity is gold when it comes to progressing quickly.