Four Pieces of Advice for Improving Music Teaching and Learning

2011Symposium_1_2Recently, Patrick McKenna published an insightful article on begin an effective leader. The main point was that good leaders understand the importance of relationships with those they lead, and take a genuine interest in their needs and wants. This is not only good for business; it is also good for teaching. Music teachers are in an especially conducive position for making the most of relationships, because they typically teach many of the same students for several years, allowing for more meaningful relationships to be formed than teachers who only see them for one year can form. With this in mind, here is the advice offered by McKenna in his piece.

First, show a genuine interest in what each of your students wants to achieve. When students are included in setting learning goals, they tend to be more interested and more motivated to get the most out of the learning opportunities you offer. Much of what music teachers teach are concepts, creativity, skills, analysis, and interpretation. None of these are specific to a particular musical work or even musical idiom. Harmony can all be taught with practically any piece of Western tonal music, and singing, rhythm and meter can be taught with virtually any piece of music from anywhere in the world. Hip-hop rhythms frequently include sixteenth note pushes, and rappers often use sixteenth note rhythms. Why not teach sixteenth notes with a clean rap song instead of or in addition to a folk song or excerpt from a symphonic work?

Second, show an interest in the things that mean the most to your students in their personal lives. It is easy to forget that while almost every one of our students enjoys music in some way, music is not at the center of their lives the way it probably is for us music teachers. Our students have other interests the way we are interested in music. If they like video games, teach with soundtracks. Middle school kids will be thrilled to learn how to play a theme from one of their favorite video games, so if you were going to teach them to play something on a keyboard, why not that? Or, your students might be stressed over school testing on home life, and will really appreciate relaxing music. Often, their hectic, stressful lives include a steady stream of hectic, stressful music. It seems to fit so naturally into their unpleasantly stressful emotional state, they don’t realize there are other kinds of music can than bring some calm into their day. It’s a beautiful thing when a class in constant motion and frequent commotion is brought to welcomed repose by a bit of musical beauty.

Third, check in with your students every so often. How’s your day going? You look angry, are you okay? Do you need teacher-and-student4some space right now? You look excited, is there something good that’s happened you’d like share? When we correctly read the emotions our students bring into the classroom, we can sometimes draw on music that will help them clarify helpful emotions, or healthily express or change unhealthy ones. I have done this with myself, and found it to be extremely helpful. My first year of teaching was very rough, and nearly every day I needed some way to settle myself down. Every day I took out might recording of Rachmaninoff’s second symphony and played the slow movement as I settled into a recliner. I always felt revived when that music came to an end. Checking in demonstrates to our students that we care about them beyond their musical performance in our classroom, and gives us the opportunity to demonstrate a powerful benefit of music to their lives.

Fourth, offer help to a student who clearly needs it. Students won’t always tell you when they need help, or they won’t know what kind of help they need. It’s not enough to tell students what to do, but we must also model and teach them how to do it. This is especially true for helpful behaviors, which frequently are not modeled or taught by anyone else in their lives. It’s important to let the student know first that it’s okay that they are have difficulty, that there are things you can teach them that will help them improve, that you want to show them how to enjoy that success, and that you are willing to wait for that success, and are asking the student to also be patient with themselves while the two of you work together. Problem solving is an indispensible part of learning, but student problem solvers often need their teacher as a guide. Together, these four points can be effective in building relationships between students and their teacher, and in bringing about better teaching and learning.

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