Pitfalls and Remedies to Teaching Instrumental Music

2011Symposium_1_2Learning to play a musical instrument is one of life’s joys and one that many children enjoy, and many adults wish they had taken advantage of when they had the chance in school. Beyond the enjoyment of playing music, learning an instrument is also an excellent way to learn most musical concepts. For example, students can learn most of what there is to learn about music from a well designed curriculum for a piano lab. Keyboards are a popular musical instrument with students, including children in the middle school years, when engaging and connecting with students in general music can be challenging. If you are like me, you do not have the budget to purchase a piano lab, but many of the benefits are still available by utilizing piano keyboard apps for mobile devices. While these apps can never replicate the feel of true weighted keys, they do provide enough simulation to be of use in teaching keyboard and music concepts. Recorder and guitar are also a popular instruments for achieving the same goals. I prefer the “Real” series of apps. There is Real Piano, Real Guitar, and Real Drums, all of which are excellent, with enough options and reasonably realistic sounds, even on the free versions. Real Guitar is of less use, because there is no provision for fingering chords or notes: they are selected with a push of the button. But the strumming and sound is realistic. The drum and piano apps are more useful, because they leave all of the playing to the user.

With recorders, there is less of a need for apps because the instruments themselves are affordable. Students can purchase working recorders for under five dollars, and can progress form beginning levels to highly proficient and advanced levels playing Renaissance and Baroque repertoire. Although students take a while to achieve a characteristic sound on most of these instruments, once they do, they are less prone to being self-conscious about performing in public, because not everyone can play and most friends, teachers and adults are impressed with proficiency on a musical instrument. Playing music develops confidence that carries over into other areas. These are all important benefits of instrumental music instruction.

There are pitfalls, though that must be kept in mind. People who play piano tend to have a less accurate musical ear than those who play violin. This undoubtedly is because  there is no possibility of tuning individual notes as one plays a piano, whereas a violinist must be adjusting intonation constantly. If intonation and developing a musical ear is ignored when teaching non-tuneable instruments like the piano, or semi-non-tuneable instruments like most wind instruments where real time tuning is necessary but restricted, then playing becomes a mechanical task; no more than operating a machine that happens to make musical sounds. To avoid this deficit in instruction, music teachers of instruments must include singing and ear training as part of their curriculum. Keyboard and wind instrument students must be required to sing their parts, learn solfege, and audiate what they are about to play, and then play fully, informed by their prior singing and audiating what the music will sound like if they play it correctly. This is a method that has often been taught in teacher preparation programs, occasionally included in instrumental method books, but too infrequently carried out by teachers. The value of sight singing for instrumental students cannot be overstated.

A second pitfall is that too many students do not receive enough experience being expressive and interpreting what Ensemblethey play. They often either spend hours practicing alone for solo auditions to music festivals, or practicing ensemble parts, or they are spending their playing time in large ensemble rehearsals where everyone is trying to execute the conductor’s interpretation, and where experience may not exceed playing the right notes, dynamics, and tempos. The real training ground for building musicianship on a musical instrument ought to be in chamber music ensembles. This can take the format of frequently practicing a solo with a pianist, or playing music in ensembles of popular instrumentations such as a trio, quartet or quintet. In these settings, every player is easily heard, and each player’s accuracy and expressiveness is apparent. The feeling of becoming lost in a large ensemble is replaced with the excitement and even thrill of hearing every moment of one’s playing combining with other timbres to form a vibrant, musical performance. Not only do chamber groups develop musicianship more effectively, but the added musicianship gained then goes back into the large ensembles in which those same students play. Ultimately, instrumental music programs must place a greater premium on building musicianship, and not stop at merely achieving note, dynamic, and tempo accuracy.

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