Learning New Instruments to Teach

2011Symposium_1_2I am an early adapter. Without overdoing it, I find the challenge of new things exciting, especially if I have chosen to initiate something new, and if I believe the new thing will be beneficial to my teaching and my students. While there are positive aspects to being comfortable with change, their are also liabilities. One of these liabilities is that I at times jump into things too soon, before I have really prepared. It is helpful to keep these positives and negatives in mind when approaching the learning of an unfamiliar instrument that you want to teach your students to play. Spending the time to become comfortable with the instrument has many advantages.

Over the years, I have at times spent time learning new instruments for the purpose of teaching them to students. Often, these have been instruments I already knew how to play, and could play simple tunes on, but that I was having trouble teaching when students encountered problems. I could only go so far on my knowledge of how to play the instrument, and because I could  not play much beyond the student’s ability level, I found myself telling students to do things I hadn’t done myself. This was especially true of teaching flute. Sound production can be tricky on that instrument. I could play all of the notes I needed to demonstrate music I was teaching students, but my tone was not what I wanted my students to imitate, particularly in the upper register. I determined that I needed to put in some serious practice, and needed to talk to friends whose primary instrument was flute. I got some good advice and a few lessons from these friends, and began practicing some flute everyday. This continued over the summer. When I returned to school in the fall, and had been teaching a month or two, one of my former band students who played flute came back to visit. She heard me playing flute while I was teaching, and later remarked how much better I sounded on flute then when I had taught her. I also noticed that as my confidence level increased playing flute, the confidence of my students also increased. It no longer looked like I was asking them to do something so difficulty, something that even I was having trouble with. The result was my flute players were starting to play better. The point here is that it takes time to learn an instrument well enough to teach it well–much longer than the semester or less that most of us get in college instrument methods classes. It’s important to take the time to not just stay a step ahead of students, but to be able to present ourselves as reasonably accomplished players of instruments we teach.

This is just as true for learning a new instrument as it is for improving on one for which we picked up a working knowledge in college. New instruments may be acoustic ones such as recorder, guitar, ukulele, or steel drums, or they may be computer driven instruments such as workstations and controllers. To teach these instruments, the teacher must not only know how to run the software and use the hardware, but also how to use them; to know what these instruments are used for in the performing and creating of musical works. We sometimes get so wrapped up in the “how to” of an instrument that we don’t give enough attention to what we hope to do with the instrument once we performance anxietybecome fluent with it. This can only be learned by spending more time with the instrument than it takes to be able to play a few tunes. Summer workshops that immerse teachers in a particular instrument or group of instruments are good, because they provide extended time to explore and use it while an expert is on hand to guide and answer questions. Like my flute improvement plan, having someone who specializes in what you are trying to learn is critical.  Without a person like that to come along side, you will be limited to your own small awareness of what that instrument can do. We really can’t know until we have seen and heard. I remember one summer I was giving a performance of the clarinet quintet by Weber. After I finished, a high school student who had been in the audience came up to me and said, “I never knew the clarinet could sound like that.” How would he, if he never heard it played by a specialist?

My word of advice to any teacher about to learn a new instrument for the purpose of teaching it, is to take your time.  Don’t try to prepare over a week’s vacation, and think you are ready to teach. You won’t get very far before you will reach the limit of your knowledge. While you’re learning, keep in mind what it will be like for your students, who are younger and do not have a music degree, to learn what you are learning. How will someone with much less musical experience handle learning what you are doing? It’s always good to anticipate our students’ problems, and be ready with solutions ahead of time. Taking a summer or even half of an academic year to prepare to teach a new instrument is the best approach, and will result in better teaching and learning.

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