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Are you an inspirational teacher? (a few thoughts....)

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Recently a friend and I were having a conversation about woodwind teaching, and I surprised myself how animated and enthiusiastic I became discussing all things regarding music education. I have always found learning (and teaching) fascinating and regard my whole career as a real priviledge and pleasure and certainly it has never entertained my thoughts that I just do it for the money; even if I won the lottery I don't think I would choose to cease teaching.

My woodwind teaching began quite in error actually, I had a toddler and a baby at the time when a friend of a friend asked if I might consider teaching their daughter the clarinet. Although everything in me was screaming "EEEEEEEEEEEEEEK!" for some bizarre reason I found a calm and confident voice emerge from my mouth agreeing to the situation. My little guinea pig and I then began a little journey and I found that I really enjoyed teaching her, found I could communicate to her age well and enjoyed finding exciting repertoire to keep her motivated. An excellent first exam result gave me a boost and I began to take on one or two more students.

Hopefully some of the observations I've made over the years will help you in your teaching if you've just started (or are considering it as a career); it's certainly not 'easy money' if you are striving to be an inspirational teacher; you will be burning several vats of midnight oil no doubt on countless occasions, but trust me.... it's worth it! Some teachers lack passion for their 'art' and sadly this often shows via students dropping away; often too polite to say they really don't enjoy learning what you are setting them each week. An inspirational teacher needs to read body language quickly, to know when the student is 'switching off' , or although nodding just isn't getting what you're saying. An inspirational teacher is not afraid to switch course and take a different tack at a moments notice.

Imagine if you will a fictional student; Lily, aged 14; she's been learning the clarinet for 3 years in school, has taken grade 2 but is seemingly progressing rather too slowly towards the grade 3 (which mum and dad are keen to see taken sometime this year). She often says upon entering the lesson that "sorry, things have been really busy this week so I haven't managed much practice" (teacher translation "I really didn't want to play my scales again, they're really boring, I don't like the list A piece I 've been told to learn, I can't 'get' the rhythm in the second piece so don't know why i'm bothering as it won't be right in any case, and I actually spent 4 hours each night on facebook instead....which was much more fun!").


Now I have 'inherited' students like this and I find it totally exciting to take them down a whole new path and hopefully re-igniting that passion for the instrument that they were so excited about when they started. We'll return to Lily in a moment, but meanwhile I must stress how perceptive you need to be as a teacher; what sort of a week has your student had? Have they had an exciting break through that they are dying to tell you about? (give them chance to talk!) do they need a dose of encouragement this week, or a bit of a friendly "lets take a step back and break this down a little more thoroughly, you're a little free style!" type chat ;D (not quite in those words you understand!). Some students react well to praise and will go to the ends of the earth to please you and hence work hard at home, some can't seem to take praise or won't believe you when you say they are doing well, don't worry, little bits will be sinking in, it just takes time, and some need an occasional fairly stern talking to or that you have a high expectation that they are going to work hard; "brilliant, I think by next week we'll go for a full performance of this piece then with the piano and I'm sure you will get all that detail in my next time" type thing.

Back to Lily......if she was my newly inherited student I'd ask her to play something, anything for me that she had enjoyed playing in the past, why did she choose that one? Is it easy, a past grade 1 piece? Perhaps she feels the current pieces are too challenging. She tells you that mum asks her practice three times a week for half an hour each. Ask her to give you a break down of a typical practice session; what exactly does she do? chances are she won't think how she practices and will probably have zoned onto a remote planet within 5 minutes (or spent the last 20 minutes cleaning the clarinet).....chances are she just ploughs into her set pieces and after a couple of playings, if she's made it to the end then it's considered practiced.

As a teacher we need to teach students how to practice!

Here's the reality;

  • Lily doesn't want to play Bach, she want to play Lady Gaga's new hit, or the theme from a favourite TV show.
  • Although she'd like to get her grade 3 this year, that's  all she's been practicing for and is now really bored (and hence progressing very slowly). Plus her best friend has grade 3 already and she doesn't want to be outdone!
  • She hates practicing scales; they're so boring and what's the point?!
  • Those three thirty minute sessions could be valuably used on facebook!
  • She knows that the dotted rhythm in that piece is more than one beat but can't seem to count it correctly

What to do with Lily? Set aside maybe one month to put aside all grade work, ask her what music she's listening to (chances are she'll have with her a phone or ipod you can plug into your speakers and have a listen). Do a deal; " Ok, so next week we're going to start learning the Lady Gaga song but your end of the bargain is that by next week I'd like that G major scale and arpeggio to be played evenly, tongued and legato at a speed of (such and such), in the rhythm of 'Happy birthday to you' , then see how many times you can play it in one breath, and tell me what TV show starts with the first five notes. Believe me, I've seen teenage students busting a gasket showing you they can play their scale 3 1/2 times before they go purple :D. You must stick to your end of the bargain then and sit and transcribe the promised song of course!

Talking of phones, most of them have a 'voice record' feature. If your student is struggling with a piece or a rhythm, why not play it for them as they record it; a great audio reference for when they get home.

Get Lily to practice her pieces in a different way find bars that have the same rhythm and play them one after another. Play a full phrase and stop, was the breathing good or didn't you make it to the breath mark? Scan through the piece and play only the accidentals, play them again but to a set metronome speed just a bit faster than your 'comfort zone' speed! Play the piece backwards, turn the book upside down! find re-occuring patterns and carry those patterns on further up/down the instrument. Play one phrase of it in 5 different keys.... the possibilities are endless really!

With my students I offer a reward on completed monthly goals; usually a bag of maltesers or Haribo's etc. Whilst not all teachers will do this, some sort of reward is always good; even if it's the promise of that next piece that you'll locate for them 'Mr Saxobeat' or whatever floats their boat!

Make sure that they hear you play sometimes and keep your own practice regime healthy so as not to dissapoint / uninspire your students. Admit sometimes that you are not sure on that certain matter but that you will find out. Make a 'to do' list and get things done. Slow down tracks for students feeling demoralised because they can't keep up; with free software like audacity you can change tempi and key even.

anyway... I hope that has proved useful in some way and wish you all the best in your teaching and learning.



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  1. Lyn Young

    Thank you Keri. I like to think I am a good teacher, but sometimes I get discouraged and feel isolated. This gave me a reaffirming uplift.

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