The Wisdom of a Music Education

A teacher writing on a blackboard.Image from WikipediaMore and more I hear students telling me that they don’t have music at their school or that it’s been delegated as an extra-curricular activity. It’s a shame because in my opinion a musical education can teach us much more than we ever thought about learning and succeeding. It’s much like sports where the lessons we learn have far reaching effects over all areas of our life. Sometimes the effects aren’t as tangible as say learning how to add or write a proper paragraph but it teaches us how to learn, work on our own and overcome difficulties on a weekly basis.

The Lesson
A music lesson usually consists of a weekly visit to a teacher who hopefully has a lot of real world experience in the craft. The teacher will review what was covered last week and make sure that the student practiced the necessary exercises. If the student didn’t practice, or didn’t improve enough in that particular exercise, then it’s left again for the next week. If the exercise is too difficult, it’s broken down or simplified and practiced until the student can complete the exercise to the teacher’s approval. While the student has a number of exercises in a couple of different areas, they all point to a common goal. Hopefully, the basic techniques will be covered and ingrained before moving on. Week by week the student goes through this, slowly building skills while the teacher ensures that the student improves and keeps focused on the material at hand. While this system may seem simple at first glance, it’s brilliant in its simplicity and very effective in getting the desired results. It’s the same method that is used in sports with the coach/athlete relationship and is now used in mainstream teaching on everything from math to social skills. Basically its learning one thing at a time, in incremental steps, while keeping focused on the big picture.

Big Dreams…What Are We Doing Here?

Whenever I start working with people and/or students, we usually begin with discussing all of the things that they want to accomplish and/or learn in the coming months. Somebody may just be there to get the basics and learn something about their instrument and how music works. Others have visions of mastering the instrument and playing in front of thousands of people. It doesn’t matter, it’s a personal thing: there is no right answer for this initial stage. I know that when I sit down and figure out my goals for the upcoming months I usually go over the top to begin with. While it’s easy to go over the top with what you’d like to do, I usually don’t put any limitations on this…initially. Whenever I discuss the same things with fellow musicians, it’s the same thing and I try not to put any damper on what they want to do. Initially, I’m just trying to decipher what their most important goals are and what we need to do/learn to get them to their goals. It’s not until I have a grasp of who they are and what they want that I start to make some decisions about what to do next and make some definite plans about what we may be able to accomplish and what we may have to put off until later. What students don’t know is that as soon as I figure out what they want and where they are now, I immediately start putting together a plan. What the plan is and what the next couple of steps are depends on the student and the situation.

For Example

If I get a student who really wants to learn how to improvise, I try to figure out what their musical knowledge is and what level they are at right now. If they are a beginner and have no knowledge of music theory, and they tell me that they want to learn how to improvise over jazz standards, I know exactly what has to be done and a basic estimate of how long that will take. It’s only experience of many years of teaching and playing that gives me this knowledge. If the student is a beginner, I know that we’re going to have to go through the basics before we get into any heavy improvising. I want to make sure that they have a certain amount of technique and knowledge of some basic music theory such as time and form before we even start memorizing any scales. The point here is that as soon as they start, whether they know it or not, there is a plan in place. Now, every student/musician is different and although there is a plan, the exact plan isn’t concrete because it isn’t clear immediately where the student’s strengths and weaknesses lie and that every student is at a different place as far as knowledge and ability. What most students don’t realize is that when learning a new skill, the skill is broken down into small, manageable steps. The harder the skill, the more steps are involved. For example, if a student wants to be able to sing a major scale, I have to make sure that they initially can sing any given note. That means just singing one note when I play it to them. If they can’t do this, then I give them exercises to master this. Once that’s done, we work on two notes and so on. Every student has his/her challenges and what may be difficult for one, will be easy for another.

One at a Time…a Little at a Time
The point of all of this is to learn a musical instrument but it can be applied to any skill. If you look at it, it’s really how we learn in the first place. We almost always learn from a teacher, be it your parents, a formal teaching situation or ad hock from multiple sources, a small piece at a time. We then acquire one small skill at a time until we master the thing that we set out to do. There may be times that we seem to learn on our own and master things quickly but they’re usually based on already acquired skills. We may find that we are gifted in some areas where others are difficult. A lot of the time these exist within that same skill set. For example you may be gifted musically but can’t dance to save your life. Or, you’re a great singer but have a hard time writing a song. The point I want to make here is not about what you’re good or bad at, but how we go about learning new skills and how we can use that knowledge to acquire new skills faster and easier.

A good teacher will a) be able to fully assess where you are and where you want to go b) figure out your strengths and weaknesses and figure out ways to work on these areas c) be able to devise a plan that allows you to complete your goals and d) be able to regularly review your progress and change the plan of attack according to your individual needs. This is the true value of a music education but we can apply this methodology to all other areas of your life.

Let’s look at these one at a time:

a) Assess where you are and where you want to go. Two of the biggest problems I’ve had in becoming a success are failure to plan and trying to do too many things at once. So it was either failure to plan, or failure to plan effectively. I know that this is a problem for most people and I think that in this day and age, it’s all too easy to multitask our way into ineffectiveness. When I look at how I teach and how I learned to master my instrument, I realize that the answer was there all along: one thing at a time. The great thing about having a teacher is that they have the wisdom to see where you are and your weaknesses. They have experience and know what steps are need to accomplish your goals, and they will focus on one area at a time until all of the needed skills are acquired. Like I mentioned before, most of the time, the student isn’t even aware of this.

b) Identify your strengths and weaknesses and figure out how to work with them and around them. We all have strengths and weaknesses. To succeed these days in the music industry you’re going to have to be able to do a number of different skills at any given time. This may include being a songwriter, an engineer, a producer, a computer specialist. Or you may have to some public relations, marketing, finances, and tour promotion if you’re releasing your own stuff etc. This is just a small list but you get the idea. There are a lot of different skills involved in each of these activities and I don’t know of anybody who can do it all. I wrote a post in here before about trying to do it all, and it’s not only hard but very counterproductive. The point is that whenever you take on any plan, it’s a good idea to figure out what you can do, what you can’t, and what you may be able to delegate to somebody else.

c) Devise a plan. It’s only after we’ve figure out what we want to do and what we can do that we can set down some possible plans. By knowing what it is we can be certain about where it is that we want to go. By knowing our strengths and weakness, we can assign certain objectives to ourselves and set out to get help on the ones that we can’t. When we get a basic plan together, we need a plan of action and deadlines to make those actions a reality. In a music education, the deadlines aren’t always written in stone since one objective usually relies on the completion of the one before it. But so it goes in life; especially a career in the music industry. Keep in mind that a plan is always a work in progress and that changes will have to be made. It’s simply a general road map, the exact directions have to be written en-route.

d) Review and revise. This is especially important and is never given enough thought. As soon as you get going with your plans, it’s essential that you sit down on a regular basis and figure out what worked, what didn’t and if you are still on course. This is where the wisdom of the music education approach really kicks in. The student and teacher get together once a week to review. Anytime you have a lesson, the first thing you do is review what you did last week and assess to see if you can move on to the next step. There are two important points here. First of all there is the weekly review. It tells the teacher if the student has worked on the material, if there any problems with the material or the student and if they are still on course. If the material was too tough, there may have be a change in plans. The second lesson is that whether the student knows it or not, the teacher has made the student focus on one single lesson and didn’t allow the student to go one without completion of that lesson. This is where the one pointed focus comes in. In a music education there are just too many things for a student to learn. They all must be taken one step at a time. When the student becomes proficient in one area, s/he can then move on into more advanced techniques. If the student was to take it all on at once, it would just be overwhelming and the chances of success would be greatly reduced.

One More Time...From the Top
The lesson here is that within getting a musical education, we learn certain things that we can apply to all other areas of our life. I’ve focused mostly on music and the music industry but these lessons can apply to almost anything. When we learn to play a music instrument, it’s imperative that we learn in incremental steps and use what we’ve learned to build upon. It’s also important to note that when learning an instrument, most of the work is done on your own. Most of the development happens when you take the time to work on the task at hand, on a regular basis. There are no shortcuts. It’s this regular, incremental work ethic that allows us to achieve things that in themselves seem impossible. If you’re unsure, just check out a great artist who has really learned their craft. It almost seems magical when seen live yet realize that that magic was the result of the ongoing daily work and learning ethic that we learned about here.
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1 comment:

  1. Good, thought provoking post. I liked your list of 4 points a teacher should cover and the general approach.

    I would however question a basic premise you make at the outset. You say that one step at a time, learning a basic technique is the way to go. To some extent I agree but I would also argue that teachers need to also embrace a students creativity and encourage them to experiment before they get too tied up in the 'right' way to do things.