Practice pleas(e)

This blog post was originally written for Music Network’s Resource Hub.

Part 1

The following extract is taken from Ken Wardrop’s documentary film Making the Grade (2017).

Mother: I suppose maybe about 6 to 9 months ago John decided he’d prefer to do it on his own; and he sacked me (she laughs). Now, I think really that there might have been an ulterior motive here because I was probably maybe asking to play it a little bit slower, put on the metronome, take his time. And I think maybe he decided this practice would go a bit faster if mum wasn’t around and if he was doing it on his own. Would I be right there, John? Being honest?
Son: Maybe.
Mother: I think so. It’s good that he wants to play on his own and it gives me more time for myself. So, we let him off. He’s very very good for a 10-year old boy and a boy who is very very busy with sport.
Son: I do hurling, football, and then racquetball, tennis, swimming, golf, and soccer.
Mother: He’s a busy boy.

This light-hearted interaction between mother and son touches on a topic that will be familiar to teachers and parents the length and breadth of the country: practice. It also highlights three other aspects in relation to practicing that will equally resonate with teachers and parents alike: effective practicing, children’s busy lifestyles, and the role of parents in music tuition. Although practicing is at the centre of much discussion around music tuition, it is a crucial ingredient that is often left out of the mixture.

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Group music lessons: do they really work?

I taught a beginners piano group course to children for 7 years. I was sceptical about teaching piano in groups, but it was part of the job I was hired to do. Many conversations with colleagues made clear that they did not believe it was an effective form of teaching. Even recently, I have been part of conversations where many experienced and advanced musicians state that it simply cannot and does not work. Yet, group lessons are taking place and are becoming more and more popular, the reasons for which are varied: more income in an hour than individual lessons, greater potential for students to enrol for one-to-one lessons after the group course, a cheaper option for parents, a taster programme, or as research indicates, it works. In this blog post, I explore my experience of group teaching and what might really be meant by those who believe it should be avoided at all costs.

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Are music exams problematic?

Most people take exams for a number of reasons: to have a goal, something to focus and motivate them, notwithstanding a sense of achievement at the end of it all. Indeed, having taken up the cello in recent years, I identify with all of these reasons and find them very valid. When I learned the piano as a child and violin as a teenager, however, exams were just part of the process, even though at that time exams for me were a source of much stress. And it would seem to me that today, exams continue to be automatically part of the process in a lot of our music making, where using exams as a goal or motivational tool could sometimes be interpreted as the only thing to make a student practice for set periods in the year. As examiner and teacher in various contexts, which has often included decision making regarding exams, course content, and structure, I’d like to share my perspective on exams, in particular as I have returned to them in recent years myself.

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‘I wish I had learned an instrument’. So, what’s stopping you?

I’m at a social gathering. I’m speaking to someone who discovers my job involves music. The person in question has no ‘official’ background in music (i.e. never took lessons) but expresses huge interest in it. No matter how many times I have found myself in this situation, the response is always the same: ‘I wish I had learned an instrument growing up’. And in return, I ask ‘so, what’s stopping you now?’

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Part IV: what every parent needs to know about music lessons

It’s worth the effort

For a number of years, I have had three students with very different levels of ability and different reasons for taking lessons. Let’s call them students A, B, and C.

Student A is shy, late teens, and first took up music as a child by joining an introduction to piano group class, which I was teaching. Student A’s parents wanted to help them get out of their shell. Student A is dedicated and has ability even though they do not necessarily ooze passion for playing music; they do listen to a lot of music and enjoy the experience. This student has embraced theory, sight-reading, aural work, researching background to different eras and styles, listening to different versions of pieces, and applying all this knowledge to any given work they are playing. Unlike many students who choose to stop music lessons after their leaving certificate, in particular when not pursuing it at third-level, student A wants to complete grade 8, on which they are currently working. It’s easy to work with student A because they connect all the pieces of the puzzle and see that puzzle as interesting. Naturally, we can’t cover everything in each lesson, but they maintain work on all areas so that when we are in a position to address scales, or theory for example, we have something concrete to work on. They have developed skills to the extent that they are able to digest a piece of music by themselves and get a good sense of the outline when reading it at sight. This student will be able to draw on their knowledge for their leisure.

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Part III: What every parent needs to know about music lessons

Is your child playing the wrong instrument?

In general, access to a music teacher often dictates the instrument your child takes up. There are pockets of Ireland where the classical accordion and Irish harp are primarily played for example because there are musicians who teach these instruments there. In most cases though the piano monopolises the music educational landscape because it seems that there are piano teachers in most communities. Having access to a particular instrument does not mean your child will connect with it however; children can be completely curious and be moved by music, but do not seem to enjoy playing an instrument as much. Your child may be playing the wrong instrument.

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PART II: What every parent needs to know about music lessons

How will your child meet their expectations?

I once inherited a student who had been playing piano for years. Despite this, I still wanted to learn about their expectations. The student wanted to play for fun and develop skills, but they didn’t like aural work, sight-reading, theory, scales, certain periods of music, had preference for playing works in a minor key over major keys, didn’t like to practise much, and couldn’t always commit to attending lessons; they also felt that exams might help motivate them even though they didn’t really want to do them. This might seem like an exception, but in many cases, teachers are confronted with similar circumstances in their lessons.

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What every parent needs to know about music lessons

We are a few weeks into a new academic year, which invariably means there will be many children who have started music lessons for the first time. When children first start music lessons they are filled with excitement: new hobby, new instrument, new sounds, new teacher, and possibly new friends. As time passes however, this excitement is often replaced by reluctance to practise, or it may even be that music lessons are starting to feel like a chore. In such cases, it is not uncommon for parents to approach teachers to clear up what may be a misunderstanding regarding lessons: ‘my child wants to do music for fun’. But are we misusing the word fun when it comes to music tuition? Over the next week, I will consider the motivations behind signing a child up for lessons, look at what every parent needs to know as their child settles into music lessons, reflect on misconceptions concerning formal music education, and reveal some of the stories that make teaching a rewarding occupation.

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