Could a forgotten, centuries-old "one-room schoolhouse" teaching method hold the key to unlocking natural musical ability?
When it comes to music teaching, we wish we could turn back time! Could a forgotten, centuries-old "one-room schoolhouse" teaching model hold the key to unlocking natural musical ability? Let's take a look at what happens (and doesn't happen) during today's modern private lessons.
Nothing against our childhood music lessons (I dearly loved my piano teacher, and modeled my first 20 years of music teaching after her). But, after decades of teaching the usual 30-minute weekly lessons, we've made a discovery: the private lesson is BACKWARD!
If you've ever experienced private lessons, they were most likely 30 minutes once a week (mine were, too). Between lessons, on your own, is when you were expected to make the real progress - to remember what was taught/fixed during the lesson, make improvements, memorize stuff, drill on exercises and scales. Then, at the next lesson, the pressure was on to present all that...perfectly...then grab the next assignments. Your teacher sat next to you, ever at the ready to correct mistakes (sometimes before you even made them!). There's a problem with these "traditional" private lessons, and it puts music learners at a huge disadvantage, without even realizing it. Let's examine some serious and obvious flaws with that model...and how to fix them!
Flaws with the traditional private 30-minute weekly lesson:
LESSONS ARE TOO SHORT
Thirty minutes is simply not enough time to cover everything necessary to make fast musical progress, or to allow students to make a true physical connection to music (at any age!). It might be, if perhaps a student consistently showed up to each lesson ready to play the assigned songs at tempo perfectly, completed all exercises flawlessly, took initiative to work on sight reading new songs during the week, correctly completed pages in their theory workbook, memorized the upcoming recital song. More likely, the student practiced something incorrectly that will then need to be fixed (there goes the rest of the lesson time), ran into struggles and didn't practice everything, forgot about the sight reading, left the theory workbook at home, or didn't practice at all (the lesson is then spent repeating everything from the previous lesson).
You remember your childhood lessons, right?...and feeling like you were on the hot seat, breathing a sigh of relief when it was over. There's a bit of pressure on students during a 30-minute private lesson, with the teacher right beside the whole time, watching your every move and at-the-ready to provide corrections. What the student practiced (or didn't) during the previous week is about to be closely examined and critiqued for mistakes. Personally, I recall being so nervous during my childhood piano lessons that most of what my teacher said was white noise. Nerves during a lesson can severely inhibit students from truly absorbing new information and making a deeper connection and understanding of their music.
Unfortunately, unless you happen to be the child of a piano teacher, all practice during the week (if there is any) goes unsupervised and unchecked by the teacher. Even the most dedicated practicers work in mistakes and poor habits that need to be "un-practiced" at the next lesson. Another common occurrence is that students may not realize how much time should be spent practicing, and will simply skim through playing their songs rather than mastering them.
LACK OF MASTERY
In traditional 30-minute lessons, the bulk of the lesson time is spent either fixing mistakes or introducing new concepts and music. There is little remaining time for the student to play repeatedly and to truly absorb something new. Repetition and mastery of songs is expected to be done during home practice, and the student is left to decide where that barre is.
LITTLE OR NO SIGHT READING
With little or no time during a lesson to practice sight reading (sight reading is the skill of being able to play through a new piece of music almost perfectly without having practiced it beforehand), this skill is often neglected and very underdeveloped in most students. As sight reading becomes more challenging, it's not likely students will put it in their Top Five list of things to work on during the week.
LITTLE OR NO PERFORMING
We're not talking about actual formal "performances" here, like recitals or competitions. We mean there is little or no playing in front of people (friends, family, other students). Students might eventually get used to playing comfortably in front of their teacher, but any other playing/practicing is probably done in solitude. Performing and learning to be comfortable playing for others is a skill rarely practiced (no wonder recitals can be such nerve inducing events).
POTENTIAL FOR A WEAK FOUNDATION
When you're building something -- a house, a bridge, anything -- where do you start? How do you build it so it stays in place, doesn't shift or fall so that you can finish the project without endlessly starting over? By putting down a solid FOUNDATION. Without it, music lessons are like constructing a building on quicksand...and a waste of your time. You will still learn some skills along the way, but you're in danger of the slightest "earthquake" setting you back, making you feel like you're not getting any better, or that you can't be as good as the "talented" students. If the weekly lesson format and length simply don't allow time for a student to comfortably absorb basic skills and concepts, it's likely those skills will never become "natural".
So, what's the solution?...and the secret to amazing progress, and becoming a great musician? How do we build a solid foundation?
The solution (and the secret to getting really, really good) is in a lesson design and restructure that addresses the issues of lesson length, nerves, unsupervised practice, lack of mastery, under-developed sight reading skills, under-developed performance skills and anxiety, independence....that allows students to subconsciously and innately absorb music, and master those foundation skills - DURING THE LESSON! At The Music Studio, we've essentially taken a cue from the one-room schoolhouses of days past, and created a lesson structure where students learn and work within the same classroom (quietly, of course, with headphones), practice independently and confidently at their perfect pace, and on their own personalized lesson plan. Furthermore, we want PARENTS to feel that sense of "Lesson Success". We want to make sure students have conquered any musical and technical issues during their lesson so playing at home is actually FUN -- never a chore, and never a battle. And, that they feel confident showing off - performing - what they can play.
How do we know this works?
What we notice the most with our lesson program is that students move easily and quickly through their lesson books -- twice as fast as they would with traditional private lessons (we have the book orders to prove it). Student outlook has changed, as well. They look forward to their lessons (parents tell us), and are confident warming up on their own when they arrive. In private lesson days, if we had said to our students they should learn their next song within an hour, they would have looked at us with despair. Now, they come to lessons knowing they'll master many new songs (with time left over to review old ones) before they leave.
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This Newsletter just had to be long! I've had the realization that absolutely everyone at our studio has the WOW factor.
One Tuesday night, every student that had a lesson from 7:30-8:30 PM had a conflict. Honestly, I think there was some sort off telepathic conversation taking place because...WHAT A DAY! You know those days where every possible thing had gone wrong? Or you think to yourself, wow I really didn't do my best today. In our case, it was teach our best. Anyway, during that hour lesson where no one showed, our little teacher meeting started as a vent session but soon enough, the positives started pouring out. We realized that although we had a bad day, when we started looking at the big picture, everything else seemed perfect. And I mean that literally. Bad days tend to consume us, everyone in fact. It is true when they say you are more likely to talk of a bad experience than a good one because it's something you need to talk about to make yourself feel better. The only difference with this, is that once we started listing the ways we were going to adapt or fix what we thought needed fixing, we realized how small the problem was.
I know we thank all of you in almost every newsletter--our teachers, students, parents--but sometimes I don't think we say it enough. After this one conversation we realized how far this studio, as a whole, has come. And this is including ALL of the obstacles we have had to face during a time where we just don't know what's going to happen from one day to the next. It's a scary time. And some how through all of it we have had SO MANY accomplishments and we want you to hear about them. Bare with me as it might take me a while to get to those WOW factors we have seen throughout the year but IT IS WORTH IT THOUGH. I promise.
So taking it back to our February Newsletter, I wrote a blog in reference to quitting because of a bad day. The advice given was simply when you have a bad day, don't quit. Finish what you start, move forward, sleep on it, and if you don't feel differently in the morning it can be discussed further. I received a lot of feedback from this post and I'm not going to lie, it felt amazing to know that you all are reading what I have to write about. One email, in particular, provided an article and Ted Talk that really connect with the article I had written (I'll reference the links below). These references are of Angela Duckworth, a psychologist from University of Pennsylvania, including her experience with piano and what it takes to be good at what you do. She speaks of practice, developing grit, and the incredible impact of sticking with an activity can have on your life. (cont. pg 4)
So, in regard to grit and practice efforts, it is mentioned that in order to truly love what you are doing, you have to put in the effort first. Take Michael Phelps for instance. He didn't make it to the Olympics and become the most decorated athlete in history swimming one lap and simply leaving the pool. No, he instead did more than swim a lap. He did more than swim 100 laps. He dug deep into the psychology, the technique, anything he needed to dive into (haha get it) to become what he is known for today. Granted, we all don't have the genetic gene pool to be a Michael Phelps, however, that is besides the point. There are plenty of other swimmers out there that were told wouldn't make it, and did. This is just one example! What I mean to say is that not everyone understands what it takes to become a great musician. And I'm not even talking about the best of the best, I'm simply talking about succeeding and becoming proficient. What Michael Phelps did, what many other athletes, musicians, those who succeed at what they do, is practice. Really think about it, are you really going to love what you're doing if you do it for 5 minutes a day? Are you really going to love it if you don't put forth effort? When you put forth effort and enjoy the outcome that hard work as given you, you become proud of yourself, giving you the satisfaction and self love that you need in order to enjoy what you are doing. In other words, the outcome doesn't pay off when you aren't truly digging deeper into what you are working on or perfecting.
What exactly does it mean to put in effort? Back to my Michael Phelps example, I had stated he did more than swim laps in the pool. He dug into the physical and mental psychology of the sport. He looked and studied at every inch of his race, stroke, technique, and probably more. Much more than that, he pushed passed the physical and mental pain that sometimes tells us we just can't do it anymore. He pushed these limits EVERY. DAY. As I said, this example is a little bit of a stretch. But when you think about it, you can't just simply play piano every day to be good at it. What we do during lessons, is we provide the support and the opportunity to practice and I mean, REALLY practice.....including your knowledge of music theory, vocabulary definitions, reading your notes, reviewing older pieces and more. The practice techniques learned during lessons are then transferred to at home practice.
Don't worry everyone, we have finally come full circle from where I started this blog. Thanks for hanging in! What comes out of this teaching method (Advanced Program) we started a year ago, is a love for music not solely because our students loved it to begin with but because they are putting in the effort, they are learning, progressing, and advancing faster than we have ever seen from such a large population of students. And the best part is they enjoy it AND appreciate the outcome that they are truly good and gifted at what they do.
To summarize, this year has been nothing we ever imagined in our lifetime, but our students are really helping our Studio shine. For the first time in The Music Studio's history, we need Level 4 and beyond music books fully stocked. Before switching to this Advanced format, we specifically needed and abundance of Primer and Level 1 books. They say it takes the average student 6 months to finish a lesson book, our average is 4 months (that's 12-16 lessons)! I see students playing pieces I would have never dreamed of performing at their age. And the best part? The discipline, motivation, independence, and team building skills they are developing are an endless supply of growth needed to benefit them in the future, in everything they do in life.