By Dave Isaacs
Do you have a new student beginning music lessons? You’re embarking on a journey that will enhance his or her life in many ways. From simple relaxation and enjoyment to sharpening abstract thinking, playing music is good for the mind and spirit. And playing with others can be one of the most satisfying things people can do together.
Here are some tips to ensure your lessons start off on the right foot.
1. It takes time, not talent.
Parents will often ask after a few lessons whether their child has any aptitude. More specifically, some have asked if it’s worth the money to invest in music lessons. After all, isn’t talent a barometer of success? My answer is always the same: “If you’re asking me whether I think your child can learn to play, the answer is yes.”
Talent is a gift to be celebrated. There’s no denying that some people have a natural affinity for some things: music, athletics, math, or any number of things. But that gift doesn’t guarantee success. The world is full of people that never lived up to their potential! But take a look around and I’m sure you will find many people that set their sights on a goal and achieved it through hard work and persistence. It might sound like a cliché, but the proof is all around you.
Playing music has two main components: learning how to make the sounds, and learning what sounds to make. One is physical—a series of controlled movements. The other is mental—just like learning to speak, we listen and learn how the pieces fit together. While a natural gift might help a student absorb these things faster, the process is the same for everyone. When they put the time and effort in, the process works and they’ll progress.
This can require some good motivation, though, which leads us to number 2.
2. Teach to the student’s learning style.
There are two important factors when it comes to teaching—the ability to successfully teach is obviously essential, and requires a different skill set than their ability to play.
A good teacher is a good communicator, and makes every effort to make sure the student understands what they need to do. People learn in different ways. The classic breakdown is into classifications of visual (seeing it), auditory (hearing it), and tactile/kinesthetic (touching it). Playing an instrument involves all three of these. A good teacher can identify which is strongest in the student, focus on that approach, and use it as a foundation to support the other two.
The other essential quality in a good teacher is an understanding of how to motivate the student. A good teacher encourages unconditionally, always reinforcing the positives. A good teacher knows how to lead a student towards the big goals through a series of attainable small steps. And when their own passion for music comes through their teaching, that passion becomes infectious and the best motivation of all.
3. Teach the student how to practice.
A good teacher also teaches the student how to learn. I hear from students all the time about teachers that would show them what to do, but hardly anything about how to do it. Good teaching involves choosing the right material and breaking it down in a way the student can absorb it. When the student understands their own learning process, they begin to develop the ability to solve problems themselves. It’s like the old saying about giving a man a fish versus teaching him how to catch one.
A good practice method is well organized, but not rigid. It allows for the student’s attention span, predispositions, and life circumstances. It sets concrete goals and provides clear instructions on how to reach them. And most of all, it balances the methodical hard work with music that’s also easy and fun. After all, every student’s goal should be to learn to PLAY!
4. Play with and for others!
When students first start learning to play, they generally do a lot of memorizing. They memorize note and chord names, locations on the instrument, and the movements to make the sounds. This is the most effective method for a beginner, because it builds a foundation. But while this method will allow you to learn to play a song, it can only take you so far.
Accomplished musicians are aware of what they’re doing in the moment, and can react and adjust to what’s happening around them. In other words, they are able to change how they play without interrupting the flow. This obviously requires greater skill, but it generally doesn’t come from sitting in a practice room. Developing that sense of flow comes from performing: playing the song beginning to end without stopping. When the individual parts have been fully memorized, practicing becomes a matter of smoothly putting the pieces together. There’s no better way to do this than to play with or in front of a group of people. In a performance, you can’t stop! So “performing,” whether it’s in a living room or on a stage, is the best way to practice that flow. When students practice performing, they learn to let mistakes slide by and not get thrown. They will learn how to stay in the song when something happens in the room to be distracted by, yet also learn to pay attention to what’s going on in their surroundings. This is the skill all good players master, and it has nothing to do with the complexity of the music. A good teacher recognizes that it’s most valuable to concentrate on doing a simple thing well. So, developing flow is important from the beginning, and performance is the best way to do that.
5. Cultivate the love.
When I picked up the guitar at fourteen I was motivated by several things. I liked music and knew it made me happy. I was a teenager looking for an identity, and guitar players were cool. Girls seemed to like them, too. This was all good motivation to get me started, but it wasn’t the thing that kept me at it. What kept me at it was that I fell in love. Not with the girls that were in fact starting to pay attention (a nice plus, and proof of concept!) but with the feeling I got from playing music.
We love music because it makes us feel. Music communicates emotion even when there are no words to spell it out. Playing music is a way to touch that feeling, to get inside it in a way that passive listening doesn’t allow. If a student can maintain the effort long enough to get past the initial mechanics and begin to reach that flow state, the mechanics recede and what’s left is pure feeling.
This is the greatest motivation of all. It’s the thing that hooked me for life and I’ve seen it hook countless students over the years. Best of all, the music doesn’t have to be difficult for you to touch that feeling. All you need is to be comfortable and confident in your ability to play the part. This is why school band and orchestra programs are so successful in keeping students engaged in music: each player’s part is simple, and the satisfaction comes from being a part of the greater whole. And that’s a feeling worth striving for in any setting.
A career musician and teacher, Dave Isaacs has taught music for thirty years in private lessons, workshops, and college classrooms. Since moving to Nashville in 2005, he has become known in the music community as the “Guitar Guru of Music Row” for his work coaching performers and songwriters. He maintains a busy private studio teaching guitar, piano, theory, and musicianship in private and group settings.
Dave was a member of the music faculty at Tennessee State University from 2009-2013 and the audio production program at the Art Institute of Tennessee – Nashville from 2008-2017, teaching music theory, music history, and music technology. He has led music workshops for songwriters across the country, for organizations like the Nashville Songwriters Association International and at music festivals like the Frank Brown International Songwriters Festival and the Southwest Regional Folk Alliance.