Why do students lose interest in music lessons? Often it’s because they never really had “interest” to begin with. In our lessons, the student is the pilot and the instructor is the co-pilot. The instructor holds the map and passes on the directions, but the student picks the destination. It is true that without a map or directions, the odds of anyone getting where they intend to go are slim. It is also true that without a destination, you’re likely not going to start the vehicle.
This is how we teach. Many academic schools are now integrating student-led programs, and studies show profound results when students take responsibility for their learning. We, the instructors, create a partnership with the student, and together we find their goals and achieve them one at a time. The student must lead. The student must be invested in what they are learning. They must have a personal attachment and interest in where they go with their instrument. Otherwise, they will quit, likely long before the true benefits of learning an instrument are realized. Here are five steps, or concepts, for incorporating student-directed learning to keep students on path to receiving the true benefits of learning an instrument.
At every first lesson, students are asked to suggest songs they want to learn. Sometimes students have a long list ready to go. Other times they really aren’t yet aware of what they like or dislike. This is where the instructor becomes a guide. The instructor helps the student uncover their interests and find their relationship to music. Maybe it is a movie or a soundtrack? Maybe it’s an artist or a video game? That spark can come from anywhere. Students are encouraged not to think about difficulty, style, or whether their instrument is present in the music. In the beginning, it is just about throwing every idea on the board and then letting the instructor decide on the route to take. These suggestions are placed in our chat system through teacher zone. This way a student knows they always have direct access to communicate new ideas and interests with their teacher. Through song-based learning, supplemented by theory and technique, students gain the academic benefits from music while still having fun and developing something they have an instant relationship with.
Every song boils down to three core pieces: harmony, melody, and rhythm. By looking at music this way, we can take any song, no matter the style, and find a student's place in it. For example, many songs on today’s Top 40 don't have live instruments. Does this mean we can't learn them? Absolutely not! We can learn the chords (harmony) and/or the melody on any instrument. We can simplify parts, if needed. We do whatever it takes to find a place for the student at their current skill level in the music. We then teach them their request in a supportive and constructive environment, constantly referencing their progress and commending their determination and courage. In doing this, the student gains a sense of accomplishment and deepens their connection with their instrument. This is how we generate momentum. Motion is emotion, so as a student gains strength and confidence, their belief in themselves and what they are capable of widens. In this way, there is a place and a benefit in music for every person. There is no such thing as someone who can't.
Learning must have context and application. Students learn how their parts fit by performing along with the music or with a metronome, or both. Why is this so important? Because by performing with the recording, with others, or playing in time with a metronome, we are doing...and doing turns theory into practice. This forces a student to reach notes and chords at specific times, which develops muscle memory and activates the brain. It also teaches song form, which builds their memory capacity. Our teachers coach them toward this and inspire them to continually set the bar higher and higher.
Learning notation, working through method books, using practice timers, and working on scales and techniques with the metronome are all ways in which we measure progress and instill extreme ownership in students. If a student starts on page 1, and next week they have a chance to move all the way to page 5, we have measured their progress by page number. If a student is working with the metronome and playing a passage at 80 bpm, and next week they have the opportunity to move up to 85, this is a measured result. When students finish a book or break through a technique, their ownership becomes visible in their body language and on their face. In short time, they'll approach their instrument with an attitude of “bring it on!” Throughout this process, the student, under the guidance of their instructor, is raising the bar. They are saying, "let's go here" or "I can go faster."
Music is a universal language. Like any language, it must be spoken with others. This means sharing with friends and family in living rooms and on stages. This means joining school bands or forming bands with friends or through outside programs like ours. This means encouraging students to express themselves fully and giving them a safe space to do this. At the end of every lesson, there is a period of “play.” For students who are working on improvising, this might mean jamming. It might mean playing through an old song or simply playing a new song as much as possible. In any case, there has to be time to just have fun and let the music do the talking. This is where we speak the language universally with our musical peers and an audience made up of loved ones and community members. Eventually students are encouraged to share their skills on stage. We put on Showcases to expand the creative space developed in lessons, strengthen a student's confidence, and inspire them by having advanced, intermediate, and beginner students all participate in the event together.
Mentorship in music lessons is guiding students to become confident independent thinkers who happen to have the ability to play a musical instrument. We support their decisions. We respect their voice. We honor our promises to them. We build trust through consistency. Our goal is to instill a personal relationship with their instrument and leave them with an appreciation for musical performance that lasts a lifetime.