Music for Everyone

March is Music in Our Schools Month.

Sometimes when I take on a private student who has previously given up on, or has never had music lessons, they can very fearful. Grown men who tower over me tremble when they first place their hands on the keys, or when they think I am about to ask them to sing. Their fear of being judged is obvious. But the joy my students experience when they realize, “I might be able to do this” is overwhelming.

Many of my students start lessons with me after having taken music classes in school. On the first day, I tell them, “This is not school. There are no grades. There are no tests. There is no pressure to succeed. As long as you continue to show up, you are good enough.” Unfortunately, saying this once isn’t enough—I find I must repeat it every month or so for at least the next year, and I tell my students they are free to ask me to repeat it as often as they need to hear it.

One of the problems I see with current piano pedagogy is that the beginning music is simplified so much that it takes students forever to master skills that previous generations of students learned in a few months. Some of my students who took lessons before starting with me are nervous about playing black keys! Instead of making the exercises simpler, can we make the explanations simpler?

And when my students make a mistake in their lessons, they spend a great deal of time apologizing to me. They don’t need to—I expect my students to make mistakes. After all, if they could already perform perfectly, they wouldn’t need me! Their fear of being judged not good enough derails a lot of their progress. In their lessons, rather than encouraging them to show what they have accomplished since last time, I want them to show me what they have been having problems with this week.

And my students often try too hard to learn too much at once. I have to continually remind them that trying to do too much slows their progress. It’s better to learn ten measures a week well than to work on an entire piece at once for months on end and make only miniscule advances. Again, their desire to quickly learn a composition is driven by that fear of judgement.

I have written before about scarcity and abundance thinking. Music should be for everyone, but unfortunately our current educational culture restricts it to a few elite students. Among the cultural problems are the pressure to perform to a timetable, various levels of musical ensembles sorted by ability, and private teachers selecting only the best students.

We must do better.

In the past, music was a form of family entertainment. In many families, everyone sang or played an instrument, well or badly, but playing together was part of the fun, and because the music was purely for private enjoyment, mistakes gave people a reason to laugh together and then try to do better the next time.

Community bands and community choruses take away some of the toxicity, but members find they are often judged by other members. Even if they are not being judged, they often assume they are. Instead of members with more advanced skills judging those with less advanced skills, what would be better is to foster a culture of mentoring. Some conversations about noblesse oblige are long overdue.

For private lesson teachers, instead of introducing competitions or recitals so early on, allow students to experience some more relaxed public performances. There is no more appreciative audience, in my experience, than people who live in senior communities. This is a low-pressure environment, as seniors tend to be very forgiving of mishaps. Some senior communities will even offer a small honorarium, which is a great way to introduce students to business, and the business of music-making, in particular.

Instead of simply pointing out mistakes, teachers can do much more. Why did the student make that particular mistake at that particular time? How can we explain what happened so that the student understands and can avoid that and similar mistakes in the future? In short, how can we identify and help the student solve whatever problems they encounter?

And in the schools, what can be done? We can introduce musicianship skills at primary levels: music history, reading music, rhythm, ear training, sight-singing, and analysis. We can encourage lifting up struggling students, instead of excluding them. We can talk about non-performing musical careers, such as instrument building and repair, typesetting, editing, publishing, and arranging. We can discuss music libraries and archives, research papers and journals. We can introduce students not only to orchestral and operatic performances, but also to give them the backstage tours of how those performances come about. Putting on a musical performance goes far beyond the performers themselves, and learning music opens up many career possibilities.

I certainly don’t have all the answers. No-one does. But if we teachers are willing to make even small changes in music instruction to make music more accessible for everyone, those small changes will add up quickly. Remember, one motivated snowflake can start an avalanche.

My thanks to the brilliant Erica Sipes for her invaluable feedback on this post. Be sure to check out her YouTube channel for her Sightreading Maverick videos, and her blog for all kinds of useful information.

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