“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” – William Arthur Ward, motivational author
How do you inspire your music students? How do you motivate them to challenge themselves to become more proficient. How do you help them struggle through tough pieces knowing they’ll come out the other side better than they went into it? How do you encourage students to respect and appreciate the music so they can better enjoy it? When it comes to teaching music, there are more “How do you …” questions than you can count.
Before we sort out all those questions, let’s address the suspicion that not everybody who
wants to be a good music teacher has the training, skill, and patience to be one. Each of us is unique and has our own methods, personalities, and styles. But we also share qualities that anyone who aspires to be a good music teacher can nurture to achieve that goal.
If we were to take a poll, we could probably document dozens, possibly hundreds, of worthy qualities that students attribute to good teachers. Let’s start with five qualities that we think rank close to or at the top.
Learning is not some mystical event. At its core, it is communication, the exchange of
information that runs on a loop that consists of instruction and demonstration, the student’s response to the instruction, the instructor’s feedback, the student’s response to the feedback, and so on. It involves praise when warranted, correction when needed, and rapport throughout to create an environment of exploration and discovery. An important part of communication
that could stand alone as a critical teaching quality in and of itself is listening. Tune in to your students. Understand their perspective. Help them identify their strengths and weaknesses instead of you pointing them out.
Set clearly defined objectives, milestones, and other goals, work out with your student how together you will achieve them, and focus, focus, focus! One way good music teachers keep the focus on moving forward is by taking notes after a session. A quick review before the next session helps set the agenda. Without a written recap, it’s easy to lose track of what the student accomplished and what needs work. Organization also is the framework that supports creative, improvisational teaching when the moment presents itself. Without organization, spontaneity becomes “winging it,” which is not a long-term plan for success. Think about a musician who is disciplined and skilled—two critical components of organization. Their ability to improvise is often enhanced because of their organizational faculties.
Students are students. They are going to hit sour notes, break strings, get attitudes, and do all kinds of other student-ish things. Inspiring teachers take it all in stride. They are part instructor, parent, friend, brother, sister, mechanic, motivator, hero—sometimes all of those things during the course of one lesson! Patience is a virtue, but sometimes it helps to be less impatient than be more patient. Keep calm and teacher on! Students will take that as you care about them and their progress, encouraging them, and helping them find their motivation and interest.
Set the bar high
Try to avoid settling for good when your student can do better. Teachers who set high
expectations want their students to excel, and students respond to the faith those teachers have in their potential. Teachers who expect great things of their students are saying they are willing to put in the time and effort because they believe in them. Students become more confident
and willing to push themselves when they know their teachers are behind them. Please note: Setting the bar high not only applies to your students, but to yourself in your music career.
From the perspective of a music teacher, fun comes from sharing passion, enthusiasm, humor, and encouragement. An example is an unforgettable scene in Mr. Holland’s Opus. The eponymous music teacher is trying to get his student, Gertrude Lang, past her struggles with the clarinet. The moment before she quits, he asks her, “Is it any fun?” He admits that what they’ve been doing wrong is playing the notes on the page. He then proceeds to play “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen on a record player. Even though he says the group can’t sing, has no harmonics, and keeps playing the same three notes over and over again, he loves the song. Gertrude loves it too—because it’s fun. “Playing music is supposed to be fun. It’s about heart, it’s about feelings, moving people, and something beautiful, and it’s not about notes on a page…” He sits at the piano, she picks up her clarinet, and they play a duet of “Stranger on the Shore” by Acker Bilk. Fun is the catalyst that helps Gertrude play beautifully and become a better musician. Of course, there are serious difficulties and challenges that arise, but that doesn’t mean a music teacher can’t apply fun to help overcome them.
These five qualities may seem like a piece of cake to implement or too simple to forget. Yet, it’s just as easy to let them fall by the wayside as we get caught up in scheduling, deadlines, paperwork, and everything else in life. Rest assured that your awareness of these five qualities and respective intent to cultivate them will go a long way to improving your instruction, which will benefit your students as much as it will foster your own sense of fulfillment, enjoyment, and accomplishment.