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Teaching Your Students to Think About Music

“I cannot teach anybody anything; I can only make them think.” – Socrates

If the ancient philosopher’s proverb still holds true, how do you get your students to think about music? Can you do that by motivating them to think about what they can achieve if they persist in challenging themselves to be more proficient? Or by thinking about how they’ll become a better player by struggling through challenging pieces?

If you accept the notion that you can’t make them learn but only make them think, what do you want them to think about during their lessons, practices, and recitals?

Teachers, like students, come in all shapes, sizes, and abilities. Some teachers, however, might not have the training, aptitude, or patience to work with students. Truth is, there are common qualities that can help teachers help students think about music in ways that will inspire them to reach their full potential.

Let’s start with five of those traits.

1. Communication

Thinking is not a mystery. It is the result of a communication loop in which teacher and student exchange information in a cycle that allows both to clarify the message and confirm that what each is hearing is what the other is saying. More questions are asked than statements made, which in turn creates an environment of exploration and discovery. Listening is the most important stage in communication. It was what enables you, the teacher, to guide students toward recognizing their strengths and weaknesses.

2. Organization

Set clearly defined objectives and milestones early on to get your student thinking about them from the outset. As your engagement proceeds, help your student think about learning as a process; as they reach one marker, think about how to build on that achievement in order to reach the next. Successful teachers often take notes during a lesson and review them before the next. That quick recap helps set the agenda. Without reminders, it’s easy to lose track of what the student accomplished and what needs work. Organization is the framework that supports creative, improvisational teaching when the moment presents itself. Think about the great improvisational artists; they set a theme for some number of bars, take off and follow where the music takes them for another number of bars, then return to the theme on time. They’re not winging it. They are performing with skillful and creative discipline.

3. Patience

Think before you talk. Students are students. They are going to hit sour notes, break strings, get attitudes, and do all the things you may have done when you were learning. Inspiring teachers take it all in stride. They are part instructors, parents, friends, brothers, sisters, mechanics, motivators, heroes—sometimes all of those things during the course of one lesson! When you take the lead in conducting a thoughtful lesson, the student will hear what you are saying—remember, communication is key—and be more willing to persist through tough passages.

4. Set the bar high

When students think about progress as an incremental process in which they successively challenge themselves to reach beyond their grasp, they are in full learning mode. They will not let good be the enemy of 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 will push themselves when they know their teachers are behind them. Please note: Setting the bar high not only applies to your students but for yourself in your music career.

5 . Fun

A student who thinks creatively—dreams about what is and what can be—is unfettered from rote memorization. In the alternative, Buckminster Fuller said: “Everyone is born a genius, but the process of living de-geniuses them.” Encourage your students to get in touch with their inner geniuses and show them how to integrate their wondering into the disciplines of music. Have you ever seen anybody frown in the midst of a jam session? The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia said throughout his 30-plus year career all he ever wanted to do was have fun. The band’s bassist put it this way: “Every once in a while, in the middle of a show, everybody would be so in tune with what everybody else was doing that we can just turn on the spigot.” To millions of fans who attended more than 2,000 shows, that is fun.

These five qualities say easy but do hard. Don’t give up on them when you’re feeling pinched by scheduling, deadlines, paperwork, and everything else in life. Your awareness of these five qualities and respective intent to cultivate them will go a long way to helping your students learn to think about music and foster a mutual sense of fulfillment, enjoyment, and accomplishment.

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