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How to Become a Highly Effective Music Teacher

Updated on June 19, 2013
Teaching music can be the most rewarding profession
Teaching music can be the most rewarding profession | Source

Those who can, TEACH!

You have heard the expression, "Those who can, do - those who can't, teach." Well there are plenty of people who can and don't and there are just as many who can and teach! Teaching is truly the noblest of professions and teaching music can be one of the most rewarding. Music is personal and visceral and emotional and often times students become more connected to their music teacher than any other teacher they will have in their lifetime. It is a huge responsibility to care for the artistic soul of the young musician. So here are some suggestions on how to become a highly effective music teacher.

Be a Professional Musician

OK, this may seem obvious but it is not ridiculous. You go to music school and you learn all of the techniques, the repertoire, theory, history, ear-training, etc. But if you haven't actually put into practice what you are going to teach, what do you really have to offer? Teaching a student how to play a scale, how to sing a high note, how to improvise a 12-bar blues is very important. But it is also important to teach that student how to communicate to an audience through the music, how to control their breath in the song when they get nervous and their breath becomes shallow, how to recover when they make a mistake in a high pressure situation. You can only truly teach these things if you have experienced these things. This is why many college music programs make their music education students perform senior recitals. If you haven't truly experienced the art of performing, you will never be able to teach it.

Never Stop Being a Student

You will always be a better teacher if you continue to learn. No, the technique or pedagogy of your instrument does not change, but continuing to work on the performance of your instrument as you are teaching fills up your bag of tricks. It expands your language and gives you new ideas on how to communicate concepts to your students. So if you haven't had a private lesson yourself in a while, schedule one now!

Be Passionate and Show It

People don't become musicians or music teachers for the money. They choose music because they can't live without it. It touches them in an inexpressible way and they need to share it either through performance or through teaching. Your students will respond to you so much better if you show them your passion for your art. They may never feel as passionately about it as you do, but your passion will be infectious and inspire them to participate and achieve.

Ask for Help

The fact of the matter is you do not know everything. And there will be a time when a student will challenge that fact. 95% of your students will be able to understand what you are telling them on the first or second try. Then there will be that 5% that just don't get it. They will ask questions (or not) and they will just not be able to do what you are trying to get them to do. So you have to go into your bag of tricks and try stuff that you've never used before. But if you simply can't figure it out, ask for help. Find a colleague, look it up on the internet, read a book, ask on a forum - do whatever you can do to come to an answer. Don't apologize for asking for help! Be dedicated to being a life-long learner. It will help the student but also ultimately it will make you a better teacher.

Encourage, Challenge and then Encourage Again

Be positive with your students. Encourage them to try to then encourage them to try harder. Set the bar for them higher than they think they can reach. Some students will reach that bar, some will exceed the bar and some will not get close to the bar. But it is important that 1) they know the bar is there and 2) they know you will be with them every step of the way. Always encourage them with positive reinforcement (not necessarily touchy-feely, empty compliments stuff) instead of constant negative feedback. Find a way to tell the truth that is CONstructive but not DEstructive.

Know When to Back Off and When to Push More

Some students are ready. Some are not. And you need to know the difference. You can see the talent and the potential but you have to be able to read the signs of when that student is ready for more challenges or if they are sinking into the oblivion. If you try to push a student too hard when they aren't ready, you run the risk of having them quit completely and then their potential won't be worth anything. Conversely, if you don't challenge a student who wants to be challenged (even if they don't tell you that outright) then you will have the same result. They will leave because they are bored. Read the signs and remember that a student is going to be excited about moving forward if they see the successes that come with meeting the challenges.

Understand the Fine Line Between Teacher and Psychologist

The relationship between a student and their music teacher is a very intimate one and it needs to be handled with care. Students will often confide in their music teacher more often than with any other teacher. Listen, offer solutions when asked but do not cross the line into meddling in their personal lives. They are the most vulnerable in the process of making music in the studio and you cannot take advantage of that. Be encouraging, supportive, caring, help when you can but remember that you are not their mother, their doctor, their psychologist, their best friend, etc. You are their teacher and that carries enough responsibility.

Never Speak Negatively about Your Colleagues to Your Students

Most of us should admit that we have broken this rule before. But this is a very important point for a few reasons. First, it is highly unprofessional and negativity begets negativity. Second, that negativity gets around - students talk. But third, and more importantly, it puts your students in a very awkward place. They do not know how to handle this information and what happens if your student actually respects that teacher and may want to study with him/her? Now they feel like they will be betraying you if they approach that teacher about anything. Just don't do it.

Know When it is Time to Move On and Be Supportive

There will come a time when the teacher/student relationship will end either by your choice or theirs. It is very important that your student feels that it is safe to leave. If they decide to work with someone else it is vitally important that you let them know that you support their decision. Do not bad mouth the potential new teacher or make them feel guilty about leaving you. Encourage them to work hard with their new teacher and tell them if they ever need anything, they can always ask you. But then let them go without guilt or strings. And if you see them in the future, be positive, ask them how it's going and be happy for them!

So Now What?

Now that you know everything you need to know about being an effective teacher (ha!) you may ask what's next. Well, I would start with writing a Music Teaching Philosophy. Put down on paper what you truly believe about teaching music, about learning and how that manifests itself in the studio or classroom. The items above may help you come to some conclusions about who you are as a music teacher. But take the time to really think about what teaching means to you and how you will communicate that to your students. They will thank you for it!


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