Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Are Music Lessons Holding Me BACK?

I was recently talking with a fellow Let's Play Music teacher about piano lesson choices and at one point she said, "well, try to avoid the dangers you get with traditional piano lessons." 

Danger!? Oh my!  I left the conversation wondering: are there really things taught in traditional-style piano lessons that actually cause harm? That actually hold us back from learning music? Can taking lessons somehow make us worse musicians?

Took Lessons, But Can't Play

I didn't think much about it again until a student named Ellie registered in my Red Balloons class. Her mom, Amy, told me she was excited to have her daughter learn to play piano, and that she really wanted to learn to play, too.  She told me, "I don't know how to read music but I really want to learn."

Imagine my surprise a few weeks later when I happened to hear Amy play a delightful recital piece on the piano! I said, "I thought you didn't know how to play!?!"  

Amy responded, "But I don't know anything! I only know that one song. I took lessons as a kid, I have that one song memorized, and that's all I can play. I don't actually know anything about music." 
Amy's story surprised me, but then I remembered that my mother and my sister are in the exact same boat: they both know how to play exactly one song,  'Greensleeves', after their childhood lessons. I asked around to other parents and adults, and it turns out a LOT have taken piano lessons, but identify themselves as not knowing how to play or read music.

So I decided I better take another look at this idea: what goes on in piano lessons, and why are too many adults from my era saying they don't know any music beyond their one recital song? Why do they feel nervous about making music, even though they took years of lessons?

The Big 5 Skills of Musicianship

I fumbled trying to put into words what defined lessons that could output a musician instead of a one-song-wonder. Luckily I found this great interview at with Dr. Chad West. 

Dr. West is a leading expert and author of a recent article defining FIVE core skills that define musicianship. They are:
  • Executive
  • Notation
  • Rhythmic
  • Tonal
  • Creativity 
Executive skills are the obvious ones: how to make your fingers actually technically play the instrument. Notation is also pretty straightforward: how to understand written notes and music theory in order to play what was intended. These two skills are the external skills of musicianship; progress in these skills is easy to evaluate because the results are external (the student's output is measured.)

Executive and Notation skills are the main focus of many school and private music lessons, often at the expense of other skills.  That's what my LPM colleague was referring to as the danger of some lessons. Students take lessons for years, but they just don't feel confident that they can make music.  Actually, after lots of practice with executive and notation skills, they may be pretty good and reading and playing music, but still not feel like they can create music.

After a childhood experience like that, adults conclude that they just can't get it. They have a negative view of themselves as musicians. The deeper mysteries of music seem beyond their grasp. So they give up on music, and often decide against sending their children (and then grandchildren) to music lessons. 

Or MAYBE, they are lucky enough to find something better for their children.

Internal Skills

The other three skill sets: having a good sense of rhythm, understanding melodies and harmonies, and being creative with your music, are often overlooked in music teaching. Dr. West refers to these skills as internal. All five skills need to be nurtured to help a youngster become a well-rounded musician. 

Current practices often focuses on executive skills and notation at the expense of teaching internal musicianship skills because notation and technique are easier to teach and quantifiable to assess. It is easy to immediately determine if students are performing the notes correctly. It is, however, very difficult to know if they are audiating correctly. (Read about how we use singing for feedback.)

As a music teacher, I feel pressure to show parents (and their wallets) that music lessons have paid off. It is quick and rewarding (and tempting) to teach students to play a few amazing piano pieces. It's slower and less showy to spend time doing ear-training and composing games. I can understand why teachers and parents might fall into a trap of focusing just on executive skills because they have quick and impressive returns on investment.

Pushing Buttons or Making Music?

Dr. West happily points out that not all educators today are neglecting students' development. In classes where a focus is on movement, singing, chanting, listening, and creating, students are developing 'readiness' for music that pays off in the long run. Audiating, matching pitch, and keeping steady time are skills that don't have flashy, quantifiable outcomes to measure right away, but parents and teachers who value these skills see that in the long run, students with these skills bring more meaning to the notation. These students understand and create music, not just read and play music. 

Dr. West just described Let's Play Music and Sound Beginnings classes!

Why is audiation so so critical? West says, "when students aurally recognize missed notes, feel when they are rushing or dragging, and have musical ideas apart from that which is dictated to them, they are functioning as musicians. Without audiation, students are simply pushing buttons as they decode dots on a page."

What You can Do Now

Now that you are aware of the big picture, and want your family to become more musical, here are some actions you can take:

*Sing and Play rhythm and musical games with your baby or toddler. Create a musical environment at home with lots of clapping, banging, dancing, singing, and call-and-response songs. These simple skills don't feel like impressive recital material, but they lay a foundation of internal musical skills.

*Take your Baby or toddler to Sound Beginnings classes. Parents can find great value in going to class to learn new ideas for songs and games to play at home. Learn how to "play music" with your child. Coming to class is another way to ensure that you really follow through and do this type of play together.

*Find a Let's Play Music class near you for your 4 or 5 year old. The three years of this class are carefully crafted to balance all musical skills so students will be complete musicians. (What is a complete musician?)

*Get the Two-for-One deal. Amy is going to love learning all of the ear-training and music theory that Ellie learns along the way. As we get into year 2 and 3, parents can keep up, but they will need to practice a little bit to learn the repertoire. It's worth it! Take advantage of the chance to come to class with your child, learn everything she learns, and become the musician you wished you'd been the first time around. 

*Connect with Piano Teachers who have gone through Connections, our referral program for sending graduates to private teachers. We try to help you find teachers who understand the big picture of musicianship and are willing to work on creativity and ear-training along with notation and execution. Interview teachers and find out what skills they find important, and how they help your child strengthen them. Excellent teachers are out there! They know that audiating and composing can be taught. Let them know that you understand the importance. Please tell us who your excellent teachers are so we can send them even more of our grads.

*Fill Your Gaps in musicianship. If your childhood music teacher neglected some internal musicianship skills, you can give yourself the gift of time and attention to those skills.  Check out programs online like Easy Ear Training (online and with apps) and Musical U, or practice games like Theta Music Trainer. It's never too late to learn a new song or join a music class. I love sending adults to group piano classes; they are so much fun! 

One More Skill

I am relived that parents today are not giving up completely on music lessons for their children, even if they didn't have an amazing go at it.  I hope they don't give up on themselves, either.

I asked Amy what type of music she wants to be able to play. For now, she decided to play fun children's songs that are familiar to her girls, so they can sing and dance along with her when she plays piano. 

Our little children motivate us to learn lots of new things, so it's no surprise that we may want to improve piano skills when they are young and can enjoy fun family music time. I'm helping Amy learn new songs and start to make piano time part of her life, along with the other musicianship skills from LPM class. I love that she's willing to show her daughters what it is to sit at the piano and practice.  

Actually, I think there is ONE MORE music skill that Dr. West didn't list that always ends up on my list. I have to give a shout-out to my piano teacher, here, too. It's true that my teacher also focused on external skills with me; I never played by ear or composed or improvised or sang.  But something really right happened during my lessons: I learned how to love making music. I learned that sitting at the piano was my relaxing, calm, escape time. Piano was a happy place, and my teacher's gentle love was critical for helping me gain it.

So that's the final skill I want to add to the list, and yes, it's another internal skill: enjoyment. Children become lifelong musicians when they have all of the skills to be complete musicians and they've learned that music is uplifting, inspiring and joyful.

Amy is off to a great start with her children. She wants to play and sing with them, and she's willing to be a role model to show them that sitting at the piano to work (yes, it's work) on a new song is enjoyable. Parents who play music model this for their families.  Don't worry if you don't play piano. Come to music class, learn along with your child, and then be the role model at home.   

If you're ready to help your child gain musical skills, find a teacher near you now!

Have Fun!

-Gina Weibel, M.S.
Let's Play Music Teacher   


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