No More Useless Lessons!

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UselessHave you ever had a useless music lesson? Maybe you had a good lesson and then went home and were bewildered as to how to find the momentum you had in your lesson. Or as a teacher, have you had a great and productive time with a student only to find the next week she made no progress or perhaps even regressed?

I love the lessons when the student and I work hard as a team to get through a difficulty or move ahead. The lesson time flies by and it feels rewarding, even exhilarating.

Recently I heard about the most useless machine ever – you turn it on, out comes a lever and the machine turns itself off. (Check out the video.) It‘s totally useless. The energy that you spend turning it on is completely and immediately rendered pointless. This could be a metaphor for some music lessons.

The power of the teacher-student team is awesome. Together they bring out the best in the student as they strive toward a common objective. But then the student goes home. There is no “team” at home, no coach working with her to push and prod her to more achievement. The student can often feel set adrift and directionless, making the next lesson frustrating for them both. The “machine” that they turned on together turned itself off during the week.

So how you can prevent this waste of energy? By agreeing on three important things before the lesson is over: the what, the how and the why.

1. The WHAT
Together teacher and student must set a clear objective for the week. What goals need to be achieved? What standard needs to be met? Objectives might include a tempo to reach, a technical issue to resolve, a section of music to memorize. The “what” must be crystal clear to both team members, teacher and student, and must be written down.

2. The HOW
How do you the teacher expect the student to practice in order to achieve the “what?” Exactly what steps need to be taken? Is it playing a passage in a certain way, or at a particular tempo or a specific number of times? You the student must be sure that your teacher gives you detailed instructions. This is your game plan for the week. Write the instructions down in your lesson book, or on post-its in your music. Don’t count on you (or your teacher!) remembering them.

3. The WHY
All of us work better when we understand why. Music practice takes a lot of effort, discipline and determination. Without a well-defined reason for doing the work, we will not work as hard. But when we know what the pot at the end of the rainbow contains, we will work twice as hard to get it. In my teaching, especially early in my career, I have sometimes neglected to give the student the “why.” (An example of the “why”: when you practice this passage in these rhythms, it will get faster and smoother, and then you will be ready to learn the next page.) If the teacher can explain the reason behind the practice plan, the student can work with more intensity and focus.

A great tool to help avoid useless lessons is a practice journal. On the left hand page of your journal, write down your What, How, and Why. On the right hand page, keep a record of your practice each day: exactly what you worked on, how much time you spent and any questions or particular difficulties you had. Take your journal to your lesson, and you and your teacher can evaluate the plans you made the week before. Now that’s definitely not useless!

Try one of these resources:

Elegant practice journal

Practice journal template

iPad practice journal app

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