About 10 years ago, I realised that there was something very different about my music teaching compared to other teachers.
It became obvious when I’d take make-up lessons, masterclasses and mock exams with other teachers’ students, and I’d ask the students seemingly simple questions like:
- “What’s the key of the piece you’re playing?” or
- “What does Andante tell you about how to play this piece?” or
- “Tell me about the time signature” or
- “What would you call this musical pattern/shape/phrase?”
…and get totally blank looks.
I was surprised because these would seem to be fairly fundamental areas of musical knowledge that students should understand if they want to play to even a moderate standard.
In fact, I’m not even sure how it’s possible to teach music or have students learn music without understanding or at least referencing these elements!
I also couldn’t comprehend how a student could possibly have a solid musical understanding of a piece of music without knowing a little about its construction – things like it’s harmonic and rhythmic basis, the patterns it’s built on, the modulations, the title, perhaps a little bit of history about the composer, and so forth.
In addition, I’d listen to students who couldn’t tell that they were sometimes playing an extra beat in their waltz that should be in 3-4 meter or whose swing rhythm was lopsided or who couldn’t tell when they were missing accidentals in pieces.
Over time, I’ve come to realise that the reason for this lack of understanding in students was because of three key factors associated with a traditional music lesson:
- The linear, disconnected approach to teaching repertoire, theory and technique in separate buckets.
- A focus on the “tip of the iceberg” activities of reading, interpretation and performance.
- A missed opportunity to use creative activities to teach fundamental concepts.
But before we look at each of these topics in turn, I want to highlight some of the other struggles that teachers are facing today.
The Challenges of Teaching Music Today
One of our members, Dawn, recently told us, “I’ve been teaching piano for a squillion years and students have changed so much.”
She’s not kidding! Have you felt the same?
20 years ago, children didn’t have nearly the number of activities dividing their focus. Kids didn’t have phones. They didn’t have the world’s knowledge at their fingertips. They had much more strict parents and routines and they weren’t overburdened with after school activities.
Let’s face it – kids can teach themselves music on apps and YouTube if they want (and many do). Even my 9-year-old son started teaching himself piano with Simply Music without so much as a second thought. All I needed to do was provide a login (and credit card). And it was pretty impressive.
After-school pursuits are changing, our students’ desires are shifting and technology is impacting everything.
Kids have no patience and want everything now.
Many kids don’t connect with ‘historical music’ and traditional methods of teaching anymore.
And through it all, music teaching has remained relatively unchanged.
And that meant that teachers, many of whom have been teaching for 20+ years, are starting to struggle.
Students are quitting early because their lessons aren’t fulfilling their desires.
Some studio enrolments are tanking and waitlists diminishing for the first time.
Something has to change.
The Linear Music Lesson
Unfortunately, the traditional approach to teaching music often follows a very linear path (and has done for 150 years).
What do I mean by linear?
Well, in many lessons, the student enters, plays some scales then moves onto piece no 1, followed by piece no 2, and then finally piece no 3. Perhaps there will be time for a little improv or a pop song before the student departs with their practice orders.
Indeed, for many teachers, “linear” can also describe their overall approach to curriculum planning, particularly in exam cultures, where the goal seems to be to zip through as many grades as possible year after year.
For some exam students, what this linear approach means is that the only time any of the underlying musical knowledge is explored is in the 2-week lead-up to an exam when teachers suddenly realise they haven’t covered any of the “general knowledge” content and attempt to cram as much of this information into the student as possible.
Unfortunately, this misses the entire point as learning about these musical elements and connecting them to the written repertoire – during the learning process – can have a profoundly positive impact on learning outcomes.
So how do you teach these elements during lessons?
Asking the Right Questions
While by no means perfect, my own students would always be able to answer questions such as the ones I posed at the start of the article because I was constantly discussing and connecting these musical elements in lessons.
- What’s the key of this piece? How do you know? (If minor – why are there accidentals on some of the 7th notes?)
- What are the main chords in the progression? Can you play them? What’s the cadence at the end?
- What key does it modulate to? How is that related to the original key? Where are they on the Circle of 5ths?
- What does the title tell us about this piece?
- What musical era is this piece from? What does that tell us about how to interpret this phrase? What are some common elements of music from this era?
- Do you remember when we used this pattern in the last piece – what was similar/different?
- What does the metronome marking mean? How is that related to the key signature?
Some of the above questions could be asked before they even started the piece, assuming they’ve been learning for a few years.
For example, any piano student should be able to predict the basic chords or harmony likely to be found in a piece of music in a given key before they even look at the music. Side note – this is the basis of fluent sight reading.
So a great question to pose before a student starts reading a new piece is, “What chords do you expect to find outlined in the LH?” and then while looking at the music, “Were you right? Let’s go through the harmony together.”
Making Non-Musical Connections
Teachers can also make connections outside of music.
For example, for a student who only practises by playing a piece through from start to finish, reference can be made to sports practice when students rarely get to play a full game (of tennis, soccer, basketball, etc.) and instead will do drills and running and push ups or whatever.
Music practice is like drills; playing the piece from start to finish is like playing a full game. Sometimes, this analogy alone is enough to help students understand the importance of breaking-up their practice.
Another connection might be for students who consistently rush their playing and play too fast, for teachers to talk about the F1 car racing concept of “walking the track”. I’ve got a full blog about that over at dev.topmusic.co.
There are many more connections that can be made as you get to know your students and their interests. You just have to find them.
From Creative to Integrated
In addition, we can also go further than just asking questions and making references.
At TopMusic, we’ve already spent the best part of a decade helping teachers to think ‘outside the box’ and be more creative in their lessons.
Through activities like the 12 Bar Blues, 4 Chord Composing, learning to accompany, playing and creating lead sheets, improvising, playing by ear and playing pop music from chords, students will enjoy much more varied musical experiences and be able to showcase their own creations to the world.
These are what I call “bottom of the iceberg” activities.
We know how hard many classically-trained teachers have had to work in order to confidently lead students through these activities, given they were not exposed to them as students themselves.
Adding creative elements to music lessons adds enormous value and enjoyment for students.
However, we can go a step further.
By integrating these creative and theoretical elements with the repertoire and scales students are already learning, we can immerse students in a much deeper and more meaningful learning experience and strengthen their understanding of all the interconnected parts.
“Of what value would it be to teach the definitions of dynamic markings without having students observe such markings in their current repertoire? Or to have students learn complicated rhythmic patterns but never play them? All elements of music instruction must be consistently integrated so that students perceive all segments of music study as an integrated whole whose parts are all interrelated. Teaching a student to compose integrates and compliments the skills needed to become a proficient reader in ways that many other parts of teaching cannot.” -Dr Martha Baker-Jordan for her 2003 book Practical Piano Pedagogy.
For example, here are some activities that strengthen connections between repertoire, theory, harmony, technical work, etc.
- Let’s improvise in this style using the LH of the piece you’re learning and create a brand new melody in the RH.
- What if we transposed this piece or melodic idea up/down in a new key?
- What if we turned major into minor? How would we do that? What notes in the melody and harmony need to change?
- How would we make a lead sheet out of this?
- What if we changed the LH pattern to a new style?
- Could you compose a new melody based on this RH melodic pattern?
- Can we improvise using the melodic minor scale?
And so forth.
What I’ve come to realise is my teaching, and the approach of teachers who lay the strongest foundations for students, is not just creative; it’s inherently interconnected or integrated as I like to call it.
Introducing – Integrated Music Teaching
So, after a decade’s teaching and research work, presentations, workshops, webinars and speaking to thousands of teachers, I’ve codified the approach to make music lessons a much more cohesive, connected and immersive experience.
It combines 20+ years of my experience, teaching both in classrooms and instrumental studios in countries including Australia, the UK, NZ and USA in subjects including PE, Outdoor Education, Health, Maths, Information Technology and Music.
And it blends what I’ve learnt from years of personal research and external study in Music, Business, Education and Performance.
It’s called Integrated Music Teaching (IMT) and it’s a teaching approach that any teacher can adopt to suit their teaching style while keeping the repertoire they love as the core component.
You don’t need to completely change everything you do, you don’t need to change all your music, you don’t even need a new method book series.
This approach integrates with the teaching you’re already doing and enhances it. Big time.
Indeed, some of you may already be doing this in your teaching right now and perhaps using our framework, lesson plans and integrated activities will take it even further.
Related: IMT Podcast- Episode 300 Integrated Music Teaching
Integrated Music Teaching Process
Integrated music teaching is based on a set of 3 foundational pillars:
- Student-first teaching
- Multi-modal assessment
- Continuous curiosity
And is delivered through a 3-step teaching process, which will initially be teacher-led, but eventually we hope our students will start taking the lead:
- Analyse the repertoire
- Find the connections
- Plan the integration activities
We’re going to go into more detail of these pillars and steps in our next article and podcast. We’ll also share videos showing how these connections actually look in practice.
Before I wrap things up, some of you may be thinking, “Well, I don’t need to use this approach. My teaching is fine! I’ve got a waiting list and my students all perform well and pass their exams with flying colours. What’s the point?”
If you have a studio full of dedicated, highly-committed students who practice hard, enjoy the masterworks and love high-level performing and you enjoy teaching them, then perhaps this isn’t something you need to worry about. Lucky you! You’re probably in the 2-5% of teachers in the world in this space.
For the rest of us who teach students who don’t always want to practice too much, who don’t always show up prepared, who are picky about their music, who teach themselves songs online, who have busy social and/or sporting lives, who play video games and use their phones too much, who don’t like traditional performances and for whom music is just a small part of their leisure time activity, then this approach is for you.
By having a student-first teaching philosophy and teaching in a more integrated way, you’ll help your students make stronger connections with music and keep them learning longer and hopefully playing or singing well into adulthood.
The ultimate goal is that your students will eventually make these connections themselves, and in so doing, become more curious musicians. But as you get started, you’ll need to find and model these connections by analysing the music, finding the elements and then planning activities you can explore to integrate them, asking lots of exploratory questions along the way.
I hope that the Integrated Music Teaching approach has struck a chord with you. And hopefully, you’re keen to explore it in your own teaching, particularly if this is a new way for you to teach.
I can’t wait to share more about the approach in our next articles and podcasts.