Indeed, no matter what our skill level may be or how many years we’ve been studying, we will always be learning. And on the flip side of that coin, even the earliest of beginners will have something right off the bat that they will be able to pass along.
Encouraging all of my students to be teachers themselves has two immediate payoffs. First, we get the fulfillment of “spreading the love” far and wide as we share something so universally enjoyable as music with all of our friends and family. And additionally, as a bonus, it soon becomes obvious that the more we teach something, the more we understand it ourselves, at continually deeper and more nuanced levels.
One of the keys to my success as a musical mentor is that I have always presented myself less like some “master” delivering great truths from high up on some pedestal and much more like a fellow traveler on my own ever-progressing journey, welcoming newcomers alongside me on our shared path of continual discovery. It is a much more honest portrayal of my role, and I have seen it have a disarming effect on new students, from the ones who are younger and perhaps more shy, to the adults who often arrive at the studio with the sometimes borderline-traumatic baggage of traditional lessons past.
"...the more we teach something, the more we understand it ourselves, at continually deeper and more nuanced levels."
Another crucial element of my practice that differentiates my method from other lessons from the onset is that my curriculum has always been customized and tailor-fit to precisely accommodate each individual’s wishes and learning styles. I can’t help but think of that well-known nationwide franchise offering music lessons under a moniker that includes the word “factory” in the title, and the more I think about that, the more dumbfounded I am at that choice of wording. Nothing could be further from my approach, this notion of a “conveyor belt” of students coming in and being “processed” along the same standardized regimen of books, songs and exercises.
Granted, when a new student comes to my studio for the first time, I do usually launch from a typical starting point of the most basic of nuts and bolts of keyboard theory, for piano and guitar enthusiasts alike. On the surface, this is in order to quickly familiarize everyone with the initial material and the tools they will be using, in whatever direction it leads from there. At the same time, “under the hood” so to speak, I am using these first sessions to get a feel for what the student wants to learn and how they best learn. I test the waters for their sense of humor. I ask questions about the other subjects that they like (or don’t like!) at school. I learn about their hobbies and other things in life that they get really psyched about.
"Nothing could be further from my approach, this notion of a “conveyor belt” of students coming in and being “processed” along the same standardized regimen of books, songs and exercises."
And all the while, even as our course is pointed toward these initial building blocks of “notes, scales and chords,” I am always on my toes and at the ready to follow any tangent at any time, to “fill in the blanks” as they arise and to answer any questions and — most importantly — to keep the student engaged and interested.
The pace of each individual’s course is as personally matched as the material itself, the goal being to find the perfect balance of not going so slow that they are bored but neither too fast as to find them overwhelmed. Usually, after two or three of these “getting to know each other” sessions we have found our stride and are on the fast track to a lot of fun!
Being a “visual learner” myself, I have a very graphical approach to teaching. I use a lot of pictures. For the one-on-one lessons, we will start with nothing more than a blank spiral notebook and a piano in front of us. I will sketch out diagrams of the keyboard and fretboard in real-time as needed, and the result is that each student’s notebook becomes as unique as they are.
Eventually, I will start most students in a sight-reading book to practice reading traditional music notation, but only at a pace that is comfortable for them. I approach this very gently and am careful not to push it very hard. I do consider this skill to be a valuable one, but I don’t want to put the cart before the horse here. “Sightreading” as such was rather the limit of what most of my generation experienced as “piano lessons,” and I think this is why so many musically-gifted people had such unfortunate experiences with lessons in the past. A penchant toward this process of looking intently at a page of sheet music and interpreting the code of all these little dots on the lines and spaces is something that varies exceedingly along a wide and diverse spectrum from student to student.
For someone like me, sight-reading was compelling and enthralling. I devoured it and wanted more! But for others it is like pulling teeth, and that is OK. Time and time again I have had older students with amazingly sharp ears and a great sense of timing who lamented the fact that all they were taught in the past was how to “read notes.” The situation ended up being like oil-and-water, and the lessons quickly deteriorated into a veritable train wreck that left them with the completely inaccurate impression carried across the years that they “weren’t good at music.”
"I realized that I was going to have to start offering group lessons to fit everyone in, and thankfully modern technology helped profoundly in this transition."
I often joke that early on in my practice I realized that for many older clients I was serving in some respect as a “therapist” for Adult Survivors of Traditional Piano Lessons. And obviously, for the younger folks, it has been one of my life’s missions to avoid this trap altogether in the first place.
As a result of the success of my approach, one of the greatest challenges of my practice became a logistical one in the last decade especially: there were far more people wanting my guidance than I could possibly accommodate in my schedule on an individual basis. I realized that I was going to have to start offering group lessons to fit everyone in, and thankfully modern technology helped profoundly in this transition.
I had the good fortune to come across a second-hand “Smartboard” from a student’s parent who was also a teacher, and it revolutionized the way I was able to teach. The device is really nothing more than a giant USB-tablet hanging on the wall functioning as a projector screen simultaneously, in essence a giant touch screen for my desktop in front of everyone, and the way it has facilitated the group lessons has been remarkable. The setup allows me to have diagrams and the “stems” of lessons pre-planned to some degree beforehand but with the flexibility of being able to deliver it all in the moment much in the same improvised way that I have endeavored in the private, one-on-one settings.
One thing became immediately apparent however: the kids weren’t there for a college lecture, they were there to have fun! And I soon found these “group lessons” turning into “bands” in their own right. And most thrilling of all, most of these groups have now moved beyond covering songs on YouTube and on to what I consider the final frontier of all: original material! At present, I am coaching five different groups: The Radioactive Burritos The Food Frontier, The Troublemakers, Broken Physics, and Chaos Bear. (Check out the songbook on the website to get a taste of what we have come up with in the last two or three years!)
And still, my waiting list continues to grow. At present, I am yet again completely maxed-out and pressed to creatively find a way to expand my influence even further. The key to this next step involves two core elements: 1) using humor and theater in transforming the curriculum into a colorful array of games, songs, and other activities in a variety of venues, and 2) training my students to be the assistant coaches, MCs, and co-hosts themselves in this effort.
"One thing became immediately apparent however: the kids weren’t there for a college lecture, they were there to have fun!"
One of the challenges I’ve faced in transitioning from the one-on-one format to teaching increasingly larger groups is in maintaining the flexibility of my non-linear style of teaching, which at its best essentially becomes a dance or improvisation in itself. In formulating my program as a “map” rather than a strict, linear outline, I am able to effectively boil down my entire body of knowledge into discrete micro-lessons of information and arrange them in a way that organizes it all into a semblance of a logical, linear forward progression while allowing for a good amount of “jumping around” as well.
Ideally, each one of these “locations” on the map will represent the associated micro-lesson in several ways: 1) introductory slideshows and instructional videos 2) reinforcing flashcards and worksheets 3) games and other group activities, and 4) songs, skits and cartoons.
This is admittedly a huge undertaking, an exhaustive exposition of every nook and cranny in the bag of tricks I’ve amassed in over a quarter-century of being a professional music educator. But as large a task as it may be, I am pleased to not only have a lot of material and momentum already underway but also a fantastic team of developers and assistants of all ages and levels who are helping me make this vision a reality!