Learning to Teach Music

Most of my musings about music lately are in the area of pedagogy, which is something I’ve never approached head-on. While most of my contemporaries in college were learning how to teach music to grade-school students, I was focused on other things: first, on piano and percussion performance; later, on music theory. (Maybe not the most marketable skills, but it was fun.)

Nearly every musician spendsĀ someĀ time teaching. I didn’t come to teaching right away, but over the past 10-15 years I’ve built up some experience teaching different skills and ages.

When I got to college, I was hired to take on a high school marching band percussion section. I discovered I really enjoyed it. I had a knack for making everyone in my group of misfits feel like part of the team – decidedly “uncool” as marching band was. My percussionists were already talented and picked up new techniques quickly. I did a lot of team-building exercises which helped them channel their musicality into playing well as a section.

After that gig, I went to grad school and taught core music theory classes to college freshmen. I enjoyed that job even more, but it was a challenge. Music theory is a hard subject to love. Helping my students excel meant getting them excited about it anyway. Puzzles and jokes helped. So did analyzing pop music.

Most musicians start out teaching private lessons. That wasn’t something that appealed to me initially, but I got there eventually. After I left grad school, I took a job in the corporate world, and volunteered a few hours a week with an organization called Seattle Music Partners. SMP is an after-school program that pairs volunteers with elementary- and middle-school kids who want to learn an instrument. I taught snare drum and bells to some sweet, smart kids. It wasn’t necessarily what they wanted to be doing right after a long day of school, but I figured out how motivated and confident they could feel by conquering their music one measure at a time.

My successes as a teacher usually came from a focus on the “why” of playing music – the emotions and motivations behind it – as opposed to the “how”. Technique is something anyone can learn if they spend enough time on it.

Lately, though, I’m thinking a lot about the “how”. I have a little baby at home now. (He’s the best.) I played some concerts when he was in utero, and I played for him a couple days a week when he was a newborn, but at eight months old, he’s starting to take an actual interest in imitating and learning how to make sounds.

And so I find myself thinking more about how music is learned. I’ve read the studies linking music education to language development, and it’s a reason I’ve always championed music ed – especially through organizations like Seattle Music Partners, which reaches under-served kids – but I guess I never realized you can watch these connections happening in babies.

My baby is starting to imitate the people around him, which will help him learn to talk. He watches my mouth when I’m talking to him, sometimes touching my chin and moving his own mouth to try and copy what I’m doing. Around the time he started doing that, I noticed a curious change during “music time” – when I bring out an instrument so I can play and sing to him, as usual, it calms him down – but now that effect only lasts a few seconds. He then starts screaming and crying. At first, I thought he was getting overstimulated, so I’d put the instrument away. But then I realized he wants to imitate what I’m doing by playing on the instrument. When I put it away, he would forget about it. I’ve started letting him (carefully!) touch the instruments I’m playing with. For example, I’ll hold a ukulele in front of him, show him how to pluck the strings, and watch as he imitates what I’m doing. We’ve had a lot of fun with drums. Hitting them is fun, of course, but I also showed him that he can make sounds on the drum head with his nails – and was surprised when he copied me each time, splaying his nails across the drum head to make noise.

I signed us up for a music class which starts in a couple months. I’m looking forward to learning more about how to teach music to babies. Watching these initial discoveries has allowed me to think more about how we react to music education – and it’s fun, to boot.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.