Do you teach classical music? If so, you’re likely quite the classical music aficionado. Are your students the same? Just because your students are young, doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy classical music. They should be enjoying classical music. It’s the unfortunate truth that a lot of young musicians won’t go on to have much proficiency at the instrument they’re taking lessons to learn. This is often because of lack of practice. I don’t believe that we should just concede that this will always be the case, but at the very least if as teachers we can help build a love of classical music in the students we’re teaching, I believe that to be a big success in and of itself.
My Experience with Listening
When I was in high school, the classical music bug hit me hard. I don’t know what happened, maybe it was cool because it was different. For some reason I just loved listening to classical music. I bought album after album. As a pianist, I was most interested in piano music, but later I would move on to symphonies and chamber music.
I would buy entire collections of music. I started off with Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, then I moved on to his piano concertos. Eventually I added all of the Chopin Etudes, Nocturnes, Waltzes, Mazurkas, Scherzos, Ballades, and Concertos to my listening repertoire. When I was done with Chopin I moved to Bach, Mozart, and Rachmaninoff. Then 20th century became my new obsession with Bartok, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev.
To this day I’ve never stopped listening. People often ask me which composer is my favorite. It always changes. There seems to be a never ending supply of amazing music out there.
Access to Classical Music
I don’t want to think about how much money I spent on buying CD’s. Today, students have a near endless, often free, supply of music at their fingertips to listen to, and they can listen anytime they want! If the student has a computer, phone, or tablet, or access to one, they can search for just about any piece of music on YouTube. They can then instantly be not only listening, but also watching some of the best musicians in the world. This should be transformative to the way that teachers teach music lessons. I think some teachers have caught on, but more need to hop on the train.
Do Your Students Practice?
If you’re a music teacher, let me ask you a question. Do all of your students practice a lot? Do the majority of your students practice a lot? I bet the answer is no. If the answer is yes, I and a lot of other teachers would love to hear from you. Leave some advice in the comments about how you get everyone to practice!
If the answer is no, though, then we need to work on making that change. You understand that students are not going to progress unless they regularly practice. How can we encourage more practice then? What motivated you?
Music appreciation is an interesting topic. It’s taught in just about every college out there. But why do we need a class to learn how to “appreciate” music? The music that is popular today is extremely accessible and easy to understand. Chord changes are simple and predictable, form is almost always identical, instrumentation is often very similar from song to song. Just about all popular music has lyrics and a singer.
Popular music is simple to understand. There’s just no getting around it. You don’t have to do much thinking, it can play in the background and you can get enjoyment from it with absolutely zero knowledge of music. This is not to say it’s an inferior type of music and classical music is “better”. It’s purely an observation.
Classical music is a completely different beast. Often there is more than one melody playing at the same time, many different chord progressions are used, different rhythms and forms are used regularly, and the kicker is classical music does not always have lyrics. Classical music that does have lyrics is often in a different language. This makes understanding classical music that much more difficult for young students.
Classical Music is Boring!
Have you ever heard this before? It’s just so boring, I can’t listen to it for long! Isn’t it interesting that the music that is “boring” is actually so much more complex to the music that most people listen to on a regular basis? Why is it boring? It’s because it’s not understood. Learning to play classical music is great. It can help the musician in understanding and enjoying classical music more, but if it’s not coupled with listening, then the musician is doing it backwards. How can you be motivated to practice something that you don’t enjoy?
Teaching Music Appreciation
So how do teachers focus more on students understanding classical music? Do you teach counterpoint, polyphony, form, and modulation to a 5 year old beginner? I guess it depends on how talented the 5 year old is, but for the most part it’s better to keep it simple.
The first thing that every teacher needs to do, for students of any age, is encourage listening. Listening should be a large part of practice, especially for new students. The more the student becomes familiar with how music sounds the more likely they are to play with artistry with minimal help from a teacher.
More importantly, the more that a student listens to classical music, the more they will want to practice on their own.
Assign Individual Listenings
There are so many pieces of music out there that just telling a student to “go listen” isn’t going to cut it. Each student has to have specific direction in what to listen to. The next question would naturally be, what music should you assign them? Should students be listening to music that they will be able to play in the near future, or should they be listening to music that will inspire them to practice more?
The answer is both. Try at first to assign just one piece a week to listen to. The goal is to listen to it every day. They should know the full name of the piece and the composers name as well. The goal should be that if the student heard the piece on the radio, they could repeat back the name of the piece and the composer without any problem. Students who do this will start to enjoy the music and most will seek it out on their own.
Let Students Choose Their Music
I was always the most focused when I was practicing music that I love. I wouldn’t know what music I liked if I never listened to anything. For students that are proficient enough to work on classical music, you should always allow them to pick the piece they want to play. This doesn’t mean that they will always play the style they like the most, it just means you should give them options.
If you want the student to learn a new piece, give them a listening assignment first. Pick 3-5 pieces of the style and level you want the student to learn, and then have the student listen to those pieces throughout the week. At the end of a week or two, they should have a piece they like the best. I guarantee that if they chose the piece, they will practice it more.
Students who listen to a lot of music will suggest pieces that they want to learn, and that you never even made a listening assignment. Even if the music is a little above their ability, it may be a good choice to let them work on it. Obviously use your best judgement, but don’t be too controlling of every piece. Giving the student some autonomy is important.
Think back to when you were taking lessons. When you were a child, did you only practice when you’re parents made you? Did you have a similar experience to me and start practicing a lot in high school? Did your parents force you? Great musicians always end up being self-motivated. You’re teaching now because you love it, not because your parents forced you to.
You likely were serious about practice when you started to listen more. Let’s stop assuming that children are going to motivate themselves to practice on their own, and let’s start giving them a reason to. If students listen to classical music regularly, we’ll see many more young students excited to work hard.
Do you assign listenings in addition to practice? If so, how do you go about it and what has been your results? Let us know in the comments.