Posted Aug 17, 2016 by Brian Jenkins - No Comments

Teach Your Students to Teach Themselves

Teach Your Students to Teach Themselves

Music teachers tend to do a pretty good job in teaching students, but there is always room for improvement. Giving instruction is only one aspect of teaching. Teaching students how to learn on their own is one of the best gifts a teacher can give a student. As teachers we should play less of a lecturing role and more of a guiding role.

How Did You Learn?

If you’re a music teacher, you’ve likely practiced your instrument quite a bit throughout your life. I want you to analyze for a second where your best learning happened. When did you learn the most? Was it something a teacher said? Did a light bulb just go on for you?

I remember multiple times I was taught something by my teacher that I didn’t really understand until I actually sat in the practice room and explored the advice myself. If you aren’t creating a student that can explore concepts on their own, you’re creating a student that will have to depend on you for all of their learning.

I’m a pianist and during a lesson I was taught to keep my hands in a closed position during a certain passage. I tried applying the advice to the passage, but it was something I couldn’t do in that sitting. I didn’t just leave the advice there, but I worked on it more and more over the coming weeks. As I dug into it deeper and deeper I realized that the suggestion the teacher had given me shouldn’t be applied to just one piece of music, but to all music.

If I would have been the type of student to depend on my teacher for all learning, I would never have come to this conclusion. I would have applied it to the piece of music I was learning, it would have gotten better, but I would have missed the bigger picture.

Nothing my teacher could have told me would have led me to come to the conclusion that my entire technique needed to change. I would have heard it, but I wouldn’t have understood it until I figured it out for myself.

My teacher gave me advice and I applied it to the rest of my playing. I taught myself from the teachings of another. This is how real learning happens. As teachers, we need to encourage students to learn on their own.

I may have been able to learn on my own like this, but young and beginner students need a little help to get to this point.

Teaching Isn’t Lecturing

All too often teachers just tell their students how to play a piece or what certain musical terms mean. It’s the easiest and most natural method for teaching, it’s how they were likely taught, and without education in a different approach it seems obviously the best one. But is it?

Studies show that college students that only receive lectures are 1.5 times more likely to fail. Lectures in private music lessons may not look like a lecturer in front of class talking for an hour about the subject, but many private music teachers do a very similar thing in their lessons. Do your students talk during the lesson? If you rarely hear your student’s voice during the lesson, you’re likely a lecturer even if they are playing the music you tell them to play.

Let Them Fall

When a student makes a mistake the first reaction of most teachers is to stop them and correct it. A better way to go about it is stop them and let them correct it. At first it may feel awkward, and the student may even be confused by what you want them to do, but as you consistently show your students that they are the ones teaching the lesson, they’ll learn more and be more ready to critique their own playing.

Ice Skating

My three year old daughter started ice skating classes a while ago. When going to the first class I though for sure they would have some special shoes or something to help her stay up. I mean she’s only three, she couldn’t actually balance on ice skates on her own could she? Surprisingly they put on real ice skates. Before they headed out on the ice the teacher told them how to get up if they fall. They practiced off the ice a few times and after just a couple minutes went right out there.

My daughter wasn’t the only one in the class and as soon as they got on the ice all the kids were falling left and right. The teachers expected it and what I found the most interesting is they never helped the students up. Not once.

The teachers stood next to the students and they would sometimes coach them through getting up, but they stayed far enough away that the students couldn’t grab on to them to prop themselves up.

What did this do? It helped teach the students how to get up on their own. Leaning on the teacher as a crutch wasn’t going to help them because when it came down to it the teacher wouldn’t be there to act as that crutch.

How does this apply to teaching music? For a beginning student, how often do they play a note and look to you for confirmation that it was correct? Has that ever happened before? Do you say yes it was correct or no it wasn’t? What happens when you’re not there? I’ll tell you what happens, the student has no idea whether they are correct or not. They haven’t been given the skills or the confidence to know if they are correct when they practice. They have a crutch. Their teacher. The teacher is constantly picking them up when the fall, therefore they never learn to pick themselves up.

Ask Questions

When a student plays something and then looks at their teacher for confirmation on whether it is correct or not, the wrong thing to do would be to just tell them. The first thing you should do is pose the question “What do you think? Is it correct?” Often students respond with, “I don’t know.” If they thought they were correct, they wouldn’t look at you in the first place. Instead of telling them it’s incorrect and showing them what is correct it’s your job to guide them to find the correct answer on their own.

Ask them to look at the music again and look at every note they’re playing one by one to make sure that the note they’re playing is the same as the one that is written.

Teachers can tell on the students face if they are confident in their answer or not. Their facial expression changes from being unsure to confidence immediately. Don’t go on until they are confident in their answer.

Don’t Give In – Wait for an Answer

When you ask a question it can be very tempting to give in and answer it for the student if they give you the classic “I don’t know” answer. They don’t know, so you need to tell them right? There are definitely times where there may be no other way other than just giving them the answer, but you should always ask yourself, “is there anything I can say that will guide the student to the correct answer?” If there is, do that first.

Teaching How to Practice

The single most important thing that you can teach your student is how to practice. You won’t be with your student every day. Most of the learning will be done with the instrument away from the teacher. Teachers need to therefore equip their students to be their own teacher. Don’t worry there will a need for a teacher to guide students through even advanced level of playing, but if teachers can help students understand how to critique themselves at least from week to week then they’ll be able to teach themselves almost as well as if the teacher was next to them.

Longer to Learn at First

When using this approach, you need to understand, and help parents understand, that it may take longer for students to learn a piece of music than it would if you just gave them the answer. What is our ultimate goal in teaching students though? Is it for them to learn a specific piece? In almost all cases the piece is just a means to the end of being a competent musician. By teaching the student how to learn for themselves, students will learn faster in the long run. They’ll be able to learn without you there. If you teach them piece by piece, maybe for the first few lessons they’ll be learning more, but eventually they’ll think that the only way they can learn is with you sitting there. Don’t be that teacher.


Let your students fall. When they make a mistake let them fix it themselves. Teach them how to teach themselves. This is where true learning happens. Do you have any other strategies that have helped you encourage students to learn on their own? Let us know what they are in the comments.