Why Music Lessons Need To Keep Up With The Times

I encourage everyone to follow the link below to Dr Clint Randles’ great post over at TheConversation.com, Why music lessons need to keep up with the times.

I also recommend John Kratus’ article, Music Education at the Tipping Point, available as a free PDF download at researchgate.com.

Music Teacher as Producer is a video from Clint Randles which expands on some of the point he makes in his paper, Why music lessons need to keep up with the times.

I’ll talk about both of these articles later.




Why Your Kid Isn’t Going To Make It In Music

This was the original working title, and the idea I had in mind the entire time I was writing my book, Get The Most Out Of Music Lessons.

As a private music teacher for more than 25 years, I’ve had a chance to see why kids – and people in general – fail at music, especially people trying to learn modern, non-notated styles like rock and country, on guitar, piano and bass. And it’s not what you think.

Today, at most private music schools, if you walk in and say you want to learn rock guitar or piano, they sit you down with a teacher and a book of staff notation, and you basically do nothing but read for your entire lesson, every week. This is just wrong on so many levels. Students who want to learn to play modern styles on modern instruments get shoehorned into outdated, classically-based methods that stifle all of their creative instincts.

Your kid is on the Reading-Method Merry-Go-Round.  First series: Book 1, Book 2, Book 3, Book 4. Second series: Book 1, Book 2 … Just keep reminding yourself, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey that counts. His friends at school have formed a jam band, but your kid can’t jam. You took your kid to see his teacher’s country band. No one was reading music. What’s the deal?

Another problem, many teachers and bloggers say the reading-method books are not that good, by themselves, for developing strong technique and good sense of rhythmic timing on guitar or piano. At least, they are seldom used effectively. No method book, by itself, has enough rhythm exercises to make you a strong, confident picker, strummer, or keyboard player.

The whole problem with using reading methods to teach modern music is it’s just backwards. It’s reversing cause and effect. The sheet music you buy for modern songs was all written after the fact. The original artists had nothing to do with producing the copy you’re reading in staff or tab. The publisher hired a transcriptionist to reverse-engineer the parts, instruments by instrument, from the recording. That’s the music you’re reading. Did you know that? This is an important clue to what it takes to learn modern music, as opposed to classical music. You’ll never pull a modern rabbit out of a classical hat.

There are so many misconceptions and biases about music education in the modern age that it’s impossible to list them here. Traditional, classically-inspired biases and priorities fly in the face of modern realities in the music business – the music you hear in clubs, in the streets, and on the radio. Educators have been writing for a long time about the need to update music education in light of how modern music is composed, recorded and performed.

Other reasons why kids fail have to do with whether they have an instrument that’s right for them, that they like, and is set up properly (on guitar). They have a decent amp. And here’s a really important one – the kid has to listen to a lot of music played on her or his instrument. I’ll go a step further. The number one main indicator of whether a kid with an axe who’s old enough to play is going to be there jamming out in a year is – believe it or not –their familiarity with an established professional repertoire in rock, country, blues and related styles. That basically means 1950s through 80s. (There’s a whole set of reasons I’ll go into another time.)

I know in a few minutes whether a teenage student is likely to stay with the school by what music she or he is listening to. It’s that simple.

There are other problems. It’s also the teachers, the schools they work for, the publishers of the actual music you’re trying to teach, as well as the officially-transcribed books, and years of music school traditions dating back to the conservatories of Victorian-era Europe, and further.

The good news is there are better ways out there. Modern approaches to music address the basic problems of physical conditioning, and overcoming the discomfort of playing your instrument. They allow your child to explore music intuitively, based on one simple goal, that of interacting purposefully and meaningfully with real music, in real-time.

A Manifesto For Modern Music Education

These recommendations apply specifically to guitar, bass guitar, and piano. However, these principles can be adapted to instruction on other instruments as well.

Teaching modern musical styles requires a different approach from traditional teaching models based on classical music. The first step in creating a modern music program is to divide both “music,” and “music education” into their core components:

(1) There are physical conditioning steps which can make learning an instrument much easier, especially for beginners. Conditioning for beginners should be geared toward playing chords and scales. This prepares them to play parts from popular songs. Many students never get the basic conditioning necessary for them to play their instruments comfortably. Reading-based methods don’t address problems associated with physical conditioning in any meaningful way.

(2) Students need to learn the note-name system of naturals, sharps and flats, apart from staff notation. The best way to understand the note-name system is to demonstrate it on a piano keyboard. Even guitar and bass players should learn how to name notes on the piano, because it takes only a few minutes to explain. For guitar and bass players, learning all of the notes on the fretboard takes more time. It’s also important for students to understand the concept of “octave equivalency.” Ethan Hein points out that animals like monkeys and rats share this musical sense.

(3) Students need to understand basic theory concepts related to chords and scales, apart from staff notation. This includes major and minor scales, modes, and chord triads. This begins with learning chord and scale shapes on the keyboard or fretboard.

(4) Students need to learn the scale degree system apart from staff notation, and how scales, modes and chords relate to scale degrees. In introducing this concept, piano instructors should take advantage of the fact that the first five scale degree numbers correspond to the finger numbers of the right hand. Over time, students need to learn how chords and scales relate to scale degrees and their corresponding letter names.

Students need to understand that in tempered tuning, each note represents an equal musical distance. Melodies aren’t tied to specific groups of notes, but are tied instead to distances between notes. This is what makes it possible to transpose melodies from one key to another.

(5) Students need to learn how to “read music by ear.” Many musicians, both classical and modern, demonstrate an ability to precisely reverse-engineer music based solely on what they hear. There is no mystery about how this ability works, or the methods for teaching it. The ability to read music by ear is important to all musicians. But it is especially important to students of modern styles, because most modern music is not composed in staff notation. This ability is necessary in order to transcribe music.

(6) Students should learn the concept of intervals between notes, and to identify specific intervals by ear. This can be taught effectively by using sections from well-know melodies as mnemonic devices. For instance, the opening notes to the melody of The Eyes of Texas are an example of the sound of a perfect fourth. Using this method, students can learn to identify intervals between notes independent of note names. Over time, the concept of intervals should be integrated into the student’s understanding of note names, scale degrees, and their corresponding shapes on the keyboard or fretboard.

(7) Because the vast majority of modern music in rock, country, blues, and related styles is non-notated, and because so many successful modern songwriters and musicians neither read nor write staff notation, and because in the production of so many of the most enduring and best-loved songs of all times, staff notation played no role whatsoever, it is well past time for modern music educators to create methods and models which acknowledge these long-established realities.

The high rates of attrition in traditional music programs are due in large measure to problems associated with learning to read music. It is time to modernize strategies for teaching staff notation. Reading staff notation is a multifaceted task. The first task is simply to identify the notes names on the staff, and read them from left to right. The second task is to understand the rhythms associated with the individual notes. A third component of learning staff is learning to play as you read. It’s much easier to create effective reading programs when you address each of these three components separately. For instance, apps and worksheets are an easy and effective way to lean to identify notes. Also, a few simple real-time rhythm and counting exercises can produce an immediate and measurable improvement in basic reading abilities.

(8) Students should learn effective memorization strategies for the type of music they’re learning. Classical and modern musicians rely on memorization in different ways. Even classical pianists and violinists rely on memorization differently, in that concert pianists usually memorize their music, while concert violinists read from printed music when they perform.

(9) Students of modern music need to learn the working methods of modern musicians, as distinct from classical musicians. Modern music is based more on groove and arrangement than on “composition” in it’s traditional sense. Staff notation is usually not part of the creative process. Jon Anderson, singer for the progressive rock group Yes, has described how they created new songs by improvising together and recording their sessions on cassette tape, instead of writing their parts in staff notation. The exception was keyboardist Rick Wakeman, who wrote out many of his parts. Wakeman also scored choral arrangements on some of their records. Yes is an ideal case study of the complicated relationship which modern music has with staff notation.

* Excerpt from Get The Most Out Of Music Lessons © 2020 Greg Varhaug

Get The Most Out Of Music Lessons – New Book April 2020

Greg Varhaug announces the release of his new book, Get The Most Out Of Music Lessons – A Guide to Success For Piano, Guitar & Bass, available on Amazon, as a print book and as a Kindle edition.

From the book:

I wrote this book to help students, teachers and parents to recognize and address common obstacles to learning a musical instrument, specifically piano, guitar and bass. As a music teacher for more than twenty-five years, I’ve had a chance to see first-hand the reasons why so many music students don’t reach their goals, especially those who want to learn to play modern styles like rock, country, blues and jazz.

The approach I outline in this book starts with physical conditioning to get rid of the discomfort of playing your instrument, learning chord and scale shapes on the keyboard or fretboard, and learning to play by ear.

It’s time to re-evaluate our methods and priorities in light of the fact that there are two separate schools of composition, and music education. Modern music should be taught in terms of the concepts and working styles of professional rock and country musicians.

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Memebers of Amazon Prime can read an extended free sample. If you buy on Kindle, you can give a copy as a gift for free.