Characteristics of a Good Music Teacher - Essay

Becoming a teacher is very hard. It takes a lot of education and knowledge before an aspiring person is able to instruct others. Becoming a good teacher is even harder as it requires even more education and knowledge as well as experience and properly developed teaching habits. While teaching one subject may be easier than teaching another subject, the truth is that some teachers have it harder than others do. A good example of this would be private music teachers. Private music teachers face a few difficulties that some other teachers don’t. Becoming a successful music instructor is difficult as it demands a lot more than just education and knowledge.  First of all, music teachers need to be good musicians. This takes a lot of work, probably much more than the average school teacher has to go through. However, it doesn’t matter how good musicians are or how much they know, it will never guarantee that they will be able to successfully instruct developing students. Teaching music requires more than just advanced knowledge and skill. [Thesis] A successful music teacher needs the ability to interpersonally connect with his/her students and to quickly adapt to a different teaching method that specifically targets every individual person.

Before talking about the qualifying traits of a successful music teacher, we should examine the field of music education. Three years ago I began teaching piano to several students and I quickly found out that music teachers face a lot of hardships. One of the first difficulties I faced was the wide variety of ages that I found myself instructing. Professors in a college or university or teachers at a local high school usually have a general age group that they instruct: a group of high school graduates or a group of freshmen…etc. According to Robert Crosnoe, a professor of human sociology, having a general age group allows a teacher to orientate himself or herself around the class and eventually speak very effectively with them over a given period of time. However, music teachers can have students that range from 5 years to 60 years old. A local piano teacher that I am well acquainted with, Boris Karpuk, says that he teaches several students whose ages range from 6 years old to almost 60 and he has to teach them all in the same day. This almost forced him to develop a unique skill in teaching different ages. He must be able to quickly transition from teaching one age group to teaching another. Transitioning from teaching an elementary school student to teaching a high school student and then quickly transitioning yet again to teach someone else is not an easy thing to do. One of the problems is that the material instructed is the same, yet music teachers must instruct each student in a different way according to the student’s age. Being able to quickly change from teaching an older student to a younger student, who may both be playing at the same level, is an essential skill required of most private music instructors (Karpuk).

The next problem that confronts private music teachers is character and personalities. No one student is the same and there are few exceptions anywhere, whether in high schools, colleges, and universities. Despite the differentiation of students, in a class environment a teacher will not have to deal directly with all these differences in personalities. Most of the time the issue is dealt with indirectly as the students themselves learn to work with their instructor and adapt a way of being successful in the class (Crosnoe). Music teachers, as I have personally found out, have to deal with these issues directly head on. It seems that tutoring someone one on one leads to a very direct confrontation of personalities. Most of the time music teachers are the ones that need to adapt to their student’s character and their specific learning style. The ability of a teacher to get a basic understanding of the student’s personality and to adapt to it is an essential element in all subjects of teaching and not only music.

One thing about private music teachers in general is that more pressure is applied to them, than to the average teacher in a classroom environment. If a music teacher is not proving himself/herself proficient in educating the student, parents may grow unsatisfied and may decide to find another teacher or perhaps the student might just decide to leave on his or her own. Music teachers can lose students very quickly which means that they lose their jobs quickly also. In high school this sort of arrangement doesn’t work often as both parents and students frequently don’t even have a choice in what teacher is available. They need to go to a certain class with a certain teacher whether they like it or not and there is almost nothing that they can do about it. Music teachers, on the other hand, can be easily replaced and dropped and there is definitely a good job competition out there for private music instruction. Therefore, the pressure a private music teacher faces is in a small way different from the pressures classroom teachers are subject to.

There is also another added pressure that many music teachers face in a larger degree than most other teachers do: parents. Very often parents are present during the music lessons of their children. Some music teachers insist on their presence while others insist against, but more often than not, parents will not be far away. Considering that parents are the ones who pay for most of the music lessons makes them in a small way my boss. Having a boss hang around during a music lesson does affect the way I instruct my students. For example, while I may sometimes sit back in an available chair and just orally guide the student along as they struggle through my lesson, in the presence of a parent I might stand next to the student and use and more hands on approach, showing them exactly what they need to do. I would feel uncomfortable sitting there while a parent is observing my lesson. It is not very common for a high school teacher to have to lecture the class in the presence of the principal. Of course, every once in a while an evaluation committee does come to watch the instructor in action, and it does put a certain amount of stress on the teacher. However, many music teachers are subject to indirect evaluation at every lesson by the watchful eyes of the parents. It is just another thing that unfortunate music educators have to deal with.

Combining the expectations of parents and the expectations of the student, private music instructors are forced to balance between producing a pleasing/fun environment and an educating/progressive one. How much homework should be given and how quickly progress should be made are all questions that private teachers must answer individually for every student that they instruct. If a teacher is too strict the student may grow very apprehensive toward music lessons and things will end up badly. If a teacher is too nice parents may grow dissatisfied that their child is making little or no progress. According to John Aschenbrenner, author of an online piano resource, finding the “comfort zone” where the student is both happy and receiving a proper education is a goal for all music teachers (Aschenbrenner). The correct way of balancing the learning environment is just another added pressure and hurdle that a private music instructor must overcome (Aschenbrenner).

A common problem that private music teachers face is the difficulty of motivating their students. They are already directly responsible in motivating their students to learn and play the desired instrument since they are the primary instructor. Most instructors hold the ability to either facilitate a positive or negative appreciation in their students. If a teacher fails to motivate his or her students, then things usually end up badly or the student teacher relationship is terminated. Most parents, in a way, almost expect that the music instructor would motivate their child to want to learn and play on their musical instrument. The only problem is that motivating someone is not very easy to do, especially when students are so radically different from each other. One type of motivation may works well with one student but not work with another student and the music instructors are stuck trying to figure out a way in which they could inspire their students. Sometimes it is even impossible to motivate a student at all since past experiences have already formulated the child’s reaction to their instrument and music lesson. For example, what can a music teacher do with any student who doesn’t want to learn? I once had a student whose former teacher was very strict to a point where lessons were dreaded and tears were shed. When I began working with them, what could I possible to do help them regain their like for music when they were just dead set against it. I am sure there is a way to do it, but for someone like me, who is only a beginning teacher, it is something I will have to struggle to find out.

I have a few students who had teachers before they switched to me. There are several problems that come with that sort of switch. First of all, some of the students have already begun to hate music lessons. It seems that their former teachers had accidentally instilled in them a rebellious attitude against learning and they just don’t want to play anymore. Yet parents still force them to attend lessons. It is very difficult to work with such children as I find myself having to also force them to do anything at all. I am obligated to struggle to find a way to instruct them while at the same time trying to motivate them when they are completely against learning. One student in particular, a young girl that I am teaching violin, has developed a way to get out of music lessons in an indirect way. She will talk to me about her day at school and the things that happened that day or that week in an effort to postpone the lesson as long as possible. When I finally get her to play something for me, it takes her a whole minute just to put the violin to her shoulder. Normally it should take only about one second.

Another problem that I incur when receiving new students from other teachers is the different modes of instruction. A student gets used to his or her former teacher and has expectations that I will teach them the same way. When they find out that I use a completely different method in my instruction, they also become a little apprehensive and rebellious, and I am forced to try and solve that problem before I am also dropped. Every teacher has his/her own approach and methods of instruction. That is why I need to be very careful with new students because they may dislike me only because I am different from their former teachers. One student that I had, a piano student, had a former teacher that wrote down the letter names for all the notes. The student had gotten used to this. When he switched over to me and found out that I did not write down the letter names but instead forced him to do it instead, he started to complain.

In both my research and my personal experience I have found that there are two traits that a good music teacher has. According to Eve Harwood, an associate professor of music education, the first trait of a successful music teacher is sensitivity and the second one is adaptability. Teaching a student one on one is different from teaching an entire classroom full of students. As a private instructor a person has to be very sensitive to the child or student that he/she is teaching. Teachers need to listen very carefully. They need to read the body language and facial expressions. According to D. W. John Andrews, a published author on educational books, teachers need to understand the troubles and difficulties that their students has and work hard to see which methods work and which ones don’t work. I will use an example of my own music teacher, Sergey Leschuk, a private voice and piano instructor. He went as far as to use reverse psychology on me since he was able to identify a good way to motivate and inspire me. I was the type of student that was always up for a good challenge. I always went for the hardest pieces to play, even if he didn’t really want me to play them. Well, he decided to use that against me and would often discourage me and bring in easy pieces. I would always complain to him. It ended with me learning both the easy pieces and the hard ones that I wanted to tackle, learning more than he asked of me. At that time I had no idea what he was doing, but now I will admit that it was successful, if that really was his original intent.

Communication between a student and a teacher is different when it is one on one tutoring. Whitney McGowan, an author from the scholarly journal Innovative Higher Education writes that often times, if a music teacher is unaware of the situation, students won’t really understand what it is that they are doing, but still be able to fool the teacher. For example, I once had a student that had very good memory. They would watch me play a musical phrase just one time and they would be able to play it back. It is a wonderful ability, but the problem is that I was teaching them to read music. What they were doing was not reading but replaying what they heard. I would sometimes think that they were actually reading the music, when in fact they were only mimicking what they heard. I found out that the poor student has been learning violin for three years and has never learned to read. Talk about not understanding notes. Some students are tricky enough that they will learn to play a piece without even being able to read from some sheet music. This is comparable to a student being unable to read words in a book, but still fool the teacher because they memorized what was written there just by listening. The sad thing is that some instructors won’t even catch it until it hits them directly in the face.

That is why proper communication is required. J. Emil Haller, an accomplished educational author, talks about this specifically. A teacher should continuously ask questions that his/her student needs to answer as a way of evaluating whether or not the student has understood the instruction and if they know exactly what they are doing. Also, when a student asks a question from the instructor, the instructor needs not only tell the answer, but should also find out where the question came from and why it was asked. They should look into answering questions beyond what the students ask of them. If the student keeps asking the letter names of a piece of music, then I should conclude that the student needs more practice learning letter names. If a student keeps asking how much time until the lesson ends, then I should at least be able to make a small insight into that. What does my student want and what does he mean to tell me with his question. Is he/she asking how much time left until they are finally finished with the torturous music lesson, or “Why does the lesson go by so fast?”

Sometimes a student can be very tricky and difficult to understand. Some students are shy and withdrawn and are not open to easy interpretation. Even some of the things they say may not have direct literal meaning. Susanne K. Langer, a former tutor from Harvard University writes, “When we are faced with a strange or difficult situation…our whole reaction depends on how we manage to conceive the situation” (56). Teachers will always face difficult situations, yet they need to read between the lines. They need to try to understand their students at a deeper level. They need to try to understand the complete situations, look at body language, facial expressions, look at everything and try not to miss important information that might allow them to see into the mindset of their students. Which instruction works with them? What are they happy with and what are they against? These are questions that instructors need to constantly ask themselves. Charles Kadushin, a former sociology professor from Columbia University explains that even body language can sometimes be misleading, and therefore it will take extra effort from the teacher to learn what the students feel and their inner characters. Failure as a teacher comes when the instructor is unable to understand the basic behavioral pattern of their student.

Once teachers are able to establish a good communication system with their student, things begin to go well. By good communication I mean both sides are heavily involved in interaction with each other. The teacher understands the student and the student connects with their instructor. Of course, it all begins with the instructors themselves. If an instructor is sensitive to their students and able to connect interpersonally with them and if the instructor is able to change his/her way of instruction to adapt to different students, then starts the success of a music education. The instructor is able to reach out and pull out the maximum potential of the student in the shortest amount of time and the student is able to pull out the maximum from the teacher.

 

Works Cited

Andrews, D. W. John. “Growth of a Teacher.” The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Mar. – Apr., 1978), pp. 136-150. Print.

Aschenbrenner, John. “Teach your child piano – free online course” American school of piano teaching. Jan 2009. http://www.americanpianoschool.com. Web.

Crosnoe, Robert, Monica Kirkpatrick Johnson, and Glen H. Elder, Jr. “Intergenerational Bonding in School: The Behavioral and Contextual Correlates of Student-Teacher Relationships.” Sociology of Education, Vol. 77, No. 1 (Jan., 2004), pp. 60-81. Print.

Haller, J. Emil. “Pupil Influence in Teacher Socialization: A Socio-Linguistic Study.” Sociology of Education, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Autumn, 1967), pp. 316-333. Print.

Harwood, Eve. “Musician and Teacher An Orientation to Music Education.” British Journal of Music Education; Nov2009, Vol. 26 Issue 3, p337-339, 3p. Academic Search Premier. Web.

Kadushin, Charles. “The Professional Self-Concept of Music Students.” The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 75, No. 3 (Nov., 1969), pp. 389-404. Print.

Karpuk, Boris. Private piano instructor. Personal Interview.

Langer, Susanne K., “Language and Thought” Language Awareness Eds. Paul Escholtz, Alfred Rosa and Virginia Clark. 9th edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2004. 53-58. Print.

Leschuk, Sergey. Private vocal and piano teacher. Personal Interview.

McGowan, Whitney, and Charles Graham. Innovative Higher Education; 2009, Vol. 34 Issue 3, p161-171, 11p. Academic Search Premier. Web.

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