Why Smart People Succeed More with a Lesson Teacher than Without

Why Smart People Succeed More with a Lesson Teacher than Without

When I was in my early 20s, I taught myself to crochet from reading books. I decided to make a huge afghan as a Christmas gift. It took me weeks and weeks to create hundreds of granny squares that had to be joined together. The finished product looked beautiful, and I was so proud of it when I presented it to my friends. Well, I didn’t realize that the rings I made to start each square weren’t done correctly, and within weeks, the afghan imploded on their sofa. It was quite embarrassing and frustrating to have wasted so much time to learn a hard lesson on how not to make a granny square! I consider myself to be a clever woman, but the bigger lesson I learned from this episode is that even if you are a really smart person you don’t know what you don’t know.

This is why trying to learn a musical instrument exclusively from watching videos and/or reading books isn’t going to be worth it in the long run. A video may show you exactly how to do something correctly, but how will you know you are doing what you are seeing? I always joke about how my coordination is limited to the anatomy between my wrists and my fingertips. The rest of me is as clumsy as a toddler on a shag carpet. I have taken yoga classes with some great instructors, and I have realized that I can’t always tell when I’m doing the form right. For example, the instructor will ask students to put our arms in an “L” formation, but I will put my arms in a “Y” formation and think I’m making an “L” formation. The instructor has to move my arms into the right pose for me to get it. It’s pretty silly, but even though I’m not great at yoga, I enjoy it. For me to get the most out of my hobby, I want to do the forms right and need to be guided by someone who is an expert. Even if I were coordinated and had a natural talent for yoga, a teacher could help me to advance to more challenging poses that I might not realize I’m ready for. I can dream.

I have worked with a number of adult students who reached out to me because after doing some work with DVDs and books, they felt that they hit a wall. Indeed, many times they had picked up counterproductive habits and misdirected thinking. Also, many students waste a lot of time “reinventing the wheel” when it comes to simple things that could be learned in a more efficient way. Students who do manage to navigate well through video learning may not realize where their abilities and natural talent could be better channeled. A one-size-fits-all program may not bring out a student’s true capabilities. Finally, meeting with another person once a week establishes a commitment to learning that self-direction doesn’t enforce.

Students who develop counterproductive habits are impeded from progress and may also experience pain. One aspect of “counterproductive habits” is executing the mechanics of playing or singing using inefficient techniques. One common example is placing the hands on the piano in a way that will ultimately lead to lack of even flow in playing at best or hand pain and carpel tunnel syndrome at worst. For vocalists, a common example involves trying to get volume by pushing in the throat rather than using the resonating chambers of the head cavity to get a louder sound. It is human nature to push in the throat when trying to be louder because in general speaking situations, it works. But for the singer, this approach is damaging and simply sounds awful. I certainly can’t blame people for making these mistakes because for them, like me in the yoga class, it is hard for a beginner to know for sure if she or he is actually on track with what the instruction in the book or video is presenting. For a singer there is the additional hurdle of not hearing in one’s head what the true sound is actually like out in the world, so what sounds good to a student might not work for the listeners!

Another pitfall of self-learning that falls under the category of “counterproductive habits” involves misdirectedthinking. Directed thinking is a very important part of learning an instrument. Your hands or your vocal apparatus are controlled by your head, and what your brain has decided is a good approach might not be quite right. Ultimately, wrong ideas do get in the way of success. A common example of this I see with most novice singers relates to the idea of singing the “high notes.” I put “high notes” in quotes because technically there is no such thing as “high” notes. Notes we have labeled as “high” are actually notes that are created by a force that causes air molecules to compress and decompress at a faster frequency than notes we have labeled as “low.” The concept of “up” and “down” is an artificial construct. Yet students often have anxiety about singing high frequency pitches, and the thought that notes are ascending causes many people to start craning their neck upwards to “reach” the note. This is exactly the opposite of what needs to happen in transitioning to notes that have a higher frequency. But again, I can’t blame a student for not knowing. We have set up in our culture ideas about “high and low” notes and people carry these ideas around until they are told otherwise. There are so many other examples of how misdirected thinking can get in our way as learners, please see my blog article below about good practicing techniques. You may find some surprising thoughts there.

As mentioned above, sometimes students spend a lot of time “reinventing the wheel.” There are certain concepts in learning music that students stumble on by trial and error. Some of this experimentation and discovery is really cool and fun, and I’m not against students trying different stuff and being creative! Really! But some of the ideas students spend a lot of time “discovering” are rather simple foundations that can be shown in a few steps. Once again, there is the risk that the new discovery is paired with a poor fingering or technique that leads to a counterproductive habit. Because I absolutely do encourage students to try improvisation and experimentation and just “messing around,” I’d rather my student not waste their time discovering simple things that can be shown quickly and save the creativity for juicer and more original ideas. 

Every music teacher was once a music student, and a great teacher can remember their own mistakes and misdirected thinking in their learning process. This is a reality that facilitates empathy in a teacher when viewing the same errors in their student. A great music teacher will remember the best methods of guidance from their own great teachers and will pass this information on to the student. The passing on of wisdom is a truly wonderful component in the experience of teaching and learning music! In many cases, teachers have taken classes in pedagogy on their instrument that outline different teaching methods and discover which ones are most effective for which students. An experienced teacher will draw on all this knowledge to customize a learning plan specifically for you! 

I think using books and DVDs to supplement music lessons is terrific! I often show other teachers’ videos in my classes because even though they are laying down the same foundations I am, it is helpful for the student to hear a different person explain it in a different way! Books and vids might lead a student to ask about something they wouldn’t know to ask about. However, just like diet advice, travel advice, financial advice, etc., there are a lot of so-called experts that do not know what they are doing or are trying to present something “revolutionary” just to push a product. One of the voice DVDs I ran into online promised that “Everything your voice teacher told you is wrong!” I was curious so I spent the $30 to find out what in the world they could be talking about. What they were pushing was exactly what any good voice teacher would agree with but repackaged with weird and confusing jargon and flimsy demonstrations. Some youtube vids are very good, Eric Arceneaux and the Singing Channel are two examples of good online voice teachers that demonstrate solid information that I show to my students to enhance my classes. However, I have seen some truly frightening instruction vids online showing viewers techniques that are downright damaging. Yet these vids get thousands of hits and likes from smart people who just don’t know what they don’t know.

Those who begin music as a hobby and find they actually have a propensity for it will especially find the guidance of a lesson teacher valuable. A relative beginner at anything will not be able to see the entire realm of possibilities and how those possibilities may lead to even more satisfying and challenging directions. I have had more than one student fall in love with a style of music they never would have expected to just from being exposed to new genres they were not familiar with. A lesson teacher who recognizes a student’s talent will know how to direct that person to his or her full potential by steering the student to work on an appropriate level. 

Finally, as a professional, I consult with other teachers regularly and take coaching from a peer from time to time. Awhile ago a community arts group I volunteered for brought in a jazz singer from New York, Kat Reinhert, I asked her if I could take a lesson from her while she was in town, and she graciously agreed! She is an amazing instructor, and my session with her showed me a different perspective on some techniques, reaffirmed for me my own pedagogical approach, and inspired me to try a few new ideas. Learning from an expert is valuable no matter how far you are in your career!

A good private lesson teacher will give you feedback and customize your learning just for you and only you! A great teacher won’t push any style or direction you aren’t interested in but will inspire you to develop the good techniques that will get you to your goals more smoothly. The process of learning should be fun but it is not as rewarding when progress isn’t efficient. Adults are very busy, and something I emphasize in my lessons is the importance of always moving forward even if some weeks the student had too many life obligations to practice as much as she or he wanted to. A DVD can sit on the shelf and be ignored for weeks while progress and enthusiasm slips away. My students tell me that being accountable to a teacher every week helps keep them moving forward and inspired to continue.

Working without a guide will, for most people, lead to counterproductive habits, misdirected thinking, re-inventing the wheel, and possible missed opportunities for challenges. “The hurrier I go the behinder I get” from Alice in Wonderland is one of my favorite quotes, and I remind myself of it every time I catch myself rushing through something to get it done. Scrambling toward a goal without a thoughtful plan will often lead us to slide backwards. The journey up the Everest of learning an instrument can be joyful. Find yourself a great sherpa!



Your Lesson Teacher Forgot to Teach You How to Practice


Your Lesson Teacher Forgot to Teach You How to Practice

Guilty. When I was a new lesson teacher years ago, I noticed something odd. My students told me they were practicing, and I knew they were being truthful, but they weren’t making the progress I was expecting. Then it hit me. I asked them to describe what they did each time they practiced. It was very illuminating. They were spending 20-60 minutes a day, but that time wasn’t being used efficiently. Much of the time they were at the piano, they really weren’t practicing the lesson, and when they were, they were spinning their wheels. Like any student, they didn’t know what they didn’t know. The fault was mine. I quickly corrected my mistake, and ever since, I have incorporated discussion of efficient practicing in all my lessons.

The first key to efficient practicing is being organized. I encourage students to have their materials organized in a binder or on a tablet, so time isn’t wasted shuffling around for sheets of paper. It’s okay to have separate music books for different repertoire, but I like to make copies and put them in one place, so I can make everything I play portable. I’m a little overboard with the organization thing, but I also play a lot of different gigs and need to keep my material in one place. I don’t expect everyone to go this far if they don’t need to.

More important than how you organize your materials is how you organize your practice time. Just like with sports practice, there are usually a few components to the session. Football practice might start with a short run, then some weight training, then discussion of plays that will be gone over, then actual football playing. For the music student there is a similar scheme. A good regimen would be to start with finger or vocal exercises, then scales and chords, then practicing one or two sight reading or sight singing exercises (this is reading through a piece once just for building that skill), then playing through the repertoire. At some point in a practice session, a student can experiment and improvise too. Busy high schoolers or adults may not have time to play every scale every day and after a certain point may not need to. I recommend doing at least one different scale a day. The same applies to sight reading. Doing one page a day is building a skill. Skipping it to save time weakens the skill making it harder the next time. 

Often the first thing many parents and adult students ask me is “how long should I/my child be practicing?” They are surprised to hear me say that I don’t think practicing should be timed. 

Students who set aside a time to practice for 45 minutes to two hours may not be using those minutes well. Often times students will try to cram practicing into once or twice a week for a few hours. This is counter-productive for long-term memory and learning. Many research studies have shown that for most adults, doing one learning activity for longer than an hour is counter-productive, but that same amount of time spaced out over days is much more effective. The MIT Center for Academic Excellence recommends studying one subject for no longer than 50 minutes at a time followed by at least a ten minute break. I often encourage students to do short sessions twice a day or at least shorter sessions every single day, none of them necessarily timed.

Instead of timing a practice session, I encourage a goal-oriented approach. At the beginning of the session before a note is sounded, identify what exercises and scales you will practice, and choose these purposefully. If your song has a lot of melismas, you will want to choose a vocal exercise that emphasizes that skill. Likewise, a piano student may choose to review the scales and chords of the pieces they are working on for reinforcement. Then look over your repertoire and set goals for that session. “I will work on the rhythms in measure 34 until I get them right this time,” is an example. Goal-oriented practicing often ends up with the student not noticing how long they are practicing, as reaching the goal is now the priority. It takes the “ chore” feeling out of the session because now the student feels more in control of the time rather than tethered by it. If you feel like you are “spinning your wheels,” it is time to walk away for awhile. The brain needs time to absorb new ideas, and your mind is telling you it is time to take a break rather than persist on despite a sense of diminishing returns. This is not being a quitter. It is an informed decision in which you are acknowledging you have reached your limit for the moment. You will be surprised how much better the piece will go the next time you sit down with a fresh mind.

People think of practicing as playing the material over and over, and there is certainly some of that involved. But this concept should be nested in a more organized framework. It is very common for students when they are practicing to stop when they make a mistake and start over again, as though somehow pressing the re-set button will magically make that error go away! Then, when they get to that same spot, the error is waiting for them like a biting fly. I can tell when a student practices this way because the beginning sounds better and better each week, and that challenging rhythm in measure 34 never gets fixed. Or, I will see a student play the same note error and fish until they find the right note and go on. People have the idea that practicing a song is a linear continuous action from beginning to end, but that’s not quite right. This describes performing the song. Practicing the song is more like building a piece of furniture or making a quilt. Each component has to be carefully crafted and then put together to make the whole. 

In the book The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle, researchers were trying to get to the bottom of why some high school violin students were doing better than others. The researchers ruled out enthusiasm for the instrument, because the young lady that seemed to be learning the fastest was more ambivalent about the violin than her peers who were more eager, but she wanted to participate and did practice. All of the students in the study were about the same in terms of general intelligence. So, why was the ambivalent girl doing better? They videotaped the students individually practicing to analyze what each was doing. Sure enough. Many of the students didn’t have a practice plan and just opened their books and played their pieces from beginning to the end over and over and over. The student who was learning faster had a different approach. When she came to a trouble area in the music she stopped. She looked at what she was doing and analyzed why she was making the mistake, something like, “Oh, I’m playing a G and it is supposed to be G#.” Taking the time to analyze the mistake and identify the problem out loud, paired with repeating just that trouble section, solved the problem. 

Research by Gary Lupyan, a cognitive scientist and psychology professor at UW–Madison, has discovered that smart people make errors in certain cut-and-dry math concepts because human beings tend to make analytical decisions based on context rather than on rules. 

“Rather than treating errors as reflecting lack of knowledge or as inattention, trying to understand their source may lead to new ways of teaching rule-based systems while making use of the flexibility and creative problem solving at which humans excel.”

As a teacher, I can often spot the mistaken thinking that leads a student to a persistent error, and I talk them through it. For example, a student will clearly know what the difference between a G and a G# is. They know the rules, but often they have a pre-determined idea about where the tune is going. This causes them to make a microsecond decision to play the note that seems more contextually logical. Then the wrong note becomes embedded in the memory even though it clearly sounds wrong! By talking through the mistake, the student is learning a new context for this note and can reorient their thinking to forget the mistake and correct the problem area. Without this analysis, students will make the same mistake again and again, facing the biting fly waiting on measure 34. My students learn to do the meta analysis to get to the cause of their mistake and will apply this technique in their practice sessions as well.

All this regimented practice sounds very pedantic. However, by no means do I think students should be regimented every time they sit down to do music! As mentioned above, time should be set aside to “mess around” on the instrument. Discovery and creativity are really important! There should be no limit to this experimentation. It is fun and leads to a lot of great questions for the teacher. I am suggesting however, that one should be mindful of this creative process as a separate component of practicing and should be balanced with the other business that the student needs to get done in order to reach her or his goals.

Goal-oriented practice is more satisfying and time efficient than playing the song over and over. If your teacher didn’t tell you this, how would you know? Now you do!



How to Choose a Music Lesson Teacher

You have decided that you want to go ahead and finally learn that instrument you always wanted to play, or you have children excited about playing music. Now what? Videos and books are helpful, but the trap of self-teaching is well documented and will be a subject of another blog-post. A lesson teacher can provide individualized attention and a customized learning experience. If you search for lesson teachers in your area, you may find yourself overwhelmed with options. In my book “The Voice as an Instrument” I wrote the following about selecting a voice teacher, but of course these ideas apply to an instrumental teacher as well.

“Be very cautious when selecting a teacher. Licensing requirements vary from state to state. In some communities, anyone can call themselves a voice teacher simply because they have done some singing. Be aware that just because someone is a great singer does not always mean they have the gift of teaching. I have encountered situations where institutions hired prolific performers for their status value, but some of these people are not very good teachers. Make sure you are hiring someone who has studied the voice formally, has some credentials and is happy to provide references. Try to find someone who specializes in the genre you want to sing. If that is not possible, you can find value in a good voice teacher of any genre. Just be sure he or she respects and understands what your goals are. Expect that your teacher should focus on you and your progress every minute of the lesson. Talking about himself or herself (unless applicable as an example), or worse, taking a phone call during a lesson is not a good use of your time and money. A good teacher will allow you to record the lesson so you can go back and practice the exercises with the audio. If you do not feel right about your teacher, do not hesitate to respectfully move on.” 

So choosing the nice lady that lives down the street who charges so little or that amazing club singer you saw last night may or may not be a good idea. What should you be looking for? The teacher’s credentials, references and recommendations from others, teaching environment, experience, and the specialty style are all important to know about before setting up that first lesson. Often these factors should be weighed out. Is the teacher highly credentialed and popular, but are they teaching in a noisy music store environment with no privacy between cubicles? Another teacher may not have a music degree, but this could be counter-balanced by having great references and years of teaching experience. In addition it is important to be realistic about other factors such as driving distance and cost. The perfect teacher might not be right for you if the drive is too long for you to be motivated to go every week or untenable in inclement weather. Finally, cost can be a factor as well. A teacher who charges too little may not be invested in their profession and may not give you the kind of attention you deserve. In contrast, some high-end music schools and conservatories will charge a lot per lesson because their overhead costs are high, but their teachers may not be the best in town. You want to pay for quality instruction, not beautiful chandeliers!

Once you have done a little research and have a candidate in mind, here are some ideas when moving forward.


A great teacher shows the student respect from the very first contact

When you make the initial contact does the teacher seem to enjoy talking with you about the prospect of your new venture? Certainly it is not fair to expect an hour phone conversation in which you highlight every experience you had with music since you were six, but you are entitled to ask some questions and chat for a bit before setting up a first meeting.


A great teacher sets a positive tone the first lesson

Never expect a teacher to give you a free “sample lesson.” Would you ask your dentist for a “sample teeth cleaning?” However, if you feel like you are being hurried through a first meeting this might be cause for concern. In my studio I try to budget a little extra time when starting a new student, and I let them know this so they can plan ahead. However, sometimes allowing for extra time isn’t possible if the lesson is back-to-back with another student. In this case, I offer to follow up with a phone call to review the plan for moving forward.


A great teacher is focused on you

Any teacher who does not focus on you completely during your lesson time is not being respectful of your time. Good teachers know to put time aside during the day to return phone calls and do other necessary business and should not be texting or answering the phone during your lesson. Certainly as time goes on you might enjoy brief conversations about the teacher’s children, concerts, vacation, etc., but this sharing should be student-directed. The lessons are for you and should be about you. 

Students generally understand that it is fair that lessons begin and end on time and that general questions should be discussed during the lesson time. However, I am willing to discuss lesson progress from time to time over the phone, especially with parents who may not always want to interrupt a lesson to ask questions. Most teachers and students have a sense of what is balanced and fair in these outside discussions. 


A great teacher loves the art of teaching as much as the art of music

A great teacher should be excited about music, but pay attention to whether or not the teacher is excited about sharing music with you! Great teachers enjoy the process of teaching as an art form in itself. She or he will be excited to find music for you that you like, will be happy to explain why you are being asked to do certain things, and will involve you in the process of learning so that it is a fun and positive experience for you.

Sadly, in the last few decades, job opportunities for performing musicians have dwindled as live music has waned in popularity. There are some great musicians who are teaching to make ends meet but aren’t invested in the craft of being a teacher. If your teacher seems to be going through the motions rather than being enthusiastic about your lesson time you may want to bring this up to him or her. Just like anyone else, the teacher may be going through a rough time, and the lack of luster may only be temporary. No one can be on all the time, even those of us who try to be. But, if a conversation doesn’t spark a better rapport with you and your teacher, it may be time to move on.


A great teacher wants you to succeed but does not berate you

Patience is a virtue, and it is absolutely required at all times in every lesson, no exceptions! There are endless ways to explain a concept, and a great teacher will try different approaches until that highly sought-after lightbulb appears above the student’s head! For me there is such joy in seeing another person “get it” for the first time. There is no need for a teacher to be verbally abusive to get a point across. A great teacher can correct you or your child without belittling. A great teacher can make suggestions without talking down to an adult like they are a child. A great teacher can speak firmly and directly with a child without sounding angry. A great teacher makes sure you know what you are doing right just as much as what you still need to work on. Here are some examples:

Yes:    “I really like the way you worked on your phrasing this week, it’s so much better than last time! Now, let’s see if we can tackle that rhythm in measure 12.”

No: “I guess we’ll have to go over measure 12 again this week since you aren’t getting it.”

Yes: (to a child) “I’m really disappointed you didn’t practice this week, I was really looking forward to trying out that song you were asking about. It’s not going to be as much fun for us today since we have to go over the same stuff as last week.”

No: “You should have practiced this week instead of playing video games. You’re never going to get any better if you just slack off.”

In order for a student to progress a teacher must point out and correct techniques and mind-sets that aren't working. What is important is that the relationship should feel like a collaboration rather than a power struggle. You should feel good leaving your lessons, or at least walk away feeling inspired to do better the next time. If music lessons are making you or your child feel bummed out every week, you may need to look for a different teacher. 


A great teacher customizes the lessons for each student

As part of the collaborative process, the teacher must understand the goals and needs of the student. Some students want to take their time and work at a leisurely pace, learning an instrument for the sheer pleasure of it as a hobby and not as a performer. Others may be taking lessons as a supplement to a school program or a performance obligation and are under pressure to get a lot done in a short time. These two circumstances and every situation in between must be handled differently. It is inappropriate for a teacher to have one regimented method that is foisted upon every student. That said, there are certain methods and approaches I know aren’t sound pedagogy, and I tell students who ask about them that I only use proven teaching methods in my work. For example, learning to play songs by rote and not by understanding how music works, in other words by mimicking, is not a sound approach, and if a student is looking for that, I am not the right teacher for them. In my entire career I never had a student leave because of a conflict like this. A great teacher will guide you to good habits and methods in a way that will inspire you to reach your goals. 


Not every teacher is right for every student

I did have a student several years ago that did not click with me. She was in high school and had been taking piano lessons from her beloved choir teacher from church and had developed a bond with her. But that woman suddenly moved out of state, so she began lessons with me. I sensed right away she was wary, but I didn’t let that deter me from trying to ease her into working with me and my unfamiliar ways. Alas, she didn’t take suggestions or corrections well even after some time had passed and overall seemed quite unhappy in lessons despite my best efforts. I wasn’t surprised when she stopped the lessons. This was the only time in my career that I had trouble bonding with a lesson student, but for whatever reason, I seemed to annoy her. I knew not to blame either of us for that, sometimes people don’t click. I have learned to take it with a grain of salt when I hear someone criticize another teacher because I know that sometimes it isn’t anything lacking in the teacher or their methods, but just a personality or style clash. What is important is if you don’t feel the teacher is right for you or your child you should move on and find someone who is.


Some uncomfortable truths

Beyond just not clicking with a teacher, you should never feel personally uncomfortable with your teacher. I am going to get a little queasy with the next few sentences here, but these are things that need to be said. In my travels, I have run across a few unsavory characters as a student and as a teacher. I had a college piano professor, who is now passed away, who invited female students including me, to his “photography studio.” I declined his “offer” but continued the lessons because I felt I had to. I didn’t have to. Luckily my strong refusal of his overture was enough to get him to leave me alone, but I regret not reporting him because other female students were coerced. The cultural climate is different today. If you feel weirded out by someone, leave. You should never have to tolerate inappropriate behavior or language.

Another situation occurred when I was a music teacher at a public school. It was discovered that a classroom teacher was surreptitiously videotaping girls changing clothes. He had set up situations where he could be alone with the girls and his interest and investment in the children were excessive and suspicious. It is dicey to look for warning signs for this sort of thing because accusing an innocent person can also be awful, but there are a few guidelines to be aware of. A good lesson teacher will always set up her/his studio in a way that parents can see their child during the lesson even if the door is closed. My studio is set up so parents can sit in the room with the child during lessons, or sit in the waiting room with the door open to give their child more space. Do not drop off your child for lessons, at least at first. I discourage this practice until I get to know the family well, and mutual trust has been established. A good lesson teacher will refuse to teach behind a closed door in the student’s home, please respect this as a sign of proper etiquette. Teachers may sometimes have music camps or other field trips that involve over-nighters, but be suspicious if there is no other adult such as a parent supervising the event. 

Over time, families and teachers can develop an appropriate bond, and trust will be apparent on all sides. Over the years, I have enjoyed many Christmas dinners and high school plays, and sometimes even listened to tearful teenage (and even adult) frustrations, forming lasting relationships with some of the families I have worked with that continue today, years after the student has moved on. Finding the right lesson teacher for yourself or your child will not only ensure you will get the results you are hoping for as a musician, but will ensure it is an enjoyable and inspiring process as well.


Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about this blog article. If you live in the Milwaukee area you may call me to discuss my piano or voice lessons. I can also provide referrals for those seeking teachers of other instruments in the area. If you are outside the Milwaukee area I do provide Face Time or Skype lessons in voice for adults.