Maximizing the medium: experiment and innovation in the teaching studio

February 4th, 2014 by

Music shapes us, but it is also shaped by our culture and practice of music-making. This is true whether we are students, performers, concert goers, consumers, or music teachers.

But how can we find space for experiment and innovation in our teaching without compromising standards or impeding the progress of our students?

In this post, I’m going to talk a bit about some of the ways we can make time to take risks and develop new approaches in our teaching.

I’ll also be talking about why this is important for our students, our job satisfaction, and our broader culture and practice of music teaching.

The medium is the message

The first thing I’d like you to consider is how your personal teaching method may reflect the space and/or institution you teach in, and the expectations that come with it.

You may be a solitary teacher working on the piano bench next to a stream of neighbourhood children, an instructor at a music school, a performer giving masterclasses or lessons on request, or you may be one of the increasing number of teachers who addresses students through internet portals such as YouTube.

However you connect with your pupils, your medium of interaction – your studio, institution, schedule, or online platform – will dictate how you teach to an important extent. A school typically requires teachers to follow a fixed curriculum, for example, while home studios usually prioritize one-on-one teaching over group classes.

Your school may encourage you to teach from a series of books they already have in the library, while in your home studio you may find that students and their parents appreciate following a system based on graded instructions books that are approved by some well-known institution. However you choose to teach, these work patterns will help to make your teaching effective, and they will help your students to progress at a regular rate alongside their peers.

But these same, what I am going to call ‘institutional systems’ can also have drawbacks, both for pupils and for teachers. What may seem like a time-saving book series or course curriculum that ensures standards in your studio may in fact be limiting your ability to express yourself as a teacher, and in turn, may be holding back your students from achieving their best as musicians.

Perhaps the recommended studies and technical exercises take up so much lesson time that you can never really get to talk to your students about the special musical alchemy that is at work in the pieces they play? Or perhaps, in wishing your students to do well in exams, you may be encouraging them to conform too much to the received wisdom of previous generations of musicians, and in turn limiting the space in which they can experiment and innovate for their own and future generations?

Whatever system we employ will always bring with it both advantages and disadvantages. Our job is to try to identify the positive in both these things, and to put them in service of a greater ends: satisfying music-making, undertaken by both students and their teachers.

Rebelliousness in the teaching studio – making space for freedom

Luckily for both teachers and students, there can be few conditions more inspiring to experiment and innovation than imposed limitations!

What starts out as a restriction, may end up inspiring some of our most innovative ideas – we simply have to think about them differently and make time and space to turn them to our advantage.

Many of you will be doing this already. Teachers in a home studio, for example, may work hard to create a clear curriculum of the sort typically found in music schools, while college teachers may take pains to carve out space for personal attention for their students of the sort made easy by the home studio format.

But we can go further, especially in the freedom we can give our students to experiment with music as part of their overall progress. We can take the time to let the students work their way more slowly through pieces, for example, perhaps taking time to help them identify underlying key structures, or colouristic effects, or aspects of text setting, and then giving them the space to improvise and innovate on these interesting and important musical features and ideas.

If your students don’t know how to improvise, remember that this is a very important part of music making – all the classical composers learned to do this at an early age using simple patterns. Teaching your students (and perhaps yourself) how to do this will hugely enhance their enjoyment of music, and will make your teaching – and your own playing – much more fruitful and enjoyable.

Another simple tip to consider is how you may be pacing your students. Many students want to progress quickly and can race through grade books because of their nimble fingers or strong memories. But these same students will almost without exception falter later on in their life as musicians. This typically happens either because the pieces they play at advanced level will eventually get very demanding of mental and emotional interpretive skills that they will not possess as players, or because they never learn to see the importance of musical life beyond their achievement in exams, and will give music up once their parents are no longer ferrying them to lessons.

If you gave your students more time to sit their exams – two years instead of one, for example – they may be annoyed at first, but in the end, they are more likely to enjoy playing, to become better musicians, and to develop the ability to have their own musical ideas. At the same time, they will make your work much more enjoyable! They will probably also score higher in exams and will do even more for the reputation of your studio. Who knows, you may even end up turning out more professional musicians than you were when you were simply ‘following the book’.

Music is play

However you organize your studio, university or college classes, or your online teaching content and interface, keep in mind that both student and teacher can learn as well as teach. Giving yourself – and your students – time to do this as part of their ‘regular curriculum’ will enhance your studio culture, your students’ progress, and your own work satisfaction.

But it’s important to remember that, without a doubt, your teaching makes an important contribution to something much bigger than yourself – broader musical and music pedagogical culture.

Like Mozart, and Beethoven, and Bach, and Dizzy Gillespie, all of whom played with music and broke away from the restrictions and patterns of the past, you too must take the time and make the space to break away from imposed work and playing patterns and come up with something new that is unique to you and to your students.

This, more than anything we can do as teachers to ‘maintain standards’, is what will keep music alive, both for now, and for future generations.

Posted in Performing, Practicing, Professional Development, Studio Management, Teaching Tips

About the Author

Kathryn Whitney
I'm a freelance classical musician working in Canada and the UK. I thrive on the variety inherent in a musician's life, which for me involves work as a performer, singing teacher, solo and choral clinician, academic researcher, and university lecturer. I run a song performance research group in London, England, and work with a lot of composers to create new works, especially for solo voice and pia... [Read more]

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