Have you ever had a bad experience with your piano teacher or professor? Maybe you quit playing a musical instrument when you were younger because of a mean teacher?
You’re not alone.
Sometimes the very teachers that want to give us the tools to play at a high level are the same teachers that kill our love for music.
There are so many things I would change about music education today. From strict lessons to overly laidback ones, those focusing too much on technique not enough on passion and vice versa.
Music education today is morphing into something new and more flexible in order to accommodate the ever changing student avatar, and that is great to see.
Here are some of the things I would change about music education culture today, from personal experience.
NO MULTI-GENRE MUSIC ALLOWED!
Even when it’s not explicitly said (though most times it is), a certain awkward silence emerges if you ever dare to bring up music that is not classical during your lesson. It has always been this way, and has even seeped into classical-jazz fusion composers such as Gershwin and Peterson.
If not an outright disapproval for non-classical music, perhaps a lack of interest or commentary when you come to play a piece from the non-classical repertoire will send the message across.
Growing up, any music that was even remotely non-classical, such as jazz, pop, traditional or contemporary was deemed “not good enough” for the lesson setting. Oftentimes, it would sadden me to know that I could not spend time on the pieces I loved and wanted to play, because they were not appropriate to play at a lesson.
It’s time we change that. I already see so many music schools being more open to their students learning different genres of music and exploring the pieces that are on their wish lists (another reason the Efficient Musician Practice Planner has a Repertoire Wish List as opposed to just a Must List).
However, I am also seeing this rebellious idea being pushed too far. Similar to fast food babies (babies tragically brought up on fast food and refusing to eat healthy foods), music students brought up strictly on pop music have a more difficult time adjusting to the classical world, and as a result do not have as rich a perspective.
As I learned through teaching, a taste for classical music must be cultivated, so balance is key when it comes to allowing multi-genre repertoire in the lesson.
EXAMS ARE A MUST! (AND ANTI-EXAM)
All the music teachers reading this post have seen the worst of both worlds when it comes to students and their parents - those that absolutely want their children to take exams no matter what, and those that absolutely do not.
In my opinion, both are equally bad, and I just want to point out that these mindsets are not exclusive to parents - students are guilty of this as well.
Let me explain.
Music exams have the potential to be a great way to challenge students, give them a goal to work towards, and organize their practice (see the Practice Planner for more details on organization). When it comes to the Royal Conservatory of Music exam program - the Canada-wide exam system I grew up on - students are taught a balanced set of skills as they pertain to their instrument.
Exams requirements include theory, technique, sight reading, ear training and repertoire, and serve as a tool to structure music studies throughout the years.
The problem with focusing solely on exams, however, can be that the students will not exercise their creativity and artistic individuality. As a result, they can start to feel forced into taking exams, leading to a lack of motivation, confidence and love for music.
Luckly, this can easily be avoided, as long as there is a balance between the student’s Repertoire Wish List and Must List! As a teacher, make sure to listen to your student and take their wants into account, even when it comes to simple things like picking out a piece from the Exam Repertoire book. Little things like that go a long way!
On the other hand, students who choose not to take exams by principle are also missing out on some incredible learning experiences. As I mentioned before, exams offer the students a unique opportunity to become well-rounded, disciplined musicians, as well as gain a certification that is widely recognized as the gold standard.
In a perfect world, students would be open to the idea of exams instead of dismissing them altogether, and figure out what they would like to do along the way with their teacher. But that’s just me 😊
STOP PLAYING POPULAR CLASSICAL PIECES
The last point I want to touch on is the fact that learning popular classical pieces is considered an annoyance to the audience and to your teacher.
Have you experienced this?
I used to keep a list of all the pieces I was dying to play, but knew I had to wait until after music school to start learning, because of their popularity.
It seems counterintuitive - wouldn’t you be better off knowing the classics - and it is.
The reasoning behind this is that classical audiences, competition judges, and faculty members have heard the same pieces so many times that they are no longer interested in them. Either that, or the piece is so popular that they have a preconceived notion of how it should sound, thereby lowering your chances of impressing them with your unique interpretation of it. In my opinion, the latter makes a little more sense, but not all that much.
Among others, my forbidden list included: Moonlight Sonata, Appassionata, Claire de Lune, Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, and Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G minor, to name a few. I knew that if I brought any of these into a lesson, they would be deemed gimmicky and inappropriate - unfit for a self-respecting classical musician. So many of them still remain untouched.
Now being a teacher, I cannot tell you how many students I have had ask me to learn “Für Elise” by Beethoven (talk about pieces that you have heard a million times!).
And guess what? I learn it with every single one of them.
Granted, I did try to tell them that “Für Elise” is an extremely popular song that will not necessarily impress a seasoned classical music lover (this was at the beginning of my teaching journey, in the spirit of my professors, of course), but my students didn’t seem to care in the slightest.
They wanted to learn to play “Für Elise,” “Turkish March” and “Heart and Soul,” and that’s all that mattered. It was new to them. The more I saw their joy and pride when they finally mastered these pieces, I understood that little moments like these are what makes classical music so timeless and powerful.
It’s not about being a snob, or only learning to play pieces that impress the jury on an international competition panel. It’s about personal growth and development, and the cultivation of a more diverse taste in music, through the study of playing an instrument.
To conclude this post, I urge all music teachers to reflect on the times that their students wanted to learn a piece and you didn’t think it was a good idea. What was your reasoning? Was the piece too hard (and did you tell them that)? Did you make an effort to simplify it for them?
As a music teacher, I take great pride in encouraging the creativity of students, and urge all music teachers to do the same. You never know how far it will take you.
Teaching is a privilege and an honour. Please do not take it lightly.