Thanks to a Facebook link from Andrew Swinney, I was made aware of an intriguing study on effective music instruction, conducted by Robert A. Duke and Amy L. Simmons of the Center for Music Learning at the University of Texas at Austin. The materials presented on the website are essentially an online version of their 2006 article, published in the Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education. You can download the entire article in PDF format here, but I much prefer the online, multimedia presentation of their findings. For a brief summary of the study, see the abstract quoted below.
We examined approximately 25 hours of video recordings of private lessons taught by three internationally recognized artist-teachers: the oboist Richard Killmer, the violist Donald McInnes, and the pianist Nelita True. By creating detailed narrative descriptions of the lessons observed, we sought to determine whether there were elements of instruction that appeared in the teaching of all three pedagogues. We identified 19 such elements, which we organized in three broad categories: Goals and Expectations, Effecting Change, and Conveying Information. All of the 19 elements, which we describe in detail, were prominent features in the lessons taught by all three teachers.
Although the entire study is worth reading, the key elements are presented on the “Results and Video Recordings” page. Each of the 19 elements is described in detail, often with video documentation from actual lessons. Although they might not describe these principles in exactly the same way, I think most effective teachers do eventually end up adhering to them in one form or another. There’s no need for me to list all 19 elements here, but I thought I’d point out a few that seemed particularly important to me, especially ones which many of my former teachers exhibited.
“The teachers demand a consistent standard of sound quality from their students.” As horn players, we are constantly in pursuit of our ideal tone, and it is usually the role of the teacher to provide an initial example of good tone, as well as let students know when that ideal is or is not met. I was very fortunate in having teachers who always pushed me to go for the best sound I could possibly get, and to never settle for anything less.
“Pieces are performed from beginning to end; in this sense, the lessons are like performances, with instantaneous transitions into performance character; nearly all playing is judged by a high standard, “as if we are performing.” I know there are many teachers who like to stop students at the very beginning of a piece, sometimes after the first note, but I think that this can be highly frustrating for both parties. Although it is important to stop students when they make errors, there is also a time in lessons (leading up to recitals ,auditions, etc.) when students should be allowed to play works in their entirety.
“Teachers make very fine discriminations about student performances; these are consistently articulated to the student, so that the student learns to make the same discriminations independently.” I think this is one of the hallmarks of master teachers – the ability to hear even the smallest of details and offer suggestions for improvement. When I think back on everything I learned in lessons, the most important skill I developed (and which is still developing) was listening – learning to hear the same things in the practice room my teacher was hearing in the lesson studio. To paraphrase a very influential former teacher, I think one of the highest goals teachers can have is to make themselves obsolete – meaning that students leave their teachers being able to diagnose and correct most problems on their own.
I’ve just scratched the surface of the information that’s presented in this study, and I plan to spend some more time with it in the future.