Playing in Lessons

A couple of months ago I read a great post on Travis Bennett’s blog titled “How Much Should a Teacher Play in Lessons?”  I’ve been meaning to write a response, and am just now getting around to it.  Travis begins by explaining the genesis of his post:

I’m a little behind on my Horn Call reading.  Recently, I was reading James Boldin‘s interview with Douglas Hill in the February 2011 issue (Vol. XLI, No. 2).  This quote caught my eye.  Discussing what it takes to be a successful, effective teacher, Hill says…

“Developing verbal skills is important, and maybe even developing vocal skills, or demonstration skills. I don’t demonstrate much on the horn, mostly because I’m not asking people to imitate. If you rarely play for students in lessons, the best sounds come from them. I’m not denouncing imitation – it’s useful for many things – but we can get that by listening to CDs.” (p. 50)

I was surprised that he said he doesn’t play much in lessons.  I try to play some in every lesson I teach.

Travis goes on to explain his own reasons for playing in lessons, which I completely agree with, by the way.  I also understand Doug’s line of reasoning, although I think he would agree that lessons can and should be modified depending on the needs of the student.  For example, it might not be necessary to play that much in lessons with a graduate student or advanced undergraduate preparing for a recital or audition, although if the teacher has a specific take on certain excerpts or solos  it might be worth demonstrating a bit.  As an aside, I do remember Doug playing in a few lessons, usually to demonstrate an extended technique or to show me how to play an exercise.  However, at the undergraduate level and younger, playing in lessons can be very beneficial.  With younger students I like playing through a few of the exercises from David Vining’s Long Tone Duets for Horns  at the beginning of the lessons, and I often demonstrate articulations, dynamics, etc. throughout a lesson.  It’s also a good idea I think to play through the student’s current warm-up/daily routine together during a lesson, although it doesn’t necessarily need to happen every week.

At the same time I think it’s important for teachers to be able to sit back and really listen to a student during a lesson, especially if there are any fundamental air/embouchure issues going on.  The obvious reason for not playing when you’re trying to help a student diagnose a problem is that you can focus 100% of your attention on them, rather than having to devote at least some of your concentration on your own playing.  I notice much more about a student’s tone, posture, and breathing when I’m sitting directly across than when I’m sitting beside playing. In addition, I think it helps instill a certain kind of confidence when a student can play something well without having heard the teacher play it first.

I think the bottom line is that whether you play or don’t play in lessons you should have logical reasons for your choices, and those choices should be primarily based on what helps the student succeed.  One last thing – be sure to check out the Comments section on Travis’s post; there are some excellent thoughts there as well.

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