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By Ernie Mansfield
These guidelines will help you have a successful, rewarding experience learning an instrument. These are practical tips that have been discovered from years of teaching—both from my experiences, and those of other teachers.
For children, starting at the right age is a key element to the success of their lessons. Some people will tell you “the sooner the better” but this attitude can actually backfire. If a child is put into lessons too soon they may feel overwhelmed and frustrated and want to quit. The last thing you want to do is turn a child off music just because they had one unpleasant experience which could have been prevented. Sometimes if the child waits a year to start lessons their progress can be much faster. Children who are older than the suggested earliest starting age usually do very well. (For a set of guidelines to determine how young a child can start taking music lessons, please email me and I will send you more information.)
On the other hand, adults can start any instrument at any time. Their success is based on how willing they are to commit to practicing. The big problem for adults is that they can assimilate intellectual information much faster than “actuating” this information into their fingers and bodies. Another hurdle is that adults may already have an “ideal” of what they would like to sound like; it can be crushing to realize that you will not sound like Stan Getz on saxophone after five lessons—or even after five years!
So what is the solution for this? The solution is to set realistic goals for yourself, and to realize that there are values in musical study that go beyond simply being “the best” or impressing your friends!
Group classes work well for ensemble programs and theory lessons. However, when actually learning how to play an instrument, private lessons are far superior. In private lessons it is hard to miss anything, and each student can learn at their own pace. This means the teacher does not have to teach a class at a middle-of-the-road level, but has the time and focus to work on the individual students’ strengths and weaknesses. For that lesson period, the student is the primary focus of the teacher. The teaches also enjoys this as they do not have to divide their attention between many students and can help the student be “the best they can be.”
Learning music is not just a matter of having a qualified teacher, but also having an environment that is focused on music education. In a professional environment a student cannot be distracted by TV, pets, ringing phones, siblings or anything else. With only 1/2 to one hour of lesson time per week, a professional environment can produce better results since the only focus at that time is learning music.
As with anything, improving in music takes practice. One of the main problems with music lessons is the drudgery of practicing and the fight between parents and students to practice every day. Or, in the case of adults, finding time in one’s busy schedule—and not offending one’s mates and neighbors. Here are some ways to make practicing easier:
a) Time—Set the same time every day to practice so it becomes part of a routine of habit. This works particularly well for children. Generally the earlier in the day the practicing can occur, the less reminding is required by parents to get the child to practice. Also, it is better to practice only 15 minutes per day, than to practice sporadically throughout the week. Consistency is the key. In fact, even 5 minutes is better than no time at all!
b) Repetition—This method works quite often when setting practice schedules for beginners. For a young child, 20 or 30 minutes seems like an eternity! Instead of setting a time frame, use repetition. For example, “practice this piece 4 times a day, and this scale 5 times a day.” The child then does not pay attention to the amount of time they are practicing their instrument, but knows if they are on repetition number 3 they are almost finished!
c) Rewards—This works very well for both children and adult students. Some adults reward themselves with a cappuccino after a successful week of practicing. Parents can encourage children to practice by granting them occasional rewards for successful practicing. Praise tends to be the most coveted award–there just is no substitute for a pat on the back for a job well done. Sometimes we all have a week with little practicing, in that case there is always next week!
There are excellent materials developed by professional music educators that are made for students in a variety of situations. For example, in piano, there are books for very young beginners, and books for adult students that have never played before. There are books that can start you at a level you are comfortable with. These materials have been researched and are continually upgraded and improved to make learning easier. These materials ensure that no important part of learning the instrument can inadvertently be left out. If you ever have to move to a different part of the country, qualified teachers and institutions will recognize the materials and be able to smoothly continue from where the previous teacher left off.
A Word about Classical, Jazz, Folk, and Popular Music
A lot has been said about the differences between classical, jazz, and other styles of music. But the bottom line is that a good musical foundation of scales, long tones, and rudimentary exercises will train a student for a lifetime of playing and appreciating any style of music. Focusing on the basic elements of music will help with learning any and every style of music. In addition, a student can select from a wide range of music books to include his/her particular interests; whether classical, folk, or anything else.
Music should be something that you enjoy for a lifetime. So, try not to put unrealistic expectations on yourself or your children to learn too quickly. Everyone learns at a different pace and the key is to be able to enjoy the journey!!
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