PUPILS – LEVELS OF ABILITY
Music teachers often generate credulity when they are fortunate enough to produce a talented and successful pupil. I believe that it often takes more teaching skill to coach less talented ones although making manifestly less spectacular progress but with at least as much effort (and often a great deal more) on the part of pupil and teacher.
THE LESS THAN AVERAGE PUPIL
For the less gifted and ones with learning difficulties it is important to correctly estimate their true potential as far as possible. The teacher needs special qualities of understanding and much patience. The pupil must be set achievable goals and given much commendation and encouragement for their efforts, even for relatively little progress.
I have found it useful to write down for them an outline of the lesson in their notebook, explaining clearly the work set for the week ahead – often just a few bars and a little theory. I try hard to target areas of strength to promote in them a feeling of self-worth, this obviously helps their confidence. Weaknesses can be worked on and overcome very gradually. I often use very simple primers because this can give a slow learner the feeling they are moving along at a reasonably normal rate.
I also sometimes monitor progress by keeping detailed notes of responses to various teaching techniques, always commending their relatively minor successes – this is crucial because under-average achievers can often be under-estimated as regards work-rate. I try also try to instil good practise and study habits, ensuring that this is clearly understood because much valuable time can be wasted by pupils practising, but not producing the best possible results. (See my article on Practicing)
Pupils considered on the dull side, who have a real desire to play can progress further than average ones who are indifferent. Desire can be the key to success, and of course a good teacher can help instil this through motivation, inspiration, and of course by practical demonstration and verbal encouragement.
THE AVERAGE PUPIL (if such a thing exists)
The average child usually has lots of other competing interests – sports, arts, dance, other musical instruments, computers etc. Some activities bring instant rewards for little effort. All this coupled with the usual school and peer pressures, exams, bullying, stress as a result of family problems etc. all these problems necessitate the modern music teacher to learn to develop good interaction with students in order to maintain interest and detect hidden obstacles that can impair progress.
The average pupil certainly needs motivation. I have found that once children have an exam or recital date in mind their practise schedule assumes a higher priority and progress often suddenly ensues as time presses nearer.
Unfortunately, many children today, seem to be becoming adversely affected by increased school exam pressures, especially teenagers who are also wrestling with all the usual problems of adolescence.
I have only only ever encountered a handful of prodigiously talented pupils so I feel unqualified to comment on how a teacher should handle this fortunate and privileged species. However, pupils with natural ability in certain areas such the ability to pick simple tunes out on the piano and/or possessing a natural sense of rhythm, still need encouragement in different ways.
They need to be aware that the novelty of their ability, unless developed, will become less impressive to their family and peers as time goes by. I recently reminded a lad who also had an interest in football that unless ‘Gazza’ (or if it had been today, maybe David Beckham) maintains self discipline and diligently practised the sporting equivalent of SCALES and ARPEGGIOS then all the talent and ability in the world wouldn’t be enough to get him to the world cup, or to perform with distinction. This kind of psychology (especially when born out in real life) can have the most powerful effect.
Unfortunately natural ability isn’t always coupled with a genuine desire to play well or even a deep love of music. If this can be cultivated then sometimes the need arises to attempt to convince one that regular practise and study can lead to a greatly enhanced lifetime of real fulfilment from music, or even a career in music.
The main problem seems to be the ease of progress enjoyed in the early stages in some, causes a later reluctance to work hard on technical studies which will bring real progress. Indeed many with natural musical talent often gravitate towards composition, arranging, production, computer music and areas such as these, whilst many who develop excellent performance skills will know that this talent can only be acquired as a result of much hard work.
Regardless of the level of ability of pupils, if a teacher can motivate enthusiasm and also extol the simple enjoyment of music then this alone in the long run can bring the best results.
SOME REAL LIFE EXAMPLES
I look for enthusiasm, not just ability. Good old fashioned plodders can occasionally eclipse a prima-donna who expects everything to arrive sugar-coated. I have personally observed many such cases.
The majority of my pupils have other family members also learning. This poses a variety of problems which have to be carefully dealt with.
A brother and sister started lessons together and although the lad was a little older, his sister progressed very quickly and achieved high honours passes in exams. Despite the neglect sometimes experienced by siblings whose headlights may be a little dimmer, this particular young man is still progressing well through the grades while his sister has long given up music and gone on to other pursuits.
One particular child is making lightning progress the like I have never seen before. Her younger sister who herself is above average became very upset at the amount of attention heaped upon her sister. These situations call for very delicate handling skills.
One very average girl struggled for years with rhythm and pitch problems but always worked hard and achieved good exam results. I never remotely could have predicted that she would go beyond Grade 8 and at 17yrs. had gained a professional teaching post with a global music corporation. Ten years later she has never looked back. Never give up on a ‘trier’ or a ‘plodder’, they nearly always get there in the end.
Yet another pair of sisters who started together had problems when the 6 year old grasped the mathematics of note and rest values far quicker than her 8 year old sister. I am currently wrestling with the problem of convincing the older girl how she is just as clever in practical ways, and of course there is the gentle and subtle art of commending them equally in front of Mum and Dad.
Unfortunately there is dangerous attitude currently developing amongst some boys believing academic or artistic achievement is ‘uncool’. Boys are often teased unmercifully by their peers and sadly sometimes give up as a result. I discovered with two lads in particular that by teaching them to play tunes by ‘Oasis’ and other ‘pop-stars’ they suddenly cease to be considered ‘cissies’ by their mates and even take on ‘hero’ status.
A music teacher recently contacted me and asked if I would be prepared to take on a pupil who she had decided to let go. This ten year old boy had been unsuccessful three times at Grade 1 (keyboard). On meeting the lad with his parents I was struck by his pleasant manner, intelligence and quiet determination. He played quite well but had serious timing difficulties.
I was currently entering candidates for the next session and he persuaded me to enter him for another try, even though we only had a couple of months to make the necessary improvements. During one of his lessons I casually ask if he had any other interests.. He enthusiastically replied “High-jumping – I’m the best in school”. Thereafter we drew a symbol of a high-jump above the pieces he found most difficult using metronome speeds instead of height measurements.
Starting at very slow speeds he had to play perfectly in order to ‘clear the bar’ and qualify for the next height. We would then rub out the line (drawn in pencil) and draw the next one. On reaching the recommended speed he would be awarded an ‘Olympic Gold-Star’. He made astonishing progress and to everybody’s delight achieved an honours pass for Grade 1. He is now enjoying jazz and syncopation and making great progress through the grades and fortunately, his timing problems are a thing of the past. (Mark) eventually achieved grade 8!.
Now that is why teaching is the one of the most worthwhile professions.