You read that right. I, a full-time musician who has dedicated my life and heart to helping kids find musical fluency, do not force my students to practice. I do not set a practice minute-requirement, shame them for missing the same note they did in the previous week, or use 100-year old music curriculums to measure their progress.
And yet, my students play with confidence and passion and skill. Many have gone on to be professional musicians, attending Berklee College of Music, Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and even scoring record deals with major labels like Warner. And just as important, many find peace of mind and joy in lonely dorm rooms strumming their guitars between biology exams, jobs, and the daily overwhelm of our society’s grind culture. Musical fluency is equally as important in the lives of all my students, whether they choose to pursue music professionally or not, as they grow into the world.
Call me a hippy (a former employer at a teaching studio did -- and I quit!), but I do not believe embodying a skill as deep-rooted as music can come externally. We can tell ourselves it can, but this is not sustainable. (How many adults do you know who took piano as a kid for many years but forgot everything because they hated their lessons? This blows my mind. Here you have a young human who believes in the tooth fairy, and a giant rabbit who delivers eggs, and Santa Claus, and you can’t get them to see the real magic of musical expression in their fingertips? How are we getting this so wrong?!)
I believe the job of the music instructor is to help students find their internal, personal relationship to music. This is much harder than relying on competitions (which also impose a narrow Western classical culture), leaning too heavily on one method book, and a “more-is-better” approach to practicing, without clear goals that take into account the kid’s unique learning style.
So here is a list of what I do to try to keep that inner spark alive in children who’s lives and sense of self-worth often comes from our grind-obsessed culture:
Composition: giving kids composition projects inspires regular music check-ins in their busy lives. Make it fun, silly, playful and use it as an opportunity to teach music theory in real time. (Check out my freebie ukulele composition booklet here - though written for uke, it is easily translated to other instruments.) Find their unique strengths and use them as building blocks.
Context: Music in Society: Music comes from struggle and pain. So much of the world’s most-celebrated music comes from people, cultures and communities who used music to co-regulate their nervous systems to cope with oppression and trauma. (Suggested reading: My Grandmother’s Hands - Racialized Trauma and the Mending of Our Bodies and Hearts, by Resmaa Menakem) Understanding this context can help our kids know they are in the presence of something sacred, and to treat their time with music with respect for all who came before them and found healing in music.
Community: I host more recitals than the average teacher. This turns their music practice into a project -- they have the opportunity to create a mini-set around their individuality, and then be in the presence of other young musicians, witnessing each others’ growth and cheering each other on. My students are ALWAYS stronger, more actualized musicians after a recital. Recently, I hosted my first “Zoomfest” which brought together my students from all over the country!
Improvisation: This is so liberating for kids! I teach them the minor pentatonic scale, and then play a blues bassline beneath them, and let them go wild! They find their musical voice this way. Often, I’ll make them playlists of jazz and blues recordings where they can practice improvising along with the greats throughout the week. Not only does this strengthen their ear and musicianship, but it also helps them develop an appreciation for musical styles they may not otherwise be exposed to.
Games: games, games, games, games. If I could, I would start teaching each of my students at 5 years old and give them a strong musical foundation through play. I’ve designed tons of games that can be fun for the whole family, and will often record a video of myself and the kid playing it and send it to their family. Yes, this counts as a part of their Music Practice. Some favorites include:
Listen and drawing: Play a short song, and have the student draw an interpretation
Rhythm Hop: where I present flashcards with rhythms written out and kids have to hop the rhythms to a metronome beat
Film scoring: find an appropriate YouTube video, mute its sound and have the kids improvise a film score below it on their instrument. This is a great way to reinforce any theory you’ve exposed them to! (This restored Apollo 11 moon landing video is a good one!)
Letting them choose songs: Look, I can’t stand most of the songs my students love. But I am not here to get between them and music. I’ve learned and charted out many a song by Disney channel teeny-boppers. Whatever. The kids like it, and can learn from it.
Asking them self-monitored questions: When my students start advancing, and really hit a groove with their instrument, I’ll ask them to pause and feel in their fingers what it feels like to gain musical fluency. “Do you feel how much stronger you are at this now? What’s that like for you? Can you imagine how exciting it will feel as these muscles keep getting stronger and stronger?”
Self-guided goals: At the end of each lesson, I list out a menu of good things to check-in on throughout the week. At the very top of the page, my student gets to make a choice about “how they want to feel stronger as a musician” by this time next week.
What I want each of my students to take away from music lessons is that music is not a thing you scratch off a to-do-list. To learn music is to be a part of a sacred tradition that has interwoven its way through generations and cultures and has captured the most abstract parts the great human story. Music is a home they can take with them wherever they go. They can never be “done” learning music, and the reward of having a music practice in your life is larger than any measurable achievement.