Student-Centered Music Instruction – Part 1, The Problem Statement

The current state of private music education.Music Teacher

Within traditional western music instruction there are many opportunities for improvement. In a traditional western system, the student meets with the teacher once a week. The student plays the music – usually music chosen by the teacher – she has been working on in her practice sessions outside of the lesson period. The student works out trouble spots with the teacher and receives interpretational advice from the teacher, sometimes at the expense of the student’s ideas. Worse still is the shame the teacher makes the student feel if, due to a lack of interest in the teacher’s musical selections, she doesn’t practice. The student might learn new techniques or build on old techniques. Then she is set free for a week to suffer through her practice alone.

This is the system that most traditional western music teachers employ. Though many instructors have the best intentions, it only works well for very few students. It is a predominantly teacher-centered learning system.

Why teacher-centered music education fails.

Teacher-centered learning is any system in which the teacher’s will is the most important. The teacher selects the content, and engages in direct teaching in which the teacher speaks and the student listens. The teacher’s voice is heard more than all of the students’ voices combined. The setup of the learning space is determined by the teacher as is the use of class time. Even in the more “progressive” systems, like Suzuki, we see the same ideas take hold despite the pure progressive ideas at the foundation of the system. Even when fun and games are employed it is at the discretion of the teacher and is nothing more than a cheap trick to push the student to compliance. Perhaps, because the teacher-centered system is the one most of us have experienced, despite the fact that for more than a century people like John Dewey have spoken about the importance of progressive education (1938, 1897), it takes a powerful and conscious act of will to step beyond it.

Within a teacher-centered system, the teacher chooses content, either by selecting an existing method, selecting his favorite pieces, or a combination of the two. Though the selected music contains every element of technique the student should learn to be competent and the teacher usually walks the student through the piece in the lesson, this is a bad practice for two main reasons. First, the student is usually unfamiliar with the music and does not hold the proper schemata (Driscoll, 2005) to remember or fully process it. This makes practicing more challenging when the student returns home and has to practice alone. Second, there is usually a lack of interest in practicing because the student is not invested in the music (Deci and Ryan, 1985). This, combined with the lack of schemata creates a situation in which the student is often left with no concept of the music at all.

As well as the teacher-selected repertoire the student is also forced to practice exercises without context, which on the surface might appear to be a good idea. In theory, once a pattern is internalized, it can be applied anywhere. This practice, however flies in the face of situated cognition (Brown, Collins, Duguid). Not only does the lack of context effect the student’s ability to learn, but scales, arpeggios, and other finger exercises played in this way often become boring and seem like work to the student. The exercises themselves were originally parts of music that the expert deemed challenging which were isolated for focused practice. However, like the sentences in Bransford’s paragraph about washing clothes (1979) in which the context was completely removed, though they are easily understood, they loose their greater meaning and value when removed from context.

When the student returns to the teacher after a lifeless week of practice, the teacher then unleashes the worst tool of all – shame. Instead of looking at the positives and seeking to build from there the typical teacher whether conscious or not will use shame as punishment for not practicing, making the student feel bad about herself in the hope that she will practice next week to avoid the same treatment. And on those weeks she does practice, she receives positive reinforcement (Behaviorism), which rarely is enough in comparison to the practice regimen that has been prescribed. Though this cycle repeats, it does not have the desired effect very often. Rather, it creates in the student a dread of playing her instrument at all. And in the cases of students who have a real love of music, they will switch instruments until they find a teacher who is actually different, and cares about his student’s education. In the worst cases, the student gives up on music altogether with feelings of defeat and lowered self-worth.

This lack of learning leaves students with absolutely no sense of progression, no sense of accomplishment. Not aware that there is another course of action, the teacher blindly continues to follow the plan, sometimes making his students play the same piece for months at a time (and for an entire year in one case study I have encountered), despite the complete lack of enthusiasm on the part of the student, the time wasted, and the frustration of all parties.

The teacher easily looses sight of the child’s potential as the student’s Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky, 1978) is never fully understood or addressed in the learning context. Instead, the teacher only sees what has not been accomplished in the last piece and neglects the parts the student could easily accomplish, perhaps under different circumstances, but apparently cannot under the present circumstance.

Most students learn and practice alone, without social context (Vygotsky, 1978) or a community of practice (Wenger, 1998) to lean on for support. This isolation leaves the student to judge her accomplishments only in comparison to the teacher, which can be unfair. It also becomes a stale learning environment, lacking in any kind of diversity. Such an environment can also foster the absence of joy, connectedness, and sometimes even purpose.

Finally, if a student reaches a higher level, her playing is ready for the teacher’s interpretational advice. The teacher listens to the performance and offers concrete suggestions to “fix” her interpretation of the music. Students interpretations are mostly dismissed by the teacher for “right” answers. This can further crush the student’s confidence and hinder her ability to make choices for herself.

I know that not all teachers share this process, but having studied with dozens of teachers, I feel it’s more prevalent than it should be, and in view of the destructive nature of the process in which students are systematically made to resent music, I think there is serious need for a reassessment and restructuring of the traditional system of western music instruction.

Part 2, Student-Centered Music Education.

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One response to “Student-Centered Music Instruction – Part 1, The Problem Statement

  1. Pingback: Why I Teach Guitar | Thinking in Music

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