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Are You Still Recovering From Childhood Music Lessons?

Dave Isaacs
Jun 5, 2008
I often meet songwriters and players who tell me they took music lessons as a kid and hated it. That little old lady down the street who gave piano lessons, or the guy with all that hair from the local band who taught guitar at the neighborhood music store, may have done more harm than good. I've heard stories of people who were told they "had no musical aptitude" or "just didn't have the talent" as if to play music you needed to be touched from above. Or the teacher had an ironclad method that they insisted upon, whether it involved mastering "Fur Elise" or "Smoke On The Water" before you could move on to something more in line with what you wanted to learn.

First of all, let me be clear: methods are useful tools, and I'm not suggesting that some people aren't given great gifts or that learning an instrument doesn't require a set of concrete skills. But in my twenty years of teaching music, I've come to believe that the gift is in how quickly you understand, absorb, and learn to master those skills, and the method needs to reflect and be based upon the learning style and goals of the student. In other words, my job as a teacher is not just to show you how to do things but to figure out how you learn and deliver the information accordingly. And if that little old lady or the shaggy guy from the music store didn't see it that way, you would be unlikely to learn much from them, and you probably don't have the most positive memory of "music lessons".

But music is probably pretty important to you if you're reading this right now. And because lessons are not the only way we learn to make music, you may have been writing, singing, or playing (or all three) for years now and are good enough at it to be seriously pursuing a career as a performing artist and/or songwriter. But because there's always something new to learn, you may have come to feel that some sort of lessons might be a good idea, IF you could find a teacher that wasn't going to make you repeat that childhood experience.

All my best teachers were the ones who could show me not just where to put my fingers but also how to think about and hear what I was doing. Their teaching transcended the nuts and bolts of playing the instrument..... and realistically if you practice regularly, as I was, that part takes care of itself. If you go to the gym every day and work out, you will get stronger, it can't NOT work. They were not just teachers but coaches, in the sense that they helped me identify and bring out my strengths while recognizing and addressing my weaknesses. So I'm suggesting that if you're looking to grow as an instrumentalist, writer, or artist, what you need is not "music lessons" but performance coaching.

We all have a process for developing and refining new material. If you're formally trained or just very organized it might be a very clear conscious series of steps, or it might just be a matter of exploring and changing things until they feel right. Then once we feel like we've got it where we want it, we start looking for feedback.....from other writers and performers, from friends and family, from teachers, and of course from pros in the industry we're all trying to break into. Some of it carries a whole lot of weight and some of it doesn't, depending on the source; then most of us file that information away in our heads and decide later on whether it rings true. I think that's the right approach, because a lot of the feedback we get is almost purely subjective....what we're being told is whether someone likes what we do or not. There might be concrete information we're being given, and it's up to us to decide how much value it has, but ultimately the feedback is the answer to a yes or no question: do you (the listener) like this song/performance/artist or not?

All of that's important.....if NO one likes what you're doing, you should probably go back to the drawing board, so to speak....and if the feedback is almost entirely positive that's obviously proof that you're on to something. But most of us live in the middle ground between those two extremes: we get positives AND negatives, which makes it a little more difficult to decide what's valuable and what isn't. And if we're in agreement that much of what we do get is primarily subjective opinion, it's hard to know whether we can really use it to hone and refine what we do.

I'm suggesting that a great teacher is able to help you sort that out by accomplishing three things.
  1. Identifying realistically and clearly who you are and want to be as a person and artist.
  2. Defining as specifically as possible where your strengths and weaknesses are.
  3. Devising ways to brings out your strengths and develop your weaknesses in a way that works for you and the way you learn.
I believe that all three of these points can be discussed in a way that focuses more on concrete things and less on subjective likes and dislikes. Speaking for myself, when a student brings in a song I don't offer any commentary on whether I like it or not, because I don't feel that's important to our interaction. What IS important is whether the song is communicating what its writer intended, and whether the performance is helping to put that message across.

So if you are looking to study with someone, think about this article and the three points I just outlined when you evaluate whether that teacher is right for you. And if you've found the right person you'll walk away from the experience a better writer, player, and performer, and hopefully with a better feeling about music lessons than you had as a child.
About the Author
Dave Isaacs is a freelance musician and teacher living and working in Nashville, TN, and travels regularly to teach workshops or to perform with his group Good Souls.
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