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Teaching music by zoom - a few thoughts

After a week consisting of primarily online music lessons, I offer you a few thoughts on teaching music remotely.

“Perhaps”, I said to myself “this one is best framed as questions rather than concrete statements" (a nervousness about putting thoughts on teaching down in public? I know it’s a topic which can provoke a lot of discussion and opinion).

Teaching will always play a large part of my professional life as a musician. I love teaching, whether 7 year old junior choristers to undergraduates or adult learners. But what are we actually doing as music teacher and practitioners?

At a recent (and wonderful) conference on music in the curriculum, I was taken aback by one particular comment in a breakout room. The aim of the discussion was to try ‘diagnose’ some of the problems in music teaching, and the comment made actually blamed gaps and difficulties music education on the fact that there are many professional musicians (who mainly perform for a living) working as teachers without a real passion for teaching, and without an understanding of the place of their instrumental teaching in a wider context. Sadly, this is very likely the case in some music teachers, and the point was discussed well on that occasion.

So what are we actually doing as music teachers? What are we trying to teach? How to play pieces? Pieces we choose? Pieces from exam lists? Technique? (a classic ‘catch all’ phrase which I don’t care for which is often thrown around in teaching circles). Is it taking people through exams? Is it about pleasing parents? Or setting up students for music scholarship places?

As a teacher of organ and young choristers, the new coronavirus restrictions have forced me to rethink my entire practice. I now find myself having to teach musical skills to children who belong to a choir which no longer meets in person, and teenagers who won’t play an organ for months. How can we make the most of this time, and turn a crisis into an opportunity?

Everyone has their own way of dealing with the online teaching. Mine has been to turn attention to working on more core musical skills (oh how difficult these phrases are!). In the case of organ students – that’s that the so-called “keyboard skills” (another terrible term because of the fear it incites in young students whose level of preparation for them is often so low compared to their prepared pieces).

Anyhow, in the summer, I created a large number of resources which allowed young students (from age 10) to start to engage with music in a new way. I broke down hymns, psalm chants, bass lines, cadences, pieces of choral music into small pieces and tried to connect this music on the keyboard (yes, blowing away the cobwebs on out of tune pianos and the occasional clavinova on synthesised organ sound in some cases) with other types of music. We examine musical processes (cadences, imitation, intervals, bass patterns, shapes), we transpose (play in different keys), we improvise and add melodic decoration to harmony and experiment with different ways of playing chords. We treat the keyboard as our place of musical encounter and it’s there where we can experience lots of pieces of music, and experiment with it. It’s about working with the material, not just playing it. We are experimenting with and playing with the material across all of the traditional “keyboard skills” at the same time – not practising them one by one.

My own real passion as a performer is in continuo playing on the harpsichord or organ where I improvise the accompaniment from figured bass. Of course I teach this and I think some of my very young students are some of the youngest people working on this – but I don’t want to create clones of my own playing, and I don’t want my students to be only passionate about 17th and 18th century music!

What this experience has revealed even more what is surely the most important thing – that we teach each student as an individual. Even with similar material to hand, I find lessons going in very different directions, according to the interests and abilities of each. I want to set up the students with the ability to use these skills in whatever way they wish in the longer term.

I realise that I am incredibly lucky to teach in a church and in schools where I am part of a team of musicians with whom I can share ideas, and go to when feeling up against a virtual brick wall. Sharing practice is surely the most important thing? Battling against the loneliness of teaching online whilst being away from colleagues, and in being able to share musical sound with a real person in the same room is a big challenge.

For those of us who do it, teaching music comes with a huge amount of responsibility and is a privilege. Like our students on their playing, we should reflect on our teaching to make sure we are relevant and passionate. Online that really is difficult. We need to teach an enthusiasm for music, and positivity. We need to celebrate the positive things and strive for small (tiny!) musical moments of satisfaction in lessons, not on the mistakes or things that we can’t achieve. It needs to be more than keeping things going on the back burner until we get back into teaching in person, but still engaging with the music, and the miracle that it is, as though fresh. In this online world, can we keep encouraging our students to realise that every musician is on a journey, and that each lesson or encounter with music is just a step on a bigger journey?

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