Teaching Music

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Question: Hello Albert,

What in your opinion is the best way to teach music, I mean instrumental music: individually or as a group?

– Achilles (Gozo, Malta)

Albert’s reply: There’s no doubt that individual instruction is the best way to learn to play an instrument. Students are able to get immediate, one-on-one feedback from a teacher who hears their playing and can correct any mistakes or stop to work on problem areas.

Teachers in a one-on-one setting are also best able to assess a student’s musical skills, as well as apply ear training and music theory to the pieces the student is learning.

Individual instruction is the way professional musicians are trained. However, at the professional level we have so-called “master classes,” in which a teacher works with individual students in front of an audience that also includes many students. Though I love both attending and giving master classes, I find them very problematic, since long-term changes are a result of long-term study with an expert teacher. The really critical changes don’t happen overnight.

That said, there are situations in which group teaching is highly valuable. Top among them is music theory. Even here, though, I see a common problem in that music theory is treated entirely separately from actual piano lessons, outsourced to another department. Music theory is too often treated as something that has little to do with the music students play, although nothing could be further from the truth.

I do encourage music teachers to in turn encourage their students to sit in on other students’ lessons. The student being taught directly should be allowed to give permission so that he or she feels comfortable in the presence of peers. This is mutually beneficial: the direct student becomes comfortable playing for others, while other students get to learn additional musical concepts.

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