Advice for new teachers

Many of my students at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater are training to become music educators. Music education is an incredibly rewarding profession, but also stressful and demanding. I offer the following advice to my students, and to all new music teachers.

Keep it simple, and let it flow

Short and concise explanations are best! Present them in a well-sequenced flow of concepts.

Long explanations with multiple digressions (or interruptions) generally create confusion, glazed expressions, apathy, and drool. Always try to find a simple way to say it. Then find 5 additional ways to say the same thing, simply!

Diagrams and visual aids

A picture really is worth a thousand words. The internet is a treasure-trove of diagrams, fingering charts, and videos. Choose carefully, but there is good stuff out there!

Demonstrate

A picture is worth a thousand words, but a demonstration may be worth 500,000.

Don’t just talk to them—show them! Of course, this requires mastery of the skills and techniques that you are demonstrating… Practice.

Use analogies that your students can grasp

Relate abstract concepts and techniques to everyday life. Clarinet embouchure formation can be really simple if you simply tell someone to “whistle” or “pretend you are sucking a thick milkshake through a straw”. Find everyday activities that echo and reinforce hand position, posture, breathing, or any of the other technical or mechanical components of playing an instrument. Analogies are powerful tools: the results are positive and fairly immediate because students are able to quickly apply previous knowledge to a different context. Finding useful analogies requires creativity and exploration; some are better than others, and you will discover what works best for you.

Temper criticism with praise

“A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” It is important to affirm students. Even if the tempo was wrong, half the notes were missing, and the staccato passage resembled the firing of machine guns during the Normandy Invasion, try to find one thing to praise. Maybe the hand position looked good. Maybe they remembered to make the crescendo in measure 5. Do not lie, and do not over-praise: your students are smart, and they will know! Keep your standards and expectations, and teach your students how to practice.

Affirm them when they are successful. Offer encouragement when they fail.

Make standards and goals challenging, but appropriate

This one is tough, and you will find a wide variety of approaches. I believe that students should be given tasks that are challenging, but these tasks must also be within the students’ potential and achievable within a designated period of time. Notice that I did not say, “within the students’ abilities”—this is an important distinction! If we only gave students tasks that fell within their abilities, then our students would not grow. I feel that challenges and goals must be set with the expectation that the students’ skills and abilities will improve as they move toward the successful completion of a task. Students usually work harder when they are aware of their progress; success creates a desire for additional success.

Sometimes students fail because the task set for them is inappropriate. I have observed performances where students struggle through literature that is, at that particular point in their development, technically out of their reach. When this happens, it is the fault of the teacher. The students suffer, their parents suffer, and the program suffers.

Show your love

Show your love for music to your students; keep performing, practicing, and going to concerts. Show your love for lifelong learning by expanding your skills and indulging your curiosity. Show your love for your students by giving them your very best instruction, teaching a few extra lessons, providing a connection to a private teacher, making it possible for them to participate in a festival or a camp, or writing a college recommendation letter.

This is an incredibly difficult profession, but the rewards can be tremendous. Teaching has brought me so much meaning, inspiration, enjoyment, and satisfaction—I hope it brings the same for you.


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© 2018 by Christian Ellenwood.