Maestro’s Musings Encore Blog: “What Would Jaime Do?”

It would have been a great wager.  One could have made a killing, say, back in 1981, by betting that the following year, 14 students from east L.A.’s troubled Garfield High would pass the AP Calculus test.  Yet, as anybody who saw the film “Stand and Deliver” can tell you, that’s exactly what happened.
Yesterday, the mastermind behind that achievement, Jaime Escalante, died at the age of 79.  Although I know nothing about the man outside of his story as told in “Stand and Deliver”, he has been an inspiration to me.  I have often, during my career in music education, asked myself, “What would Jaime do?”
Now, I acknowledge that teaching music to middle and upper class kids in their own homes is not the same as walking into an inner city high school to teach math.  Yet, the key to Escalante’s success–his high expectations of students–is something that any teacher of any subject can learn from and be inspired by.
Escalante’s battle was fought on several fronts.  He dealt with an administration that had more or less given up on the student body.  He sold the idea of college to families who only knew work.  He defended his students against a suspicious bureaucracy in the Educational Testing Service.  And one of my favorite aspects of Escalante–at least as portrayed by Edward James Olmos in “Stand And Deliver”–is that he is human.  He is not a saint.  Toward the end of the film, he muses to his wife, “I could be making more money [as a computer programmer].  I could be respected.”  The night before the AP test, Olmos’s Escalante is cooking a meal for the students at their study session.  One of them says, “You’re afraid we’re going to screw up royally tomorrow, aren’t you?”  He replies, “Tomorrow is just another day.  I’m afraid you’re going to screw up the rest of your lives.”
As a music teacher, I wish I could say that I’ve always been able to empathize with my students.  There have been times when I’ve wanted to throw up my arms and say, “Mother of mercy, why don’t you just GET it yet?”  But Escalante didn’t give up against long odds, and knowing that he didn’t helps me–and many other teachers–find solutions.
So, music teachers: honor the memory of Jaime Escalante.  I know that times are still tough for us, economically and otherwise.  Many of you reading this have probably had loyal, dedicated students have to quit for financial reasons; some of you may have experienced judgment by the families that employ you or indifference from the students themselves.  There are times when our career can be trying, and no one says you have to be perfect.  But in the face of these trials, we should all take a moment to ask ourselves this question.  What would Jaime do?
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Published in: on April 1, 2010 at 6:23 am  Leave a Comment  
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Update from Maestro’s Musings

Greetings everyone.  Hope you all are well.

I want to update you about some new video blogs I’ve posted on Youtube.  One of the new things I’ve done with my blog is to create some video adaptations.   I have converted a few of the original ones, and have some new ones that are not available in text. 

You can watch the latest one here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEH8VKwlqYo

And I am planning a re-launch of the Maestro’s Musings blog for after the new year, so feel free to give me suggestions about what you would like to see, or hit me up if you want to contribute.

Happy holidays and thanks for reading (and watching!)

Published in: on December 11, 2009 at 6:58 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Maestro’s Musings 45

Greetings readers.

I am sorry to announce that I have decided to discontinue writing the Maestro’s Musings blog.  I have had a fun time doing it and I appreciate everyone who read it and gave me feedback.  I hope all of you found it helpful and entertaining. I simply feel like I am heading in a different direction right now and the Musings perhaps would be better served with me taking what I’ve already written and trying to find a wider audience than with continuing to concoct blogs every week.

Does that mean that Maestro’s Musings is done?  Absolutely not.  I am still happy to accept guest blog spots and do interviews. If anyone would like to write a guest blog, please let me know; same if anyone would like to be interviewed by phone or email.  Even if there is a blog topic I didn’t cover that you would like to see, give me a shout and I just might do a Brett Favre and come out retirement.

Thanks again for everyone’s support.  Before I go let me leave you with a few more jokes:

#1) There’s a couple that gets to the point where they can’t even talk to each other without fighting, so they remain silent the whole time.  The husband goes to a marriage counselor and tells him the problem.  The marriage counselor calls the wife and has her meet the husband at a jazz club.  The two of them sit at their table and listen.  The sax player solos first, then the piano player.  Then the bassist starts to solo…and the husband and wife look at each other and start talking.

#2) Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Philip Glass.

#3) Q. What did the Indian band leader say to the American drummer who sat in on a gig while touring in Calcutta?

A. “You sound good but I need more of a backbeat on 6 and 23.”

#4) Q. What was written on the blues musician’s tomb stone?

A. “Well, I didn’t wake up this mornin’….”

Published in: on August 19, 2009 at 5:17 pm  Comments (2)  

Maestro’s Musings 44: Vacation Music School (“Drums Stop, Very Bad!”)

I begin this blog with the understanding that not every student–adult or youngster–wants to take a “working vacation”. If your student is visiting Yosemite National Park or British Columbia or Alaska, the last thing you should want is for them to be thinking about the Mixolydian scale. However, with many students traveling during the summer, or even taking “Stay-cations”, it can’t hurt to consider ways of helping them stay productive.

For some students, especially if they are visiting friends and family who also play, a vacation can be an opportunity to do a little jamming. One of my students couldn’t help but grin when he recalled how he played his brother-in-law’s collection of vitually untouched guitars during a visit. Another student’s parents bragged about how he got to play the piano on a cruise ship. I’ve been given music-related souvenirs from traveling students such as a pick from the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and a dinner bell from Graceland, which I have dubbed the “Elvis Bell” (which I ring when a student makes too many mistakes at a recital).

But between the vacation purists and the students who may actively seek out musical opportunities on their trips is another group: Those who may not be aware of all of the things they can do to keep themselves in the loop musically during their time off.

Obviously, bringing an instrument, if possible, is best. This suggestion will probably be better received by voice and flute students than piano students, but it’s worth throwing out there. Guitar students should know about the Martin Backpacker, a portable and functional acoustic guitar that is much more compact than a standard model, and others that are similar. (Remember, if you teach guitar, bass or any other stringed instrument, make sure your students LOOSEN THEIR STRINGS before taking them on the plane!) The parents of one of my young piano students bought a small, portable keyboard to take with them.

Even if bringing the instrument is not an option, students can still work on activities such as note and interval identification, chord spelling and more; if you have students who are studying theory at any advanced level, tell them to use the airplane time productively. No, most students don’t live and die for the C# melodic minor scale, but when the other option is to watch an edited version of “Saw VI”, suddenly those A-sharps and B-sharps just might seem more exciting. If you teach students who are involved with songwriting or composition (see blog #43), remind them that if they are inspired by what they see on the road they can always put pen to paper.

Time off can also give students opportunities to catch up on some listening, be it to old favorites that might have been forgotten in the hustle and bustle of life, or to new stuff. And listening to new stuff doesn’t only have to happen on the iPod; there may be good live music at their vacation spot, be it at a jazz club or the local concert hall. Your students might even consider taking a page out of John 5’s playbook. The Marilyn Manson/Rob Zombie guitarist was once quoted that whenever he traveled with his bands, he liked to drop into local stores to take a lesson. I experienced the reverse of this when I took on two cousins of my students who were visiting for a month from out of town. Make yourself available not just to students who want to be regulars but to out-of-towners who might want to sharpen their skills while on the road.

Encouragement of productivity from vacationing students might sometimes fall on deaf ears, but the more involved with music they are, the better off they–and you–will be. A month without practice does not a fun lesson or happy student make. No, your students don’t need to blaze through the entire Charlie Parker “Omnibook” on their cruise to Cabo, but you have nothing to lose by giving them some ideas about how to keep their musical momentum on the road.

The question of the week is: How have you encouraged your students to be productive on vacation, and what ideas have they come up with themselves?

And the joke of the week: A guy is vacationing in Africa, where he takes a cruise down a river through the jungle. He enjoys the scenery but is annoyed by a persistant drumming that he hears from the trees. He asks the guide, “What’s with that drumming?” The guide simply shakes his head and says, “When drums stop, is very bad.”

The tourist sits back down and tries to ignore the drums, but they get louder and louder. He says to the guide again, “How long are they going to keep doing this?” All the guide says is, “When drums stop, very bad.” The tourist is starting to get annoyed but sits back down and tries to block out the sound. But finally he can’t take it anymore and says, “What happens that’s so bad when the drums stop?”

The guide pauses.

“Bass solo.”

Published in: on August 9, 2009 at 10:10 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Maestro’s Musings 43: Writes of Passage

In the long, hot days of August, it’s common for students to get tired of doing the same stuff over and over again (as it is for teachers to keep teaching the same stuff over and over again). If you’re looking for a way to put a new spin on your lessons, consider giving them some kind of music writing assignment.

For younger students, writing a song can be a fun way for them to better learn their instrument and to develop their ear training and music notation skills. When one of my students finishes a piece I sometimes print it out for them in music notation software. For young kids who have never seen music printed out from a computer, it can be exciting. (My software of choice, the discontinued and probably currently unavailable Digital Sheet Music Plus, isn’t exactly on the leading edge of the industry, but it gets the job done).  Students can find printable staff paper at http://www.blanksheetmusic.net, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like.

For intermediate students, who perhaps have already tried writing songs, I encourage them to write music to help them with their technical challenges. For example, if a piano student has a tough time with key signatures, have them write a song with a lot of sharps or flats, or perhaps one that modulates. If a guitar student is having a problem with a specific chord, have them write a song that features it.

You can give advanced students an assignment where the composition itself has certain rules that challenge them to be creative. Have a student write a song in an odd time feel; with a groove or in a style they’re not used to; or with a chord progression that might be outside of their comfort zone. Of course, you can also challenge your students to downsize. Sometimes writing less is harder. A teacher of mine at Berklee College of Music said that one of the toughest things he ever had to do was write a piece that was four minutes, and no longer, for a concert program. “Not Long Ago”, which seems to be one of my more popular instrumentals, was an assignment I gave myself. Perhaps it was an unconscious rebellion against the jazz and film scoring education I had just completed, but my challenge to myself was to write the simplest song I could, using only the three most common and basic chords.

I often ask my students if they’ve ever heard a song on the radio and thought, “I could write something better.” The answer is almost always yes. “Well, then write it!” I will say. “Record it, submit it, get it played, make money. I’ll consider a 5% commission more than enough.” You never know, the next Bruce Springsteen or Sheryl Crow might be your student at 4pm on Tuesdays.

The question of the week is: How have you encouraged students to write music, and how have they responded?

And the joke of the week:

A piano player and female vocalist are playing at a jazz club. The singer says, “Let’s do ‘My Funny Valentine.’ How do you want to play it?”

The piano player says, “Let’s start off in C minor, play the next eight in D minor in 3/4 time, play the bridge in F in 5/4 time and the last section in G minor in 6/8 time.”

The singer gives him a look and says, “Are you crazy? How am I going to keep track of that?”

 The piano player replies, “That’s how you played it last night.”

Maestro’s Musings 42: “Erin Go Bass” Not Included: Successful Music Instructional Videos

This week, I’m continuing the cinematic theme, but this time we’ll be checking out instructional videos.

It’s no secret that http://www.youtube.com is huge.  It’s also common knowledge that many musicians have advanced their careers, teaching and otherwise, by posting instructional videos on the site.   In this blog, I have selected a few successful videos that may give you some ideas on how to create your own.

Iron Man

If you are a guitar teacher, and many of you reading this are, chances are you have taught, or someday will teach Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.”  This video had over 860,000 views and 12at press time.  Although there a few production tricks involved, such as animation at the beginning and some split-screen shots, by and large it is fairly simple.  Note how instructor Dave has created not only a video but a recognizable brand in jamplay.com.   He also delivers a very thorough explanation of the beginning of the song, including technical and theoretic aspects,  but requires that viewers visit his site to learn the rest.

Jazz Piano Improvisation

If you’re not playing “Iron Man”, can you still create a video that gets almost 70,000 views?  If your name is Shawn Cheek, you already have.  Shawn’s piano video doesn’t have particularly great production values, but he does a good job breaking down the basics of jazz piano improvisation and accompaniment.  He introduces a few elements of theory, but only to the extent that they enhance the lesson material.   The posterboard in back of the piano listing the note names and chord spellings is a little cumbersome, but it does make an effective prop.  Also notice how, like jamplay.com, Shawn uses his videos as “teasers” to invite viewers to his site.

Assembling A Saxophone

If you think that your instructional video needs to deal with esoterica such as tritone substitution and upper structure triads, think again.  This video, from expertvillage.com, had over 23,000 views and 43 comments at press time.  Typically speaking, there are many more beginners out there than advanced players, and many beginners might not be aware of stuff that veterans take for granted.  (I recently asked a guitar student who was president the last time he changed his strings; he thought for a few seconds and said, “Probably Clinton.”)  By the way, if you enjoyed this video, be sure to check out instructor Leslie’s video about how to disassemble a saxophone–which has about 19,000 views.

Djembe

Not all instructional videos have to do with guitar, piano or saxophone.  Here instructor Jim Donovan introduces viewers (over 130,000 of them) to the finer points of the djembe drum.   Donovan’s unusual camera angle allows him to explain in depth how different parts of the hand can bring out the drum’s various sounds.

Violin Bowing

Here’s another video about a subject that might not be the most exciting–but it’s something that people need to know.  Instructor Todd Hale uses various props and analogies to convey the different kinds of violin bowing.  (In the second part of his series on bowing, Hale uses an actual bow).  A good instructional video–like a good instructor–should be easy to follow and accessible to different perspectives.

Guitar Barre Chords

Every instrument presents hurdles that instructors must help their students clear.  Many beginning guitar students have difficulties with barre chords.  Here, instructor Peter Vogl breaks them down, showing close-ups of the hand technique.   Notice too how Vogl’s video requires viewers to go to an external site to print out supplemental materials.

Double-Kick Drums

Just as every instrument has its  challenges, every instrument also has special tricks that many students love to learn (such as two-handed tapping and feedback for guitars and slapping for bass).  For drums, double-kick playing is a very popular technique.   In this video, Jim Holland breaks down some double-kick techniques, showing how they fit with the rest of the drums into the groove of a song.

So those are a few videos that might get you some ideas.  For most of them, the production may not be great, but that’s just the point.  You don’t have to be Spielberg to produce an effective instructional video–or, at least, one that gets views.

Before I go let me just say that I accepted no compensation of any kind from instructors featured in this article.  None of them are revenue sharing partners with http://www.findmymusicteacher.com.  Just thought you should know.

Question of the week:  What, in your opinion, makes an instructional video good, and what are examples of good videos you’ve seen?

And the joke of the week:

Q. What’s the difference between a drummer and a drum machine?

A. You only have to punch the information into a drum machine once.

Maestro’s Musings 41: “Mr. Holland’s Opus Not Included: 5 Movies that Music Teachers Should See”

You’ve already heard me carry on about books and websites that no music teacher should live without, and about how pop culture can actually benefit you. In non-mommy blog #35, I mentioned several movies, such as “The Karate Kid”, “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Rudy” that teach good life-lessons, however bluntly, that can be applied to the field of music and provide student and teacher with a common frame of reference. Today I will discuss several other movies (no, I won’t make you sit there as I rehash my pitches for those movies I mentioned) that I think are good for music teachers to watch. These movies are entertaining, and like much of the best pop culture, make good points and are infinitely quotable. Hopefully these films fill find their rightful place on your Netflix queue!

“DRUMLINE” (2002)

Nick Cannon plays Devon Miles, a talented, cocky young snare drummer who leaves the Bronx for college in Atlanta. An only child raised by a single mother, not to mention the star of his high school drumline, Devon is used to being the big fish in a small pond. At the fictitious Atlanta A&T college, he finds himself locking horns with some of the drumline veterans while also discovering a father figure in the band’s director, Dr. Lee (Orlando Jones). Meanwhile, Lee finds himself under pressure from the college to forgo his own artistic agenda to create music that pleases the alumni. The plotline of youthful rebelliousness versus authority isn’t exactly new, and “Drumline” doesn’t really put any different kind of spin on it. Why see the movie then? Well, first of all, the soundtrack is absolutely great. Second, while the plot and setting might not be all that realistic, the characters are believable. Devon learns how he can be a team player while still retaining his unique personality. Many teachers/coaches have found that working with the most talented players can be tougher than the average ones; the talent also has the ego, and Jones’s Dr. Lee works with Devon in a way that is compassionate, but leaves no doubt about who is in charge.

“SCHOOL OF ROCK” (2003)

I first saw this movie after a difficult week of teaching, and while it wasn’t exactly what one might call a life-changing experience, it provided me with some great comic relief and helped me approach the next day’s lessons more positively. This film was “Guitar Hero” before there was “Guitar Hero.” While it might not be as popular as when it was first released, many kids have asked me to “teach them how to play like in ‘School of Rock.’” (An acquaintance of mine used to teach a music class at a local Jewish community center, “Shul of Rock.”) Jack Black got a lot of kids wanting to learn music with his portrayal of Dewey Finn, a ne’er-do-well who somehow finds a job as a substitute teacher in an exclusive private school. No, it’s not the slightest bit realistic, but the film is thoroughly entertaining. Can you make your lessons as fun an experience as watching Jack Black?

“STAND AND DELIVER” (1988)

OK, maybe I’ve lost some people with this one, but hear me out. Based on a true story, this movie paved the way for “Dangerous Minds”, “Freedom Writers” and other Teacher-Makes-A-Difference-In-The-Lives-Of-Inner-City-Youths flicks. Yeah, it may seem like a cliché by now, but “Stand and Deliver” did it first and best. The film tells the story of Jaime Escalante (Edward James Olmos), a math teacher at L.A.’s tough Garfield High. Escalante inspired his students to take the advanced placement calculus test. The film is anything but politically correct and sentimental. In an early scene, a police officer is talking to the school receptionist about a vandalism incident and asks, “Just where was the fecal matter found?” Olmos’s Escalante is not exactly a bland saint. He makes sexual references in the classroom, threatens students, argues with their parents and even finds time to have a heart attack. Yes, it is formulaic, and one could argue that it has to do more with classroom than private teaching. But there are parallels between music and math, and while giving a guitar lesson to a kid in a spacious suburban home isn’t quite the same as walking into an inner city school, good teaching is good teaching, with or without the heart attacks.

“THIS IS SPINAL TAP” (1984)

This is probably not a movie you will quote to your younger students, but for high school age and up, “This Is Spinal Tap” is absolutely seminal. I will not try to tell you that the film makes serious points about learning music; it’s value in a teaching context is strictly entertainment. But what entertainment it is. Lines such as, “Can your hear the sustain?”; “This one goes to eleven”; “Dozens of people spontaneously combust each year, it’s just not widely reported” and, of course, “Hello Cleveland!” are part of popular culture and can be referenced in a variety of situations. “This Is Spinal Tap” reminds teacher and student that music, like life, doesn’t always have to be taken seriously.

“WITHOUT LIMITS” (1998)

I tried to sell you a movie about a math teacher, and now I’m going to attempt to do the same with a film about a track star. Hey, if you read blog #37, you’ll know why learning an instrument is like learning a sport, right? This film, however, isn’t only about running; it shares a parallel with “Drumline” in telling the story of a coach and star talent who don’t always see eye to eye . Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman (Donald Sutherland) has a love-hate relationship with Steve Prefontaine (Billy Crudup). “Pre”, as he’s known, just can’t quite seem to do things the coach’s way, but nonetheless the two learn from each other, in particular Bowerman, who realizes that some of what he held to be absolute truth in fact may be open to interpretation.

Honorable Mention:

“FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF” (1986)

Although he’s only seen in a very small portion of the movie, Ben Stein had perhaps the most famous, quotable part in his ‘80s teen classic. Stein’s cataclysmically boring history teacher who drones the names of his students while taking attendance (“Beuller….Beuller….”) is legendary. And music teachers: Please make sure that doesn’t become you! Not everyone cares as deeply about the Lydian #4 scale as you do. When you ask a student if they understand something and they say, “Uh huh”, do they really understand or do they just want you to move on? Even the best music teachers can’t be fascinating every single day, and Lord knows, I’ve probably bored more students in my career than could fit in Ben Stein’s classroom. But I do try to keep that scene in the back of my mind when I find myself getting worked up in a lather discussing the differences between the Locrian #2 and the altered scales. Well, if you’re reading this, you know that one of them is melodic minor from the sixth degree and one of them is melodic minor from the seventh degree, let’s move on to this week’s question:

What films, music-related or otherwise, are on your list of the must-see movies for music teachers?

And the joke of the week:

Q. How do you get a drummer to stop biting his nails?

A. Make him wear shoes.

Maestro’s Musings 40: “Yeah? Well YOUR mom writes a BLOG!”

In 2001, Heather Armstrong took her job and shoved it. Well, actually Armstrong’s job shoved her. Armstrong, you see, was let go when her superiors found some less than flattering things about them on her blog. However, Armstrong proved that the pen is mightier than the sword, and got the last laugh.She began a blog, http://www.dooce.com, about her trials and tribulations as a mother. Word spread, and by the end of the decade, her blog was receiving as many as five million visits per month. One post, about her attempts to get a raccoon out of her attic, received over five hundred comments. Armstrong has generated enough revenue from her blog, plus her books, including “It Sucked And Then I Cried” and “Things I Learned About My Dad In Therapy” to enable her and her husband to not have to work.

Armstrong is one of many mothers who has realized the internet’s potential for creating and nurturing communities. In many families, mothers make most of the decisions, be they budgetary, culinary, recreational or social. For many mothers, a product endorsement from one of their own can outweigh any advertising. Research has been done to prove that when Armstrong speaks well of a product on her blog, the company achieves a measurable improvement in sales, not unlike what it’s been said occurs when Oprah Winfrey places a book on her book club list.

So what, you may be asking, in the world does this have to do with teaching music? Well, a blog that receives millions of hits per month–and Armstrong’s isn’t the only ‘mommy blog’ putting up those kinds of numbers–is something to notice. In (non-mommy) blog #15, I discussed ways you can be visible to those who are most likely to spread the word. Well, if you had the opportunity to spread your word to five million of your closest friends, would you do it? I thought so.

 

 

How might one infiltrate the world of the mommy blog? Several blogs accept advertising. Simply do a Google search, see which blogs seem to be the most successful and start asking. You can also ask to make an appearance as a guest blogger. Possible topics might include: How can I find a good music teacher for my child? How old should my child be and what instrument should they pick when they start taking lessons? Where can I find good music classes for my kids? You don’t necessarily have to be a mom, or a dad, to have valuable insight. You also might want to simply comment on a blog post, including some sort of reference to your music teaching (such as a music-related email address if you have one). Also consider writing product reviews for sites such as www.amazon.com, www.buy.com or www.epinions.com  as a way of getting your name, and services, out there.

Blogs or no blogs, the fact is that the hand that rocks the cradle often signs the checks. In my experience, I would estimate that two thirds of my calls about lessons for kids have come from the matriarch, and it would not surprise me if it is the same for most of my readership. Sometimes mothers have called me asking for lessons for the big kid–the one also known as Dad. Mommy blogs are a good way to gain insight into the thought process that may decide where the kids take music lessons. It’s also interesting to consider a phenomenon that started off as a hobby for many and has become a full time income for a substantial faction of mothers.

The question of the week is: What sites/blogs have you visited for opinions on products and services, and how could you use such sites to publicize yourself, while still being there for the purpose of helping others make informed decisions?

And the joke of the week:

Q. What’s the definition of Aeolean Mode?

A. How Mamma makes her apple pie.

Maestro’s Musings 39: The Goal or Not The Goal?

I am only slightly embarassed to admit that I am a pretty big fan of the Dr. Laura radio show. While I certainly don’t agree with the good doctor on everything, I find her approaches to her callers’ problems interesting. On one show, a mother called, upset that her son wanted to quit piano lessons when he was very close to achieving a certificate. “What good is the certificate if he doesn’t want to play music?” asked Dr. Laura.

Can a teacher or student ever be too goal-oriented?

There’s no doubt that goals are an important part of musical education, and life, and I’m not here to tell you otherwise. Often times, students will start taking lessons with specific goals. Other times, a student might have general ideas about what they want to do, and a good music teacher can help them define their dreams into goals. Sometimes a student might be studying just for enrichment; they might not want to perform publicly or be preparing for a test or recital, but they can still benefit from setting benchmarks for themselves. However, people can sometimes lose track of the big picture in pursuing goals. I’ve noticed this come up in several ways.

When I started teaching young piano students, I would give them a sticker each time they “passed” a song. For many of the students, this proved to be a good reward system, and they got a sense of accomplishment from earning the sticker. However, in some cases I began to see that students were more interested in the reward than the process. I would see some of them ignore songs once they had passed them. Others would get discouraged; I would sometimes hear, “Well, I’m not going to be able to get a sticker on this song today, so what’s the point?”

What I’ve found is that the reward in and of itself is neither a good or bad thing; how it’s presented and the results it gets are what matters. If it causes a student to practice more, great. If it makes a student ignore everything else, not so great.

Sometimes I invoke the old phrase, “The golden rule means that he who has the gold makes the rules.” Part of a teacher’s stipulation in giving rewards can be that the student has to maintain their ability to play material they’ve already learned. Think of the difference between how kindergarteners versus high school students are taught. My belief is that we remember more of what we learned early on because it’s taught to us repetitively; in high school and college, we cram, get our “A” and then promptly forget everything. Even as you set goals for your students, it is important to remember that a goal can’t be abandoned once it is achieved. No, a six year old is not likely to grasp the concept of the “Big Picture”; they could care less if they still remember the song a year later, they just want the sticker. But you can still structure your curriculum in a way that the rewards–stickers or otherwise–are part of the big picture, whether or not your students can see it all.

 I myself was guilty of tunnel vision when I was starting to get serious about teaching music. At the time my primary employment was substitute teaching. Think back to when you had a substitute teacher in middle school or high school. This can help you understand why as soon as I realized I had a shot at making private teaching my full time job, I went into it full throttle. That was not a bad thing, although in retrospect pacing myself might have been a better approach. When the alternate was substitute teaching a remedial Algebra class, it was amazing how I was willing to drive 200 miles a day to different students’ houses, charging a rate that I now realize was considerably below what I might have. Instead of considering how I could have been more efficient in my business, I was imagining the day that I would walk into the school district office and tender my resignation.

That goal, obviously, was achieved, and as is often the case when a goal is achieved, I was glad. I like the feeling of watching a student proudly place a sticker on their sheet music, or pass an audition or test, or perform a successful show. Goals will always be a part of any successful music curriculum, and there is an art to setting achieving them. But even if your students can’t necessarily conceive how a goal fits into the bigger picture, you can. As a tool, goals are valuable, but the tools should never become more important than what they are supposed to create.

The question of the week is: Have you ever caught yourself being TOO goal-oriented, either with yourself or a student? And have your students ever been too goal-oriented themselves, and how?

And the joke of the week:

A judge says to the defendant, “Haven’t I seen you before?”

“Yes, Your Honor,” says the defendant. “I used to give your son violin lessons.”

 “Ah, yes!” says the judge. “Twenty years!”

Published in: on July 7, 2009 at 6:19 am  Leave a Comment  
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Maestro’s Musings 38: An Offer Your Students Can’t Refuse

It started with air fares, and now it’s expanded to car insurance, advertising, vacation spots and many other industries.  I’m talking about naming your own price.

Why not consider making that same offer to potential students?

Now, I realize when times are already tight, lowering one’s rates isn’t necessarily an idea that will be met with enthusiasm.  However, there are ways in which you might be able to use this to your advantage.  Remember that matter what, you have the fiinal say.  Companies that use this concept depend on customers making reasonable offers.  Not even William Shatner could help someone who went to www.priceline.com and bid $1 for a nosntop flight from Marfa, Texas to Flin Flon, Manitoba.  As the business owner, you have the right to refuse any requests.

Just as airlines are more likely to negotiate on seats that are hard to fill, you may be more flexible with students who can take their lessons at times that are less in demand.  For many teachers, mornings and early afternoons are tough (kids are in school, adults are working).  Later in the evening (I’ve given lessons at 9, 10 and a few even at 11pm) can also be tough.   Most teachers have particular types of students with whom they work best, such a specific age groups, stylistic interests.  Working with potentially desirable students on pricing can be a win-win situation.

That said, there are also some differences between selling someone an airplane ticket and selling them music lessons.  Here, flexible pricing is not a tool to create a one-time only deal, but a way to entice reluctant students into a long-term relationship.  You could allow the student to name their own price for their first lesson or their first month.  The advantage of this, as with giving someone a free trial lesson (see blog #24), is that you might get students who otherwise would never have found out about you.  At the same time, since they’re paying something, they’ve made a commitment and are less likely to go M.I.A. once the regular rates kick in.

Another approach is to get students on a “project” basis.  Let’s say a student has a performance, recording or some other event for which they need to prepare.  You could get them to name their price for you to help them for the short term (for example, $200 flat rate to help them prepare for the A.P. music theory test).  Can this approach end up costing you more time than you expect?  Perhaps, but the better job you do, the less time things will take.  As with the Lose-Win guarantee (see blog #36), this concept could be exploited, but if you’ve really done your job, students will probably be all too happy to leave you alone.  After all, who wants to sit and listen to what they’ve already learned?  And who knows, they might continue with you after the event has passed, and they might refer you to friends.

Does it make sense to drive 100 miles to give a lesson for $5?  Probably not.  But it can’t hurt to be open to different ways to spread the word about yourself.  The economy continues to hurt, but there are still people out there who want to learn music.  By making yourself stand out and by being flexible, you can help a student make the decision that even if times are tough, they can still treat themselves to a good experience.

The question of the week is: What products or services have you named your own price for, and were you happy with the deal you got?  OR – have you ever offered your services, lessons or otherwise, for a negotiable price, and how did that work out?

And the joke of the week:

Q. How do you know when a guitarist is planning ehead?

A. He buys two cases of beer instead of one.