Five Ways to Teach Your Students to Play, Positive and Relaxed

Kevin Lucas • GoodVibesJune 2021 • June 12, 2021

I had an interesting experience this week. Aside from my music career, I run a construction, remodeling, and tile business. This past week I was on a job in the Chicago area. My customer told me his son, who studies percussion at a major university, has a great teacher. The issue this student is having is that he plays very tense and scared because of the approach taught to him. This student feels intimidated during lessons, and as a result tends to focus on not making a mistake, which perpetuates the nervousness. My client asked if I could help. I’ve had a couple sessions with this student this past week and will share the progress made and advice given him.

We have a very old school approach to teaching in some our school systems. This approach is not necessarily bad. As a matter of fact, I was brought up in junior high school under this approach and it taught me a lot of discipline and obsession with perfection. The problem with this approach is that when your percussion student, or any instrumentalist, is so focused on playing perfectly, musicality, flow, expression, and having fun go out the window, result in a nervous student playing like a math student. This negates what music was meant to be in the first place. I gave this student this advice on modifying his mental approach.

Focus on excellence rather than perfection: Instead of being focused on not missing a note, focus on playing great music and playing the right notes. The mindset and focus should be on the positive, and not the negative. This is a great mental approach to anything in life. If a baseball player focuses on not striking out, most likely they will fail. But if they focus on hitting the ball hard instead, the mental equation for success changes. This same approach applies to music, and it makes all the difference.

Muscle memory: When your students practice integrating muscle memory into practice time, it takes the stress off of a performance. “Perfection” does not happen on stage. It happens in the practice room. Practicing the musical passages as well as scales over and over again in a positive and relaxed manner will establish confidence within the student’s hands, and this will translate into the performance. Remember that “practice does not make perfect”. “Perfect practice makes perfect” and doing so while relaxed.

Meditation: Your students should practice meditation before practicing and performing. This also becomes muscle memory in the brain so that your student has this same approach every time. Have your student take ten minutes and sit down and just let all thoughts flow. Do not tell them not to think. The brain is always active, even during sleep. Rather, tell them to accept all thoughts and let them roll off like clouds being pushed by the wind. They come and go as the wind takes them away, not ever affecting the body, making the student tense, or causing a physical reaction. As your student sits, encourage them to let go until all tension leaves the back, arms, and shoulders. This will increase their flow, dexterity, and speed while performing. The art of meditation can do miracles for your students!

Remember; music is fun. Remind your students that they are there to have fun and learn. Music is the same as anything in life in that it should never be taken too seriously as to cause stress and tension. We should enjoy the art, and have fun. When this important aspect is removed, the entire purpose is taken away.

Let go during performance: When I was at Illinois State University, a band director was trying to emphasize the fact that we should never think during a performance because it is too late at that point. Thinking and practicing should be done in rehearsal. At performance time, it is too late! When students perform, they should let go of all thought and let muscle memory and emotion take over. His phrase was “Ice on the brain and fire in the vein”, regarding live performance, meaning that all thoughtfulness should cease, and students should just exist in the moment during a performance, and simply trust in their training.

As much as I appreciated the rigid perfection in my early years, I blossomed as a musician with the new approach to pedagogy. This happened mostly with the Madison Scouts Drum and Bugle Corps under Scott Stewart and Jeff Moore in the 1990s. The concept of focusing on musical excellence, having fun, and practicing perfect but relaxed was amazing. They viewed mistakes as learning experiences and something we should recover from. Through this approach of positive pedagogy, I found myself playing perfect on “accident” more times than ever before. But the perfection started to happen because of a positive approach and relaxed mindset, not because I was focused on it.


In 2016, The Huffington Post called Kevin Lucas “the most talented percussionist since Lionel Hampton, Ginger Baker and Tito Puente”. He has been nominated for 38 music industry awards for his Echoes in the Sand album, and he won the 2016 American Songwriting Awards. Kevin performed with the Madison Scouts Drum and Bugle Corps from 1992-1994 and won the DCI Midwest Individuals in 1994 for keyboard percussion. He placed second in the United States for concert hall percussion at the Music Teachers National Association collegiate competition in 1997.


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