MAC Corner: Teaching is a Performing Art

Mike Lawson • Commentary • October 18, 2013

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Strategies for the instrumental music teacher from the Music Achievement Council

Teaching is an art form. Great teachers are great artists. Great teachers share information, concepts, and skills again and again while making everyone believe it was their first time. Great teachers exude powerful senses of energy, love, passion, excitement, knowledge, wonder, inquiry… the list goes on and on. They are role models that remain in the minds and hearts of their students for the rest of their lives.

For some, teaching is a difficult, tenuous career that wears them down on a daily basis. As you look in on their classes and listen to them teach, you sense their dismay. Discouraged, they give instructions and little more. Feedback is nothing more than another direction such as “do it again,” or a reaction like “that was not very good.” For others, teaching is an invigorating lifestyle that serves as an elixir to continued youth and health. Walking into the classroom of a great teacher one can immediately sense the energy. Students are engaged and excited. In addition to directions come expectations filled with specific steps to help young musicians grow and develop.

Like all educators, music teachers are working within three domains: the Cognitive, the Psychomotor, and the Affective, and often all three are being taxed at the same time.

When students don’t know something, teachers tell them or show them. That is real teaching. When students understand but can’t do, teachers have to develop a strategy to allow students sufficient time to process the information or develop the skills necessary to be successful. Here the teacher becomes a coach. When students don’t remember, teachers have to remind them, and often repeatedly. Here is where the teacher becomes their conscience. This is often where the frustrations of teaching originate. Too often, teachers get tired of telling students the same thing, over and over. Worse yet, teachers give feedback that gets personal with the students and doesn’t address the problem at hand. Rather than reminding the student of the expectation, the teacher’s frustration results in an inappropriate comment that is directed personally towards the student. “How many times do I have to tell you?” or “What’s the matter with you?” Once this happens, teachers have taken the first step to permanently losing their students’ respect, attention, and participation.

Instead, teachers must come up with new and creative ways to get the message across. Simple statements such as “we have a posture error in the saxophone section” sends the message to the students that they need to check their posture, and it is done without calling anyone out. An even stronger method is to compliment a student and ask that all other students to do it the same way. “Mary, I just love your violin position. Violin section, let’s all try to hold our instruments the way Mary is holding hers.” It is important to not get personal as we remind our students of the class expectations.

Frustrated teachers also choose to ignore the behavior. Ignoring the behavior is just easier because it doesn’t involve a confrontation. But because the student is not “reminded,” it is easy for him or her to perceive that the behavior is permissible or acceptable, and soon this incorrect action becomes the norm. A classic example of this is the flute player performing with the right arm resting on the back of the chair, or the trumpet player playing with legs crossed.

Having taught for 38 years and now at the college level, I still have to remind my students, who are college music majors, to use their best posture, their best hand position, good breath support, and to center their tone. I have to remind them daily to play with good technique and a good sense of time. They need to be reminded to play at the correct tempo, in the correct style. That’s my job and that’s your job. We are music teachers. We teach children about music. We teach children to develop lifelong habits that will allow them to love, enjoy, and appreciate music their entire life.

As teachers, we must continually remind our students what to do until it becomes a habit – their habit. We remind students verbally and we remind them by modeling. We continue reminding them until they demonstrate to us that they remember, without our asking. Until then, we have to continue to remind them without taking it personally and, more importantly, without making it personal. We have to understand and remind ourselves that student behaviors are not being done to make us mad. Student behaviors that do not meet expectations, whether physical actions or musical concepts, have not been learned sufficiently enough where they becomes automated responses.

As we go through this process with our students, it is important that we not take ourselves too seriously, nor should we take “what” we are teaching to be the end goal. We all want our students to play with good posture, but good posture is not the end goal. We all want our students to play with a characteristic tone, but playing with a characteristic tone is not the goal. We all want our students to read and perform rhythmically, yet this is not the end goal. We must always remember that our goal is to make our students the next generation who love and appreciate music.

At this point, you might be saying to yourself, “So what’s my job, to make my students feel good? What about the music?” The answer is simple. It is all about the music, and helping your students perform at their highest level will make them feel good. So the answers to your questions are “yes” and “yes.” The problem is that you asked your questions in the wrong order. The challenge of teaching music is to achieve musical excellence while making our students feel good.

Music teachers must establish high expectations and realistic goals. These expectations and goals are established for students, and our role as teachers is to facilitate students’ experiences on a daily basis. Daily experiences must be dedicated to shaping and developing our students’ musicianship and behaviors, leading them to realize the goals we have set. Embedded in our teaching are the high expectations we hold for each and every one of our students.


Affirmation – Inspiration – Information

We begin each day by setting the best example we can. As teachers, we must leave any and all problems at the door, focusing 100 percent of our energies on our students. Regardless of their level of proficiency and performance, at the end of the class, they must walk out better musicians than they were when they walked into the classroom.

To begin, teachers should work to find that one moment in every class when they connect with each and every student, providing a moment of affirmation. Students need to know they matter, that we are happy they are our student, and we are happy they are participating in our band or orchestra ensemble. Affirmation can take on many faces. It can be as simple as standing at the door and welcoming students with a smile or by name when they enter the room. It can be a positive comment on the color of their shoes or design on their shirt. It can be a moment when we compliment them on the way they assembled their instrument, or how they paid attention in class today. In short, affirmation occurs when the teacher interacts with a student in a personal way to let them know they were noticed. This little bit of positive attention affirms their decision to be in this class.

Once affirmed, students need to be inspired. Inspiration begins with the teacher. Students immediately sense when the teacher is enjoying doing what they are doing. Some teachers exude this “spirit” through their persona. Others inspire students by playing music for them or taking them to live concerts. Inspiration can be realized by having an attractive rehearsal space, colorful bulletin boards, or through the continual positive interactions teachers have with other students during the learning process. Inspiration can occur when teacher feedback is constructive and wrapped in positive, encouraging words. When a student is inspired, they want to do good work. Inspired students are ready, willing, and eager. Inspired students show up on time, they have their instrument, music, and accessories in order, and they are ready to go. Inspiration happens when students realize that we, as teachers, believe in their potential.

Once affirmed and inspired, students are ready to learn. The desire for information happens only after the student has been affirmed and inspired. As good and important as the information may be, students usually do not see the need, or how it is going to help them. Information becomes one more thing the teacher wants them to do or that the teacher wants them to know.

Sharing information with students is where teaching begins. Introducing concepts and skills and applying them with what they have previously learned are keys to success. And before we start, we have to know where we are going. Teachers have to have a clear vision of what their students need to learn as well as the level of proficiency they should attain at the end of the semester, unit, or class session. Teaching must be designed to increase every student’s knowledge base and skill set. The information and skills taught must be comprehensive in nature and organized in a sequential manner that provides for steady and continued growth (curriculum). It often helps if the curriculum is designed backwards. This helps teachers to determine if the end goals are attainable with the amount of instructional time available. When it is not, the end goals have to be revised and we start again.

Once we decide what and how we are going to teach, we monitor our students’ behaviors every step of the way and make course corrections as necessary (assessment).


Applying the Concepts

Let’s use rhythm as an example. Teaching rhythm and counting rhythms is important for music teachers on all levels and is something that students struggle with regardless of age. Teaching rhythm requires a counting system and it requires that the counting system be used until it becomes a habit for the student.

Teachers must first have a solid handle on the counting system they choose to use. Too often, teachers have been exposed to so many variations of counting systems that they use a combination of different systems in their teaching. Although this seems clear and logical for the teacher, students are usually left with a series of unconnected dots, unable to independently understand what is on the printed page.

Teaching rhythm requires that teachers begin at a place where all students can understand and can be successful. An example might be four quarter notes in common time. Getting our students to count, clap, or count and clap these four quarter notes successfully is a beginning. Next, we introduce one variable to this measure. The variable could be one beat of barred eighth notes, or a quarter rest. The important thing is that we introduce only one variable. We then logically move our way from the simple to the complex, providing our students with the skills to read more complex rhythms and providing them a system – a thought process – to get them from point A to point B. Teaching students a way for them to think about rhythm and how beats are divided or combined to form unique patterns gives them an increased level of musical independence and puts us one step closer to our goal of developing students who grow up with a lifelong love of and appreciation for music.

This same kind of consistent, logical approach must be used as we teach tone quality, intonation, articulation or bowing, balance, blend, and musical expression.



Another area where a consistent, logical approach needs to be used is in the area of sightreading. Most ensembles don’t sightread well because they don’t do it on a regular basis, and when they do, they don’t have a system for doing it.

Too often, directors try to sightread music written at the same grade level as the ensemble performs at concerts. In other words, directors expect (hope) their students to (will) perform music at the same level after looking at it for two minutes as they do when they have worked on it for six to eight weeks or more. Sightreading becomes depressing for the director and frustrating for the students.

Instead, teachers should begin to sightread music that is two to three grade levels easier than the music they are currently preparing. The easier rhythms, keys, tempos, and ranges provide for success. As students get more confident in their abilities, the difficulty level can be gradually increased. Making sightreading a regular part of the rehearsal cycle is important. Once this is incorporated, add a sightreading selection to your next concert. In the program simply indicate “Sightreading or Surprise Selection.” On the music stands, have a piece of music sealed in an envelope. When it is time to perform the sightreading selection at the concert inform the audience about the sightreading process and the important role it plays in helping their children develop comprehensive musicianship. Then, instructing the students to open the envelope and look over the piece, use a microphone to allow the audience to hear your instructions as you verbally guide the student musicians through the work. You will find that after a few successful attempts, this will become the audience’s and the students’ favorite part of the concert!

Help Is Out There

Teaching music can be one of the most rewarding careers a musician can choose, but it can also be one of the most frustrating. As teachers, we should be continually looking for better ways, searching for more tools for our teacher toolkit. Our growth and development takes a real commitment, a commitment to continually seek ways to become more effective in and out of the classroom. Fortunately, this commitment is shared. There is help.

The Music Achievement Council (MAC) is an action-oriented nonprofit organization sponsored by the National Association of School Music Dealers (NASMD) and the International Music Products Association (NAMM). MAC is committed to helping teachers succeed and to create more music makers. Teachers will find many materials online at to help in all aspects of recruiting and retaining students, as well a series of time-tested practical ideas in “Tips for Success: A Guide for Instrumental Music Teachers.” Good luck!


Dr. Charles T. Menghini is president, professor of Music and director of bands at VanderCook College of Music in Chicago, Illinois. He began his teaching at VanderCook College in 1994.

Menghini has written for numerous professional journals and magazines and is also co-author of the Essential Elements 2000 Band Method, published by the Hal Leonard Corporation, where he serves as an Educational Advisor. He also frequently serves as a national and international conductor, clinician, and adjudicator. An active performer, Charlie played lead trumpet in the Kansas City Chiefs Professional Football Band for 15 seasons.

Menghini is an educational member of the Music Achievement Council of the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) Foundation.

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