Tuneful Teaching from the Start

Mike Lawson • MAC CornerOctober 2023 • October 15, 2023

We can all agree it is essential to learn to play a single note, fingered correctly with focus and clarity. Clearly that is a part of the journey for young musicians. But I have concluded that few students join a school music program for that single purpose. They gravitate to music because they want to learn to play songs. They want to be able to play “Happy Birthday,” “Taps,” pop tunes and familiar melodies.  Personally, I was told if I joined the choir we were going to learn “I’d like to teach the world to sing.” I loved that song! I was sold! 

Over my 40 years standing in front of beginning band students, I have learned the moment they caught fire about practicing was the moment they mastered three notes and could play “Hot Cross Buns,” “Merrily We Roll Along” and a plethora of three note melodies. Certainly, long tones were mandatory and there was so much more to learn and explore but with the mastery of three notes students can be on fire and the magic world of music making can begin to blossom. 

And, let me be very clear this strategy goes far beyond learning line 9 on page 7 of the beginning method book.  This is about empowering students to do what they love most.  Playing tunes! It is also a priceless optimum foundation for teaching ear training. Students  are freed from the bondage of the ink on the paper. And all the time they are playing their instruments and figuring it out, what are they doing?  They are PRACTICING.

Let’s be honest. Students don’t say, “I can’t wait to get in the practice room or my home so I can practice my long tones.”  But they can’t wait to figure out another tune. 

As I refined this concept I ultimately arrived at the point where I used the same repertoire for the beginning year, every year. Why? Familiarity. A standard traditional curriculum helped me compare progress from year to year.  Is this year’s group of students struggling; or are they well ahead of where we were last year?   I knew exactly where the challenges might occur and over time, I became more effective and efficient in addressing them. Families identified with the music and beginners wanted to play the same music their older siblings had performed. It’s a win – win!

Trust me. Tuneful teaching is a powerful motivator. It is an avenue to craft mastery but most important it is a portal to creative music making.


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