As is the case with just about any good job, my teaching position is usually rewarding, most often enjoyable, and generally enviable. After all, lots of fine musicians go through years of training and education in hopes of landing a university professorship like mine only to find that the number of qualified candidates is much larger than the number of available full-time jobs. Indeed, to some extent I deliberately sought a position where I would infrequently work with music performance majors and have little expectation of recruiting them, as I could not in good conscience prepare dozens of students for jobs that do not exist. Most of my students pursue jobs as school band directors and succeed in finding such positions immediately upon graduation.
Having a part in training the next generation of music educators is for the most part quite gratifying, though a common frustration is when students who are not training for performance careers neglect the daily practice that I require for their weekly lessons. At least three years of individual instruction on a major instrument is required for all music degrees (more for music performance), for reasons that should be obvious. To put it briefly, how can a music teacher who has never demonstrated a reasonably high level of musicianship expect to teach others to do so? While we don’t expect every music teacher to attain the level of artistry expected for performing careers, successful music teachers at least learn during their university training to go into the practice room, work out solutions to problems, and devise pleasing interpretations of their assigned pieces. These skills are not dissimilar to those that they will one day use when rehearsing their ensembles from the podium. I regularly emphasize this in lessons with music education students and they usually agree, though they don’t always translate that agreement into action.
The area in which lack of practice most commonly manifests itself is in the neglect of daily and systematic playing fundamentals work. I shared my thoughts regarding such practice in detail on this blog several years ago and will not repeat myself—see here and here for those posts. Even students who can be relied upon to practice assigned etudes, solo repertoire, and excerpts with some diligence frequently neglect the work that they are assigned in these areas. This is to their detriment, as daily and systematic (these concepts are key) fundamentals practice ultimately reduces the amount of time needed to learn new works. In other words, neglecting fundamentals to practice “real music” ultimately doesn’t save time at all. More time is needed to learn those works, and without the benefit of developing a broader skillset that readily transfers to music studied and performed in the future. This is not to say that fundamentals practice is always, well, fun—it often is not. But, playing music well is fun, and fundamentals practice is a key to getting there.
And yet, amazingly, even after I explain all the reasons why daily practice of both fundamentals and repertoire is beneficial for both playing and teaching, some students neglect this week after week. Few try to get by with no practice, but many do less than expected. (A corresponding number do not receive grades of “A” in their weekly lessons.) Strangely enough, these same students would not dream of neglecting homework in other courses, but seem to expect few or no consequences when their assigned practice is neglected. To those folks, perhaps all that is left is the basest of all motivators: “If you don’t practice you won’t pass my class.” Poor encouragement to be sure, but it’s there.
The flip side is happier. “If you practice, you’ll not only pass my class, but you’ll also be a better musician, play in better ensembles, enjoy playing more, and ultimately by becoming a better musician will be a better music teacher.”
My dear students, don’t your future students deserve to have their teacher be the best musician he or she can be?