Bring Sloppy Students Under Control by Finding the Notes
Note: This is the first post in my Six Favorite Music Teaching Techniques series. You can download my one-page printable cheat sheet of all six techniques here.
I’m sure this has happened countless times in your music lessons: You put a piece of challenging new music in front of your student, and, curious to see how they fare on their own, ask them to try teaching themselves the first few bars…
...and it’s like watching someone drag race past an elementary school during the morning drop-off. They charge into the passage way too fast, out of control, leaving a trail of maimed notes behind them. How many times have you asked them to play slowly and in control?! Maybe you should just get the words “SLOW DOWN” tattooed on your forehead.
I’ve got a better idea: A habit I discovered years ago that reins in my drag racers every time. I call it Finding the Notes.
How to Use "Finding Your Notes" in Your Lessons
Assuming the student is familiar with the piece and excited to learn it--two important initial steps to teaching challenging new material--this is the first step in the lesson.
I put the written music in front of them--or play the first bit for them if they learn by ear--and tell them, “Let’s start by finding the notes. We won’t try to play in rhythm, we won’t try to make it sound like the song--we’ll just discover where the notes are, and what fingers to use.”
What follows probably resembles the way you learn challenging material, and the way you wish your drag racers approached it: The student slowly, carefully, methodically plays the notes in the passage, disregarding rhythm or tempo for the time being. In other words, this habit probably doesn’t add anything extra to your teaching routine. It simply rephrases what you normally ask your student to do in a more effective way than your endless nagging to slow down.
Why it Works
When our students seem to ignore our advice to slow down, I don’t think they’re ignoring us. Instead, they’re actually heeding a higher calling: Their inner ear--the most fundamental, essential skill of any musician--is compelling them, often subconsciously, to try their hardest to translate those unfamiliar notes into real music. If the student has a strong inner ear, when you ask them to slow down, it’s like putting food in front of a hungry animal and telling them not to eat.
Even if the student understands that it’s impossible to perform challenging music beautifully without first playing it in an un-musical way, their inner ear is incredibly hard to ignore. This impulse is admirable in a way--they’re staying true to the only Musical Law I’ve come across (all other tenants being simply “theory”): MAKE IT SOUND GOOD.
By characterizing this first step as “finding the notes,” you give your student permission to temporarily turn off their inner ear. When you explicitly state that they’re not trying to make music, that they’re just doing preparatory work, they have a much easier time ignoring their otherwise praiseworthy instinct to make good music right away. And if you make this a habit in your lessons, you’ll find that your students start doing it at home much sooner.
There, you can cancel your appointment with the tattoo parlor. You’re welcome.