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May 10, 2016

Creative Troubleshooting in the Teaching Studio

Often in the teaching studio, a big emphasis can be placed on ‘right’ versus ‘wrong’. Correct, incorrect. Yes, NO!! It’s so easy to pull up students’ mistakes and ask them to repeat an exercise/passage of music again and again until an ideal standard has been reached. And often we feel this is a healthy learning process for the student because they’re understanding the right way to play and have an awareness of what they’re doing. But are we really raising their awareness in the most optimal way? Do they really know what’s going on musically, or are they simply following commands? Do they know what’s going on physically with their body and movements as they play?

Troubleshooting Student Challenges

These are things I think about a lot. Yes we have a goal for the student (e.g. mastering an exercise, playing a piece up to full speed, etc) but is it possible to move away from fixating on the goal in order to better reach the goal? Especially for younger students, I have noticed that fixating on one aspect of the music – one instruction – can create unwanted pressure. It is therefore our job as teachers to maintain a big picture outlook and be creative about how we troubleshoot problems.

It is not always encouraging or uplifting for the student to be drilled with phrases like “do it again”, “no, that’s not right”, etc (Note: YES these expressions do arise when i’m teaching and I think they do serve a positive role in developing students’ skills but it’s also important to approach technical issues from a wider lens – to balance direct commands with more exploratory questions that will spark students’ curiosity and their willingness to solve problems in new ways).

For instance, can a goal be easier achieved by exploring concepts beyond the notes and written rhythms? I’ve seen this time and time again in my studio… here are some ideas:

  • Using imagery to spark louder or softer dynamics
  • Asking students to be more aware of their motions (e.g. “Your right hand has plenty of time to prepare here, move to the floor tom early”)
  • Using repetition as means to change the students’ focus (asking them to focus on different limbs or different musical elements as you repeat an exercise)

By moving away from the direct goal (e.g. playing X,Y and Z at full speed) and focusing instead on concepts to raise their overall awareness and musical understanding, I believe students can reach their goals in a more satisfying, wholesome way.

Troubleshooting Over-Confidence / Musical vs technical understanding

I believe another common teaching situation that affects creative troubleshooting is over-confidence. On one hand, we may have students that are struggling to play certain things, struggling to grasp certain concepts, etc… but on other hand, perhaps you’ve experienced students that believe something is very easy to play (they have the musical understanding) but struggle to execute their playing efficiently – perhaps their musical understanding is ahead of their technical proficiency.

This is where creative troubleshooting plays a vital role in the growth of a student. Some students will lose interest if the exercises you give them don’t change because they don’t feel challenged; they already know they can play the exercise. So think of ways of adding little variations, or challenges, or fun games – it will keep students playing the thing you want them to work on, which gives you more time to hone in on students’ technique.

In my experience, many of these fun challenges and games tie in with sport. Here’s a few ideas:

  • PBs (Personal Bests) – this works well with repetition (asking a student to play an exercise 8 times without stopping, then building on that)
  • Time trials – playing a passage of music without stopping and recording a time that a student can work on improving upon
  • Playing the exercise but adding a layer of difficulty – an element that will challenge them and give them a new perspective on the exercise
    (A great example of this – for the drummers – is Mike Johnston’s “Paradiddle Alphabet Challenge” – )

The goal here: we want students to practice without them feeling like it’s practice. When we practice, we progress. When we progress, we feel more fulfilled. We have more fun & confidence and want to do more, achieve more, practice more – and so the cycle continues…

I’d love to hear your thoughts – teachers: when challenges arise, what strategies do you use to engage with your students?