Thoughts on teaching musical instruments in schools

Within school music education, a common approach has been to teach the basics of an instrument, such as the recorder, in a group setting. Group teaching is a useful technique. For example, it is an effective means of teaching melodies to people who already play an instrument. However there are a number of problems that arise when teaching the early stages of playing instruments in this way, and I feel that this is the root cause of much frustration with music. These issues relate to a lack of individual focus, and the fact that everyone learns differently.

Varying experience and interests

When teaching a group, different individuals will have differing experience. I think this is especially notable when teaching music in a school environment, as some of the children will have an interest in music while others won't. This matters as playing an instrument with any skill is a lot of work. I feel that before someone would be willing to do this, they need to have developed an interest in music. I also think that exposure to virtuosic performance is critical, to convey what makes an instrument 'cool'.

While instruments like the recorder are visually simplistic, they are able to do more than many people are aware. They are also more complicated to play than intuition suggests. Teaching these instruments is problematic in part because popular music rarely uses melody instruments, and children rarely listen to instrumental music. Because of this, I believe that before even attempting to introduce an instrument, it is important to expose the children to a wide range of music. Trying to hook into well known music of their generation, and instruments linked to it, may also help.

Even with this effort, not everyone will be interested and there is no problem with that. Different children will have different skills, and will gravitate towards different things. I feel that the purpose of a school should be to create this exposure, to let them discover what works for them. If someone doesn't get along with music, there is almost certainly something else they do get along with. Learning an instrument requires a certain dedication and attention to detail, and not everyone has this.

One of the bigger issues that I see with how school education is structured is that it doesn't account for specialisation. In the real world, people have differing levels of experience in different things, and when you don't know something, you either ask someone else to help or look something up. School-level education is more based on the idea that everyone is equally good at everything. This creates a lot of problems as it stigmatises people for being bad at things that would have no impact on them in the real world.

Technique and a lack of individual focus

The task of playing an instrument is heavily dependent on technique, and there are numerous ways that this can go wrong even with simple instruments. In a group setting, it isn't possible for a teacher to give any student their full attention, and this can allow mistakes in technique to go unnoticed. To a child, this can be very frustrating as poor technique almost always makes the players job harder and, frequently, mistakes are not apparent unless they are pointed out.

While not directly related to music, I have an example to give. I have flexible thumbs and when I was taught how to write by hand, I naturally folded my thumb backwards. This subtle mistake caused me to avoid writing for years, as the last joint of my thumb quickly became extremely painful, and made it impossible to write more than a few sentences. It can be rectified simply by not folding the thumb back, yet I lacked the analytical skill to realise this as a child.

Problems of this nature are far more plentiful with musical instruments and, with the wind instruments that are often taught in schools, are often invisible as many techniques happen inside the body. Easy mistakes to make include curling fingers, misplacing fingers, or puffing instead of using the tongue to separate notes. This last point is especially troublesome. It's impossible to see, and would be impossible to hear in a situation where multiple children are playing at once.

Different mistakes will also occur in different students, due to variations in hand sizes, finger lengths and joint flexibility. Identifying these things requires experience, as well as a deep understanding of an instrument. Some mistakes are relativity subtle, and may not be identified by someone who is not an expert player.

With such problems, highlighting a mistake once is usually not enough; it must be pointed out several times until it becomes automatic. Even if that is done, a student may fall back into the 'intuitive' yet incorrect pattern unless they are personally aware of it such that they can self-correct.

Problems of people learning differently

Another problem that arises from group teaching is the fact that everyone learns differently. Different teachers and teaching approaches will work better or worse for a given subset of individuals. Thus, a class of students will fall into the following groups:

  • People who pick it up immediately
  • People who will understand if given more time
  • People who could learn something using a different approach
  • People are genuinely incapable of learning a subject
  • A combination of the above

Music can be approached from multiple directions, including by ear, through physical demonstration, or theoretically. Within a group it is impossible to optimally cater to all of these learning styles, thus the lowest common denominator is often used. This is a problem as the approach used will not make sense to a subset of learners, making them feel bad, when in fact they could get it immediately with a different approach. For a single individual, the optimal approach may even vary between different aspects of music.

Lumping the minority in this case into 'learning disabilities' is greatly oversimplifying the problem because even within the group that does 'get' a given methodology, there will be variations in how well it works for them. There will be a group who do understand, yet could do so more easily if something were explained differently, resulting in reduced performance. This is a multidimensional problem and not a simple one.

Because of this, I feel that it is absolutely essential that students be able to experience multiple teachers. People tend to teach using the methodology which makes sense to them, which may or may not make sense to the students. If someone obviously doesn't understand, it is important to offer different perspectives. I believe that this is easier to do today due to the common availability of video tutorials.

In a school setting, some students will immediately grasp something and want to learn deeper or different aspects than the group is teaching. Within a rigid pre-planned structure, this is often impossible and can be frustrating. Such students should be encouraged to continue to study in a self-guided way, and teachers should be willing to answer questions.

Poor environment for ear training

If a bunch of instruments with the same timbre are playing in unison but slightly out of tune, it is almost impossible for any single individual to hear how to correct their own pitch as everything they do sounds dissonant. This happens because a collection of out of tune notes do not represent a single 'note' but a compound note from the flattest to the sharpest player. Thus, there is no centre of pitch for the ear to latch onto.

The following tool demonstrates this issue. It plays numerous out of tune pitches centred around a note, and overlaid on this is an additional pitch, which you can control with the slider. Notice that nothing you do makes the result sound good.

I don't believe that intonation, or ear training, pose huge problems, but they can only be learned if the environment is conducive to doing so. An easy way to do this is to play with simple accompaniment, as this makes pitch errors sound outright bad. For example, when playing in unison with a drone, an ocarina will warble when out of tune. However this can only be observed in a quiet environment.

I watched a performance at the Budrio ocarina festival in 2017, where a large group of children performed a song with interludes on the ocarina. I found this interesting because the sung parts sounded great but, as soon as they switched to ocarina, they took a nosedive. They were wildly out of tune with each other, spoiling what was otherwise a good performance. They obviously had a sense of pitch as they were singing in tune, but were unable to transfer that skill to the ocarina. As the voice is built into the human system, it is probably just more intuitive for children.

A friend of mine corroborated this with reference to the kazoo. The kazoo is played by 'singing' or humming while blowing, and the instrument modifies this sound with a membrane. Thus the instrument is essentially played as an extension of the body. My friend found that students were able to play it in tune even though its pitches are even less fixed than the ocarina's.

Instrument choice

Both the issues of unobvious mistakes in technique and issues related to intonation can be easily addressed with instrument choice. Firstly, everything that goes into playing the instrument should be visible, and having stable tuning would make it easier to play as a group without sounding terrible. Examples of instruments that fit these requirements include the keyboard and xylophone. Regarding wind instruments, I think that the melodica is the most intuitive, as pressure controls volume instead of pitch and articulation can be created with the keys. The kazoo mentioned above, which is effectively a wind instrument given how it is played, is also quite intuitive if someone can already sing.

Given the state of modern technology, I also feel that electronic instruments offer a lot of untapped potential for this task. Unlike traditional instruments, electronic instruments are not limited by a physical system. The features they present can change. For instance, one could start with an instrument with no pitch or volume variance whatsoever, letting someone learn the fingerings, then introduce these capabilities as they get better. The instrument could also provide tools like a drone, to help the player learn intonation.

There seems to be a thing where 'historical' instruments become treated as children's instruments. While it may seem intuitive given that they look simpler, this practice makes absolutely no sense. Take the clarinet versus the chalumeau, for instance. The chalumeau was not designed for teaching children, but is a technological ancestor of the modern clarinet, and was played by serious musicians of the time. In actuality, the modern instruments tend to be easier to play, as they represent a higher standard of technological development. While key systems can look complex, the actual fingerings are not.

Inadequate time allocation

The biggest issue I see with teaching music, and instruments especially, in schools is simply that they don't allocate anywhere near enough time to do this properly. A large part of what makes learning an instrument difficult for children is the task requires use of the subconscious mind. Musicians interact with instruments much like you do with a computer keyboard if you type regularly; you think about what you want to write, not where the keys are.

To play an instrument fluently, the actions required to play it must be transferred to the subconscious. To do this effectively, the student must practise frequently. Often, this is approached with one lesson a week, then asking the child to practise in their own time. I don't think this is effective, as it requires them to work on faith that they will get better in the future. Ultimately, they don't practise, and don't make progress.

In this case, it is better to show instead of tell. Instead of one lesson a week, have a lesson every day for a week. By doing so, the students are effectively guaranteed to see the development of muscle memory and resulting ability to play better. They don't have to work on faith, and I think this demonstration would make them more willing to practise alone in the future.

I think the practice of teaching an instrument, such as recorder, up to a trivial skill level and then dropping it entirely is shortsighted. It means that the student is never aware of what the instrument is actually capable of. It also does not allow them to develop the muscle memory to play well, as this can only be developed over a large stretch of time. If introducing another instrument is needed to demonstrate a different aspect of music, keep playing both. Studying multiple instruments is useful as all instruments have weaknesses and limitations.

An example of this approach is how Highland pipers use the practice chanter; they start learning on the practice chanter before they move up to the pipes, but they don't stop using the practice chanter when they move up. Instead, they use the practice chanter for learning new music that they can play on the pipes later.

Closing

I think that group teaching is an optimisation to reduce teacher numbers, not to increase learning efficiency. It is a valid approach, but like everything, has pros and cons. These must be accounted for, or it may result in learner frustration. Becouse of these issues I feel that it would be better to teach the basics of playing instruments one to one, by extracting a student from another class. Commonality does not imply that something is a good idea, and the opposite is often the case. Thus, looking to alternatives is always good.

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