I’ve taught a wide array of students during the past 10 years as a private bass teacher. Some of them made me tear my hair out, some of them remain good friends and close contacts to this day, but all of them taught me something important, both about me as a teacher and about the different learning styles and levels of interest found between different students.
By and large, the students I teach in a private lesson setting taking lessons because they want to take them (the other reason is that their parents are forcing them, but few of my students fall into that category these days). Though they may express it in different ways, these students honestly want to improve as musicians, and my job as teacher is to find the best approach for each individual.
Styles of Students
Everybody’s unique, of course (a point I’ve emphasized throughout this series), and therefore requires an individualized approach from the private teacher, but there are three general categories into which most students fall. These are categories generally start to manifest themselves in middle school, and students usually fall pretty clearly into one of these three categories by high school:
1. The “Music School-Bound” – These students are really gunning for it, working toward a career as a professional musician, and they therefore adhere most closely to the curricular list I outlined in part 3 of this series and will spend the last two years of high school going through the audition preparation activities described in part 4 of this series. To put it simply, these people listen to what you, the teacher, says and works diligently on perfecting their craft. Teachers wish that all their students fell into this category. They may or may not be actually end up going to music school, but they place a high priority on their musical development, and they end up practicing the most as a result. Students in this category usually (from me, at least) have lessons that end up resembling college-level lessons.
2. The “Plethora of Activities” Student – Students these days are often pulled in a dozen different directions, feeling pressure to achieve academically, play sports, participate in clubs, star in the school play, and do music all at the same time. They may love music, but they have many other interests as well, making practice time a challenge. Having diverse interests is a really good thing, and as high school progresses students usually settle on a fewer number of activities in which they really excel. Practice time is a challenge with students like this, and my focus as a teacher often turns into practice time management, focusing on a couple of clear concepts and outlining ways to fit in practice time where possible. Some of these students love music but simply don’t practice. The old saying “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” comes to mind with some of these students–no amount of pleading, cajoling, and stern admonition on my part has an affect aside from making them dread lessons. Now, there’s a fine line between empathy and being a pushover, and I try to be careful in this regard, but I sincerely believe that students can benefit from lessons even if they’re not practicing much if the focus of the lessons is shifted appropriately. Still, lessons are always more valuable and will lead to exponentially faster improvement if students regularly practice between them.
3. The Reluctant Learner – I have fewer and fewer of these private students with each passing year (I think, at least–maybe I’m deluding myself!), but most teachers working with pre-college instrumental students will work with people who are not taking lessons because they want to but because they are being made to, either by their parents or by their orchestra director. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t like me or music, just that they’re not really that into taking lessons. And while I’ve found that students in this category frequently metamorphosize into one of the two previous categories, some students just don’t particularly want to be there. As a result, I generally have to be firmer with these students, setting concrete practice goals–they are not likely to work further into a piece out of musical curiosity, are less likely to practice, and may be less receptive to methods that work on the students that do want to be there. I always try to keep in mind that, even if a student isn’t their out of their own free will, I can still make the lesson an enjoyable experience for them, and that just because someone starts out not wanting to be there doesn’t mean that they won’t lear, over time, to enjoy their lessons (or aspects of their lessons, at the very least). After all, there have been innumerable activities in my life that I have not really wanted to do. Some I learned to love, some I learned to appreciate, and some I simply never enjoyed. Who knows what students will end up gravitating toward? I always try to keep an open mind with students, having seen so many people’s attitudes of indifference transform into enthusiasm over time.
These by no means are hard and fast categories; in fact, I rarely use only one of the following approaches, usually opting for two (or more) of the following styles. Keep in mind, also, that I typically teach high school bassists, with some middle schoolers mixed in as well. I don’t work with a whole lot of elementary school bassists. As a result, I tend to be less of a taskmaster and more of a mentor with the older students, and more of a taskmaster with the younger students. This is what works for me, but I’m sure that different teaching approaches:
1. Taskmaster – Some students need a lot of structure from their lesson teachers. If you don’t tell them to do it, they won’t do it. If you tell them to do it but don’t consistently check up on the previous week’s goals, holding them personally accountable for their practice, they won’t do it either. There is, of course, a bit of the taskmaster in every student/teacher relationship (otherwise you’re not really teaching, you’re just hanging out), with the expectation of some sort of consistent practice and improvement. With students that need to be held accountable for each step of their practicing, our lessons take on a fairly regimented format, with some sort of warm-up, followed by assessment of each of the practice goals for the previous week, the introduction of a new piece, section, or concept, and a few minutes at the end to write down each specific goal and how they will approach it. I may get as specific as (play this bar five times, then do this bar eight times), though I’m rarely this regimented with high school-age students, trying instead to encourage them how to analyze and solve problems on their own.
2. Problem-Solver – I often fall into a role of problem-solving facilitator with my older students, trying whenever possible to get students analyzing their own playing and get them thinking about how to solve problems. I think that I used to just tell people what to do a lot more when I started teaching. Now I tend to ask a lot of questions, explore different options, and (this is really useful) video record them on my laptop and watch it back with them, pausing when necessary to talk about what we’re hearing, what works and what doesn’t work, and how we can work on particular passages. There is, of course, going to be a lot of intermingling between these roles. A teacher who is 100% problem-solver is not likely to be very effective, since they will have no clear achievement standards for their students. At the same time, a teacher who is 100% taskmaster may have obedient students who dread every lesson, learning over time to hate music in general. I probably err too much on the problem-solver and mentor side of things, but that’s my style, and it seems to work for me.
3. Mentor – I feel that the responsibilities of a private lesson teacher extend beyond these isolated hour-long lessons, both in leading students toward youth music programs and summer camps, and also getting them excited about the art form in general and showing them what’s really great about music. I like to, whenever possible, get students excited about being a member of the double bass community, and I try to get them as enthusiastic about the art form as I am.
4. Practice Buddy – Sometimes students (generally younger students) need someone to actually walk through the entire practicing process with them. With some students (and this is not my favorite role, but it ends up being one I inhabit from time to time), I become like a human practice supplement, playing drone pitches, playing along an octave below, keeping time, making them loop passages over and over, and basically doing all the things that they should be doing during their own practice sessions. I fall into this role (though there’s a bit of this approach in nearly every student’s lesson) most often with people who don’t really practice. I try to both be an example for them, showing them what they should be doing during their practice sessions, and if someone is simply not working, I end up making the lesson an hour of highly supervised and guided practice. If they don’t practice at all, at least they get that one hour a week, though students that don’t work on their own typically end up becoming “former students” of mine in short order!
5. Organizer – Some students may be great problem-solvers and very enthusiastic, but are just disorganized in their approach to practicing and to the instrument. Helping them to keep a practice journal and helping them to figure out how much of each practice session should be devoted to a particular piece, etude or technical exercise can help them to get more efficient and useful practice sessions in. Unlike the “Practice Buddy” students, these students typically do want to work, but they haven’t figured out a very effective way to practice. I like helping people with this kind of structure–I’ve thought about how to best organize my practicing for countless hours–and most students that fall into this role move out of it after a short time and into one of the previously mentioned roles (though hopefully not #4!).
The complete series – Success in the Private Lesson Studio – This multi-part series details my thoughts, perspectives, and observations on what makes a good private lesson experience and how to best use this interaction as a springboard for future career success.