“I took lessons as a kid, but it was mostly just practicing scales, and it seemed more like homework… I gave piano lessons three attempts – the first time when I was a kid… Then, when I was sixteen… but it was still the same scales… and when I was in my early twenties… I even played ‘Eleanor Rigby’ on piano for the teacher… The teacher just wanted to hear me play even more scales, so that put an end to the lessons.”
The New Yorker, 25 October 2021
How could multiple educators dismiss Paul McCartney’s vast creativity in favor of dreary scales?
Unfortunately, countless music teachers prioritize mechanics over art.
But we can put an end to such dismal teaching by updating how we frame the goals, content, and organization of music study. Here’s a brief explanation.
Holistic Music Teaching & Learning
In The Musician’s Way, I recommend distributing the material that students learn across five zones, documenting tasks on practice sheets or notebooks. By consistently tackling material in all zones, students progress holistically across artistic and technical realms.
When teachers assign scales within such a framework, those scales constitute a mere slice of an inclusive artistic curriculum. And I want to emphasize that music lessons, even initial ones, should be artistic lessons.
That is, the primary goal of music study, in my view, is for students to be able to perform confidently and expressively.
I’m not saying that all students hunger to perform in public. But when people take music lessons, it’s because they aim to soulfully play or sing music in line with their tastes and abilities.
And even beginners can perform well provided that teachers assign elementary selections and supply students with basic performance skills.
In sum, to reach that fundamental goal of competent performance, students need to assimilate repertoire, musical understanding and performance skills as well as functional abilities on their instruments.
Holistic music teaching, therefore, covers all of those essentials while adapting to the backgrounds, interests, and propensities of each student.
“Music lessons should be artistic lessons.”
Practice Zones Facilitate Teaching & Learning
My five-zone structure facilitates music teaching and learning by organizing student practice time, goals, and materials in a straightforward framework, as explained in Chapter 1 of The Musician’s Way:
The Five Teaching & Practice Zones
1. New Material
2. Developing Material
3. Performance Material
I dedicate three zones to the mastery of repertoire and performance skills, labeling them the New, Developing, and Performance Material zones. A composition progresses from one zone to another as a student learns it.
The Technique and Musicianship Zones address functional, musical, and creative skills. The Technique Zone encompasses the likes of exercises and etudes – scales included – such that students acquire the building blocks of musical expression. Students often apply scale work in the Musicianship Zone, too, as they advance their improvisation, music theory, sight-reading, arranging, and other skills.
In conclusion, when we teach scales, let’s make sure that they occupy a concise portion of student practice time and that we present them in artistic contexts, using them to cultivate control of tone, timing, dynamics, and articulation as well as habits of easefulness, mental focus, and harmonic awareness.
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- Page 9 of The Musician’s Way displays a sample student practice sheet showing one week of practice material in all five zones.
- On the Downloads Page of this site, you can access a free practice sheet plus other tools that optimize music teaching, practice, and performance.
© 2022 Gerald Klickstein