By: Konner Scott
Over my time as a music teacher, I’ve learned that I have to walk a delicate tightrope with each student. On one side lays the pit of having too rigid a curriculum, which can lead to a student feeling stunted and suffocated. On the other is a quagmire of chaos, where I’m so focused on “going with the flow” that I’m not adequately prepared with the appropriate lesson materials and the lesson devolves into anarchy.
The fascinating thing about this tightrope is it changes location and elevation based on the personality and learning style of each student (and sometimes, even with the same student from week to week).
I’ve learned that there are personality traits that lend themselves to each particular strategy. For students who have a hard time focusing, being able to stay flexible and jump activities quickly can be a huge benefit. Some students can be picky about the curriculum they enjoy; once eyes start rolling and wandering, I will do my best to push the student to finish the particular activity, and then I’ll listen to their cues and move on to something they may find more interesting. (Even this is case-by-case, though; some students benefit more from being pushed through their ennui!)
Creative types, too, often benefit from a bit less structure. For my students that show creative inclinations, I will try to mix creative activities into the lesson on the fly. Perhaps we’ll break down the structure and chord progression of the song they’re working on, or I’ll ask them to show me what they would have done differently if THEY were the composer of the song they’re learning.
As a songwriter and composer myself, I also have a plethora of songwriting/composition exercises that can help my more creative students learn the fundamentals of the creative process as it applies to music. This almost always tends to be a looser curriculum than the act of merely learning songs, though! Whether that’s because creative endeavors inherently demand less structure, or because creative students learn better in a less structured environment, it’s hard to say- the point, though, is that it works.
I’ve taught songwriting lessons where the entire 30-minute period is devoted to trying to find the perfect third line lyric for verse two; in others, we crank out the instrumental part for the entire song and get halfway done with writing the lyrics. The focus and scope of the lesson changes based on the student, their headspace, the progress they’ve made, and about a million other factors- I’ve learned to trust my intuition in these situations and follow the path as it appears in front of us.
For students who are very “by-the-book”, or have the ability to commit their focus single-mindedly to a task for a long period of time, it helps to have more structure in the curriculum. I’ll often chart out not only what songs we’re going to work on, but perhaps which specific sections we’ll tackle, and sometimes even the exact notes, dynamics, or articulation required to achieve the proper results in their playing. Again, it all depends on the student’s personality, skill level, and progress on a particular song!
It’s worth noting as well that some students who fall in the more creative or less focused categories often benefit from more structure in their lessons, and students who are particular process-oriented and systematic can learn a lot from breaking away from a traditional structure and trying some off-the-wall activities. The balance is more of an art than a science, and as a teacher, your intuition for what’s required tends to develop over time! As it stands, I prepare for my lessons by planning appropriately, but I’m always ready to go off-roading if the situation calls for it. One size does not fit all!