How to Make Lesson Time Fly
 

Written by:
Joan Cochran Sommers
Publication:
Accord Magazine, USA. Reprinted courtesy of owner/editor Faithe Deffner. Back copies available.
Date written:
January 1979

How delightful it is for both student and teacher to become so engrossed in a lesson that the end of the hour comes all too soon. What can be more gratifying than to see a student reluctantly close the music book?

Certainly, some young people are strong on self-motivation, but others need a little help, and the teacher is in a position to revitalize the approach so that interest is sparked.

Too often we settle into a cut-and dried and comfortable routine of teaching a lesson and everyone involved becomes bored, teacher and student alike. If the same pattern is followed in every lesson (scales, technique, prepared repertoire, new pieces), is it any wonder that a student gets bored with predictable lessons? Teachers must prepare themselves for each lesson to make it most effective and interesting, Some of these ideas might be different; others may simply be reminders of a long-forgotten approach. At any rate, if one or another offers a new angle in your teaching experiences, then be my guest.

Things go better when one has definite goals set up throughout the year to be accomplished at a given time. As musicians, we all understand the rhythms that pervade most aspects of our lives. We work and we play, we are active and we rest, we inhale and we exhale. Effective learning has this rhythm too. Our students benefit greatly if we keep this in mind when planning their lessons and choosing the pieces they are to learn.

Motivate your students! Compliment your students! This is a hard one. Teachers often feel that they must criticize because this is what they are being paid to do. Perhaps that is not all we are being paid to do. We are supposed to be developing people as well as musicians and we are supposed to make them feel good about themselves. There is always something we can compliment a student on if we make the effort to find it. The remark may be made about some unique trait, ability, physical feature, rhythmic talent - anything. Build his self-esteem and elicit positive responses with compliments.

Let the student know that practicing every day in a logical, disciplined manner will make the difference in whether he will be a good musician or a bad musician and that the choice is his to make. Let him assume responsibility for improvement, practice, and success. Let him discover the satisfaction of achievement that will make his music study a pleasure and a joy.

Involve the student by asking him, "How do you plan to practice this? How many pieces can you learn this month?" and have him turn in time sheets for each week. This is important for both student and teacher. Of course, there may be some stretching, but it eventually shows up. Meantime, there is some idea of how much effort is being used to learn and master something. If a student is unhappy about his progress on a particular piece, it often is easy to point out that not much time has really been spent on the piece due to illness, school activities, or other music perhaps. As teacher, we soon learn whether we are assigning too much or too little work for a given amount of effort usually spent. The time sheets clue us in on the kind of week the student has had.

With my younger students I always ask, "Do you have your thinking cap on?" before we tackle a problem. This lets him know that it is he who must do the necessary work with his brain and his fingers and that he must consciously work at it. He must think to do this. It won't happen accidentally.

Try reversing teacher-student roles during a lesson. Let the student test you while inadvertently learning something himself.

It is interesting to find ways of accomplishing more than one thing at a time. For instance, duet with the student. You play one hand, he plays the other. This could teach three things - concentration on a problem (isolation of the problem), benefits of hands-separate practice, and the pleasure of teamwork (particularly for those who are not usually involved in group situations such as class lessons or bands).

Concomitant learning is one of the most effective ways for all of us to learn. When referring to a bass or chord, use the terms Tonic or I, Dominant or V, Subdominant or IV, for example. Show the student where the A and B sections are, and even more if possible. Point out phrases from the very beginning! As an adjudicator, I see many students who use the correct bellows directions but who simply do not change their bellows at the exact moment of the phrase or note change. Even young beginners do not want hiccups in their music and, if mastered along with all the other basics, such as reading notes, this need never be a problem. It is amazing how quickly a student can grasp the form of the music if a few moments are taken to point it out to him. Learning the form of the music can save hours of rote repetition (especially when memorizing) and it has rescued many performers in stress situations.

Play a lot of music during the lesson, but avoid beginning and ending with the same set of pieces. Review, but skip around. And, don't feel that repeating those same pieces isn't good for the student. Remember that repetition serves a purpose, both emotionally an intellectually. It reinforces learning. Playing many pieces with the same notes allows a student to explore the many combinations in which notes may be joined, and to experiment with new patterns as well as test old patterns in new circumstances. This leads me to another suggestion.

When reviewing, play the easier pieces in several different keys. Even beginners (especially those with five-finger positions plus a thumb or fifth finger extension) can play in several different keys on the 12-bass accordion. The accompaniment is a natural! So what if the same fingering is used in the key of Bb as was used in the key of C. It won't do any harm, momentarily, and far more important, the future processes of real transposition techniques have been set in motion. In addition, you are playing a given piece four or five times instead of once. Many areas of discussion have been opened - for now and for the future.

Even before seeing and understanding a written rhythm, a student can play one by ear. Why worry about him not reading? Eventually he will, and in the meantime, he has mastered a rhythmically new or difficult problem before it becomes a problem. For example, even a new student can make rhythmical variations on tunes he is learning.
(A simple becomes or or or The combination are endless.)

Aural skills are almost totally ignored by many teachers. This unfortunate lack of attention to one of the most vital aspects of music will eventually make its ugly debut, too often after the student enters college and has become somewhat shy about singing a simple major third. Encourage a student to listen to various chords. Ask him how they sound to him. Develop his awareness of music. Let him feel the difference in a major and a minor chord.

Interest can be generated by inviting other students in and having a request hour. Urge students to learn and be able to perform for others, pieces on which they haven't necessarily had weeks of lessons. Make them feel they are capable musicians without another person always guiding them.

And, finally, let the student learn any kind of music he wants to learn so long as it is within his ability. Who cares if it is only a badly composed school fight song? Right now, that piece of music (remember it is music after all) just may be his chance for glory among his peers if he can play it well. In fact, it could be his one musical effort that will be appreciated and admired by his baseball buddies and at that moment, it could mean the difference in whether he will or will not take music lessons.

Similarly, we should not insist that every piece be memorized, especially because it is desirable to guild good, fast reading skills. Students will memorize those pieces they particularly like or need to memorize for a purpose, and if time is not spent to memorize all the others, they can learn many more selections. To summarize, I believe that all teachers need to examine their routines periodically. Even if we have a "system" that works well, a bit of variety in that system can generate enthusiasm so that both student and teacher are optimistic and excited about each lesson. Try introducing a new element each week. The lesson periods will pass unbelievably fast and will be looked forward to with eager anticipation. You will find new goals being successfully accomplished and someday, some student just might say, "Gee! Is it time to quit already?"

Joan Cochran Sommers is the head of the accordion department at the Conservatory of Music of the University of Missouri in Kansas City, where the accordion is fully recognized for work toward the B.M., B.M.E. and B.A. degrees.

She began her professional career at the age of 16 when she appeared as soloist with the Elkhart, Indiana Municipal Band. Since that time, she has made appearances throughout the United States, including one at Town Hall and two at Carnegie Hall in New York City.


She represented the U.S. in the 1955 Coupe Mondiale, the world championship held in Brighton, England, and in the one that took place in Biel, Switzerland in 1956.

Ms. Sommers has given two world premiere performances -- the 'Suite for Accordion' by Alan Hovhaness and 'Psychiatry', a quintet for accordion and string quartet by Robert Russell Bennett.

In recent years, Joan Cochran Sommers has distinguished herself as the teacher of numerous outstanding students, several of whom have taken top prizes in national competitions which qualified them to represent the U.S. at various world championships. Her work as an arranger for accordion orchestra, and as a conductor, has been acclaimed. She is also currently president of the Accordion Teachers' Guild.

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