Private teaching methods of university music professors: Observations, analysis, and application

October 1, 2001


During the month of October 2001, I observed the private teaching methods of music professors at Brigham Young University. Though each professor’s methods differed in some details, the underlying principles of effective teaching were very similar: first, provide an environment in which the student is comfortable and undistracted; second, provide clear objectives, including honest evaluations of progress; and third, provide needed motivation.

1. Provide a comfortable learning environment

A comfortable learning environment includes a trusting and secure student-teacher relationship, proper facilities and equipment, and a distraction-free environment. These allow student and teacher to concentrate on the lesson, prevent unnecessary stress, and promote optimal performance.

Most of the teachers observed had friendly, affable relationships with their students. All but one made at least brief casual conversation about subjects unrelated to the lesson material. The teacher who did not seemed to have the least friendly (though not unfriendly) relationship with his student. None of the teachers or students seemed distracted by the small talk, and all successfully got “down to business” in a short time. Teachers that used humor or personal anecdotes in teaching seemed to have the closest relationships with their students, and those students seemed to enjoy their lessons more. This more personal connection augmented but did not supplant the professional relationship. Good teacher-student relationships provided positive motivation for students to achieve and helped prevent roadblocks such as nervousness.

The environment in which lessons were given affected the ability of both teacher and student to function at their full capacity. A disorganized office seemed to yield disorganized lessons. Teachers who kept their offices meticulously ordered spent less time searching for needed materials. They also seemed better able to concentrate on the lessons. Students were more attentive and focused. Routine was also a factor—some students seemed unsure of where to sit or where to put their belongings, but some were comfortable with an established routine and began their lessons more at ease.

Properly-functioning instruments proved crucial to the success of the lessons. A leaking clarinet and a bassoon with a sticky key each took up valuable lesson time with repairs and adjustments. Still, making the needed repairs immediately prevented greater problems—poor equipment could have caused unnecessary anxiety or encouraged bad habits. Both teachers used the circumstances to the best advantage, improvising lessons in instrument maintenance. This approach will help students’ understanding of the importance of well-cared-for instruments and possibly prevent wasting lesson time in the future.

Some of the teachers showed greater commitment to keeping focused on the lesson. They allowed incoming phone calls to be answered by voice mail, asked drop-ins to return at another time, and paid close attention to the student and the lesson. Others seemed distracted by the telephone, computer, or other tasks. Interruptions broke the concentration of both the teacher and the student. Teachers were unable to accomplish as much in their lessons and risked alienating their students.

All of the teachers expressed understanding and commiseration with regard to technical problems. The oboe teacher, for example, sympathized with her student who was struggling with a less-than-perfect reed, and the clarinet teacher shared stories of his past tonguing problems. This attitude seemed to help the students relax, allowing them to see problem areas as surmountable challenges rather than personal deficiencies.

Each teacher used at least a few minutes of lesson time to discuss history, theory, or other topics. This gave the students additional background knowledge relating to their instruments, gave them a physical rest, and prevented their lessons from becoming dull and frustrating drill sessions. When the lectures went more than a minute or two, though, the students tended to get restless and fidget with their instruments. When teachers balanced intellectual instruction appropriately with hands-on training, students developed both aspects more easily.

2. Provide clear objectives

Providing clear objectives appropriate to the student’s abilities allows the student to succeed at achieving goals in the short term and make greater progress in the long term. Goals that are specific give direction to practice sessions and lessons and help students to break problems down into manageable chunks. They also aid students in meeting deadlines like jury examinations and recital dates. Goals with an appropriate degree of difficulty help students progress without undue frustration.

Proper feedback is an essential component of goal achievement. If students are falsely led to believe their performances are perfect, they will find little reason to practice or attend lessons and their progress will stop. On the other hand, overly harsh criticism may affect students’ self esteem, choke motivation, and encourage quitting. Feedback must honestly reflect both the good and the improvable in students’ playing.

Each observed teacher gave their students a chance to show progress made on the week’s assignments. The way feedback was given by the teacher had a strong effect on the mood and the success of the lesson. Some, such as the flute teacher, allowed the student to play assigned material only in short segments, interrupted every few bars for correction or other comments. The flute student seemed increasingly nervous with each interruption and seemed to make even more mistakes. Others, like the bassoon professor, allowed the student to play an entire etude and waited until the end to make comments (although he did give a word or two of unobtrusive praise during the performance when the student successfully played a difficult note). This allowed the student to make a more satisfying demonstration of her progress, and also gave the teacher a chance to identify the most severe and frequent problems. The bassoon student seemed more at ease with the criticism. Feedback focused on the most crucial problems, rather than the infinitesimal details, led to more immediate successes with potential for broader application.

The type of feedback also proved important to the success of the lesson. A student who received primarily negative comments was quick to bemoan her own faults and seemed to feel little hope of success. A student who received more positively-oriented remarks tackled new situations with confidence. One teacher, however, seemed to be trying too hard to avoid any unpleasant feelings, and may have given her student a distorted view of her progress. When teachers made necessary negative feedback in a gentle and understanding manner, students became aware of shortcomings but did not feel despair or resentment.

The clarinet professor used his student’s notebook to record assignments and the concepts discussed, and referred to it several times during the lesson. The student had made additional notes during the week, and the professor commented on them. Other teachers had no written records of previous lessons, and most couldn’t remember what they had assigned. Some of the students, who presumably had not prepared the assigned material, seemed to take advantage of this situation, but other (more conscientious and prepared) students reminded their teachers. In general, students who kept records of their assignments seemed more aware of their own progress and more eager to share their most recent accomplishments with their teachers.

Some of the teachers had their own instruments at hand and used them to demonstrate concepts to the students. The oboe teacher had hers ready, but did not use it. The bassoon professor had his in its case during the entire lesson. The flute teacher used hers most extensively, modeling both positive and negative examples. She also “traded” with her student, each playing alternating segments of an exercise. This allowed the student to easily and intuitively produce the desired effects. The student did complain, however, that her teacher tended to play negative examples too frequently and sometimes failed to follow them with positive examples, leaving the student with a mental image of incorrect playing. The clarinet professor was practicing when his student arrived, giving the student a chance to observe correct technique, hear an unfamiliar piece from the clarinet repertoire, and witness a good example of dedicated practice. The bassoon teacher, who kept his bassoon in its case, had difficulty explaining correct posture to his student, a concept that might have easily been demonstrated and imitated. The oboe professor had similar difficulty describing a desired change in the student’s tone. Those teachers who modeled ideas for their students produced desired results without negative criticism and without having to try to explain abstract or obscure concepts.

Besides modeling physical aspects of playing, the teachers modeled attitudes they wanted their students to possess. As already mentioned, the clarinet teacher demonstrated by his example the importance of consistent, focused practice. Several of the teachers hinted at their own continuing study and improvement, despite seeming mastery of their instruments. Some shared their own recent successes or discoveries.

Each of the teachers had lesson material organized to cover several categories of material, including items such as scales and arpeggios, exercises for specific technical issues, literature, and etudes. Most were careful to assign items from each category and to hear previously assigned material. The flute teacher devoted several minutes to discussion of previous goals in each area, and helped the student to set goals for the next week. This meticulous organization and management of practice time and lesson time ensures that students develop strong fundamental technique while also gaining experience and knowledge in performing specific pieces of literature.

Only one teacher used visual aids other than his own instrument. He used models and drawings to explain tonguing techniques that would otherwise be impossible for the student to see. He also used extensive mental imagery to explain concepts and to remind the student of concepts previously discussed. The student responded well to the visual aids, but sometimes needed further explanation of the less-concrete imagery. Proper use of peripheral learning aids is very effective if definite connections can be made with the realities of the instrument or technique, but can be distracting if unclear.

Students showed greater enthusiasm even for relatively dull assignments when their teachers explained the reasons behind them. Understanding the desired results of each exercise made them more interesting and gave students guidance in practicing them properly.

3. Motivate appropriately

Motivation in music students, especially advanced students, should be largely internal. The overuse of external motivations (rewards and/or punishments) tends to develop dependencies without which progress ceases. Advanced students should find inherent rewards in achieving goals, improving skills, and performing well, as well as inherent punishments in failing to meet expectations. A teacher’s role in motivating students might include drawing the students’ attention to areas of possible improvement, helping to measure progress, and providing challenging material.

The observed teachers uniformly avoided heavy-handed or intimidating means to motivating students. All of the students observed demonstrated high levels of proficiency in musical performance, and all seemed to be primarily self-motivated. The only external rewards offered by any teacher were verbal praise or the incentive of successful performance in a masterclass or recital. The only threat employed was the vague implication that failure to practice would produce embarrassing performance situations. Another motivating factor seen in each lesson was the teacher’s own example—discussing, for instance, their own upcoming high-profile performances, or showing in their own playing the results of years of hard work.

One difference among the teachers observed was the amount of freedom given to the student in choosing the material to be studied. One teacher had been allowing her student to study repertoire independently, using the lessons only to work on fundamental technique and etudes. The teacher asked the student which pieces she had studied during the week, and the student showed great enthusiasm for her discoveries and strong interest in continuing. Another teacher had made very specific assignments, even stipulating metronome settings for practicing various passages. This student seemed to view the assignment as a chore, but apparently had made significant progress toward goals set at the previous lesson. In short, a more dictatorial approach may be effective in accomplishing specific short-term goals but little else. An approach that draws upon the student’s curiosity and desire to achieve fosters self-activating motivation and can produce greater results in the long run.

Teachers also allowed varying amounts of freedom with regard to the specifics of musical interpretation. Some taught general principles and allowed students to apply them, usually with almost immediate success, to a range of musical problems. Others insisted on handling each musical detail separately and implied that each problem had only one acceptable solution. Students who were taught principles and given freedom to use them gave performances that were more musical and had a more personal touch.


Teachers who provide a comfortable learning environment, give clear objectives, and help students to motivate themselves will produce results more satisfactory to themselves and to their students. The consistent obedience to these principles by established, experienced teachers testifies to their effectiveness, as does the success of their students. These guidelines should be the framework of every music teacher’s individual style. They may be applied with success to any aspect of music teaching, and, in fact, to any teaching situation—musical or nonmusical.

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