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Individuality in Instrumental Lessons: Listen, Look & Leave Room

Updated: Jan 7, 2019

In November, I hosted the annual end-of-year concert with fifteen of my students. After each concert, I without fail get this one piece of feedback: "they're all so different!" I'm glad people keep saying it, because honouring my students' individuality is pretty much the most important thing to me in my daily teaching. There are three things that help me foster individuality in my studio:

Listen: Some things my students talk about are seemingly (and sometimes actually) completely irrelevant to the task at hand. I continue to listen to these digressions for a few reasons:

(1) I'm interested in their lives; (2) I can often use a lot of what they say to help me teach them more effectively; and (3) they have some brilliant ideas which have, in turn, helped other students' learning on multiple occasions.

Majority of the time, great lessons in my studio come from listening to what the student needs that day. If they're telling me they've had four tests at school, I'm not likely to pile 25 minutes of sight singing practice on them that afternoon. If they're talking about a new Netflix obsession, it will usually involve a couple of songs they're happy to add to their repertoire. If they need five minutes to talk and decompress from whatever else is happening to completely focus, I'll let it happen. Productivity most often soars as a result.

Look: This is most relevant when students are playing or singing a song, or section of a song, through. By looking and paying close attention to their fingers, for example, I can see if their body knows where the next note is. Often a student will pause after their fingers have gone to the right spot. If this is the case, saying a simple "you know," is very helpful. If I've explained muscle memory to them, sometimes I say "your fingers know." If their fingers are frozen, or flailing, that's when I'm more likely to help in more depth. Similarly, looking for tension in the body and/or face, tilting in the chin, rise of the shoulders or shallow breathing can help hugely with feedback for voice.

Leave Room: It's incredible how little we actually have to do, or say, in a lesson to get the desired result from students. As long as they understand the concept (or even if they don't), I've found they will usually be able to work at least some of it out themselves. The concept of silence in my studio is something I'm still coming to terms with - if I'm not talking, how can I be effectively teaching?! - but saying absolutely nothing besides, "see if you can work this out" has produced some amazing results that have really surprised me. I think it's also because once students get used to it, they know I'm not going to interrupt them and are not rushing to work things out before I chime back in with my next "helpful" hint. Being given room enough to take their time means students can think more clearly and understand things in their own way.


we're not wasting precious "Information Giving" time by getting to know our students - we're giving them a more positive experience to associate music with and being there for them while they feel their way as young musicians - and more importantly, people.

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