Outline and Notes from SEN Panel Discussion 8/4/17

Originally posted 8/6/17

I was honored to be asked to participate in a panel discussion for the Sabian Education Network, alongside Todd Sucherman, Will Calhoun, and host (and SEN head) Joe Bergamini on August 4th, 2017.  Below is the outline and notes I created for my portion of the discussion.

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The psychological aspects of private instruction: How I try to reach students, keep them engaged, and motivate them

Over the course of my teaching career I think I’ve developed a fairly strong sense of how to find where a student is coming from, what their motivation is, and what drives them.  With the incredible wealth of information (and demonstration) on the internet, it’s quite common these days to lose students to YouTube, or Drumeo, or individual online lessons sites.  The critical difference with one-on-one lessons is feedback.  The nature and quality of the feedback they receive from an instructor is crucial to their success, as well as ours, and will certainly help us to attract more students.  Instruction and development process is mental/psychological and our job is to help students solve those types of issues as they come up.  The spotlight is on solving individual issues, not creating a “cookie-cutter” curriculum for everyone to fit into.  Some (not a complete list by any stretch, just some ideas I came up with) common issues faced by students:


Short attention span

  1. Call their attention to it.  Let them know their attention is wandering and gently remind them during lessons when it happens.
  2. Tie the ideas of concentration and focus into improved playing level; demonstrate how a longer attention span can benefit their playing.
  3. Play-alongs.  Put spotlight on sticking to groove with minimal or no fills.  Promote higher level of FOCUS.
  4. Groove practice:  Set up tempo, feel, groove and have them play for a certain amount of time without playing any fills or embellishment of any kind.  Start at 2 minutes, work up to 5, 10.  Again, promotes focus, concentration and discipline.
  5. Meditation.


Little/no personal practice between lessons

  1. Find out what’s hanging the student up: Lack of time? Low motivation? Stuck on something?
  2. Make lesson an “assisted practice session”.  If you can’t find out what’s holding the student up, this will help diagnose the issue.  I always treat my private instruction as an extension of the student’s practicing, rather than making it more formal, like a performance.  That helps keep them mentally relaxed and mitigates most nervousness they might otherwise feel.
  3. Work on practice process, rather than just focusing on results.  I’ve seen too many teachers give students materials and just say, “Ok, have this done for the next lesson”, without giving any guidance as to how to go about it.  Some aspects of the process that students (esp younger) might overlook:

3A.  SLOW practice

3B.  Concentration, focus, relaxation, repetition.  Don’t force; relax and let it come to you.

3C.  Investigate a piece of music or exercise; don’t give up.  Find out what’s written, notated or intended, and work patiently to learn it.


Reaching a plateau or hitting a wall

Try a new direction:

  1. Put materials in question of shelf for a while, or change direction within materials, in ways specific to them, that can foster a fresh perspective.  Find and create variation in terms of approach, tempo, or other parameters.  Add soloing between exercises.
  2. Change materials or approach entirely.  Example: Student getting a bit bogged down in “exercises”?  Focus on more creative work.  Work on improvisation.  Work on styles.  Create listening assignments and have them transcribe grooves or fills (even if only aurally).  Or….could be the opposite.  Everything feeling a bit too “free form”?  Give them some direction by offering more concrete material; i.e. technique or coordination exercises.


Losing own personality; becoming an automaton.  Allowing students freedom to explore

I believe it’s vitally important to keep the student free to find and express their own voice.  Spotlight is on staying flexible, not rigid.  I find when I give a student more freedom/leeway, they tend to produce more and work harder than if I am more dictatorial or hover over everything they do.  It’s crucial, however, to discover the individual personality type of each student and find what works best for them.

  • Listen to them
  • Learn their personalities
  • Figure out how to best communicate with them; speak their “language”
  • Help them to figure out how to express their personality

Also, the direct inverse of the above issue is true of many students we might come across, which is that they may be at times a bit too “free wheeling” and resist our attempts to give them a curriculum.  I’ve had students who, for a time, succeeded in dictating the tone and course of our lessons until I was able to recognize what they were doing and guide things in a more helpful direction.  It’s not a big surprise when I notice that their playing would tend to reflect this idea, in that while they typically have set tastes and strong opinions about music, their playing might lack a clear direction and focus.  Some students need (and usually try their best to avoid) a stronger sense of structure and discipline, and it’s important for us to recognize that.

At the end of the day, good communication is paramount.  I really try to speak as directly as possible to my students and strive for maximum clarity.  If my message is garbled or confused, the student will go away confused–and less motivated to work, listen and discover.  Conversely, if they know exactly what to do going into the practice room, their time will be spent more effectively and they will stay focused on their path.

Additionally, I briefly mentioned some of the books I’ve read that have helped me immensely over the years.  Quite a few of these have helped lead me into a regular meditation practice as we discussed, but even aside from the meditation aspect there’s a tremendous amount of insight and wisdom to be gained from exploring these great books.

Tom’s recommended books on practicing, development and learning:

Josh Waitzkin, “The Art of Learning”
Barry Green, “The Inner Game of Music”
Anders Ericsson, Robert Pool, “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise”
Madeline Bruser, “The Art of Practicing”
Thomas Sterner, “The Practicing Mind”
Kenny Werner, “Effortless Mastery”
Barry Green, “The Mastery of Music: Ten Pathways to True Artistry”

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