Meri’s Musical Musings

Yet more misconceptions of music and music lessons

Posted on: October 29, 2011

Okay, I know this already has four previous parts. I hope this will be the last one…

Music lessons are only for children

The numbers of adults taking music lessons has tripled in the last decade, to a few tens of thousands. Some do it to pursue a lifelong dream they never had a chance to pursue as children, some do them to continue developing the skills they had in their high school years, and a few take a few years of lessons to apply to music programs at universities and colleges.

Music lessons are only for average and gifted students

People with physical and mental challenges benefit from music lessons by providing something they can enjoy and develop coordinated movement.

Music lessons should be started when the child shows interest

If the child is young, all is well; however, many children do not show an interest in playing an instrument, and sometimes when they do as teens, they have years of catching up to do, especially on the piano and violin.

Music lessons are boring

While they might often have been in the past, many teachers include several elements of fun, especially with music games and ensemble playing.

If a student gets an injury that affects playing an instrument, music lessons should be stopped temporarily

There are many musical activities that can be done even when students are recovering from injuries, especially learning ear training, music theory and history.  For keyboard instruments, it can be a chance to practice parts that are difficult with the hand that is not injured.

Music exams are only for children.

While not a lot of adults take music exams, several message boards for various instruments have a few to several adults who say they have taken music exams. There is no age limit to when you can take any of the exams; my theory/piano teacher completed his final certificate in his mid-40s from the Royal Conservatory of Music, and my husband had some students who took intermediate level piano exams in their 50s and 60s, some who got First Class Honours. (80%+)

Music exams are only available for piano and violin

Most exam boards have syllabi for almost every, if not every instrument in the symphony orchestra, as well as piano, guitar, and sometimes accordion, organ and harpsichord.

Registation fees are just a way for teachers to make extra money.

This is almost always true in other activities, and most music schools. However, in independently-run music studios, this fee is used to pay for student recital/concert expenses, running any incentive programs the teacher offers (piano teachers especially do), studio maitenance, studio upgrades, as well as the student’s books and other materials. (and I think most independent teacher’s registration fees are WAY too low, expect $80-$125 dollars to be reasonable)

Exams are not an effective way to learn music.

In several ways, occasional music exams are good for students. While there is the subjectivity of personal opinion, music exams help develop the student into a well-rounded musician, by encouraging them to develop their skills in different areas of music, which several aspects are often lacking when students who study with a teacher who  don’t do exams.

Musical exercises are bad.

Being able to play scales and arpeggios for example makes learning many of the intermediate and especially the advanced repertoire much easier, because they develop skills necessary to play those more difficult pieces. Many instruments have exercises to develop evenness across register changes, even bow pressure, and evenness in technical passages. But a musical diet of mostly exercises is demotivating to even the most motivated students.

Students should be playing during most of the time in their lessons

While my guess is about 20-30% of the lesson should be playing, most of the lesson is spent listening to instructions, ear training, and short written music assignments, usually music theory.

Students should only learn pieces in their lessons

Learning techniques and technical elements, plus studies to focus on developing skills are important to develop skills on the instrument the student is learning. Short writing exercises that are either part of method books, especially piano method books, or theory books used in conjunction with method books, are important as an aid in developing fluent musical skills by providing an additional mode of learning musical ideas and concepts.

Students should not mark their music.

Use whatever markings help you play the music! My own copies of pieces are somewhat marked up.

Students should not listen to recordings of the pieces they are learning.

While some piano teachers do this, many teachers of orchestral instruments strongly encourage their students to listen to the pieces they are studying. It is not true that students will learn the music by ear if they do this; in fact, it’s quite difficult to learn even early-grade music this way.

Some of the people playing advanced piano music can barely read music.

Almost all of the advanced level pieces when played well are learned by reading the music, and not teachers teaching them note by note.

Music theory has little to no connection with playing music.

Unlike theory for many other subjects, the name “music theory” is actually a misnomer; the real term should be “music grammar”. If you can recognize various concepts learned from the theory to your pieces, it makes learning and especially memorizing music much easier, especially if you understand music theory to at least the level of basic 4-part harmony. For singers who are not sopranos, knowing basic harmony makes it easier to find your notes within the chords.

Church musicians are usually not very good.

While this used to commonly be the case, it is becoming very rare for church musicians to not play very well. This is especially true in congregations where most of the congregation is in the top 10-15% of income earners, who often have had musical training themselves and can tell musicians who play well from those who do not. Not only that, but the piano accompaniments of choir anthems, solo repertoire for voices and instruments, and of cantatas, can only be played successfully by a church musician who has very advanced piano skills.

A teacher known for producing excellent students will have a studio that is entirely excellent students.

This is almost never the case. Almost every teacher I know that has amazing students, also has a “bottom 10 percent”–the students who don’t care to listen to the teacher, the students who don’t follow instructions, the students who consistently play out of time (especially if they are past the beginning stages) and the students who rarely or never practice.

A teacher who produces students with excellent marks in exams doesn’t have students who failed exams.

Most top teachers have at least 2 or 3 students who failed an exam. Usually because the student fails to listen to the teacher’s advice, practices insufficiently, or misses a lot of lessons. (I had three students who failed exams, and it was because they or their parents registered against my advice and/or didn’t practice enough!)

Music exams take the fun and joy out of learning music. 

It’s more likely the teacher that will take the joy out of learning music long before they start preparing for an exam. Given that many students quit lessons within 6 months to a year, and most students don’t do an exam in their first year of study, it’s more likely the teacher. And many students ENJOY receiving their music certificates to show their growing competence, and most are motivated to do well on them with a good teacher.

Private lessons are good, while group lessons are bad.

Ideally, most students should have a combination of good quality private and good quality group lessons. Most students younger than about 6 years old do best in a good group, non-instrument specific group music program, while students 6 and older should ideally have a combination of group and private lessons UNLESS the child is pleading to begin lessons on a specific instrument. (usually because of an older sibling or friend) However, if one must choose one over the other for a music learning situation for a child 6 and up, choose the quality private instruction and leave out the group learning until the teacher tells you about, finds, or creates a good group learning experience. At least in the quality private instruction students can learn good habits and not be influenced  in a mediocre group situation by students who play with poor habits, especially in some schools, most often in elementary and some middle schools.

A teacher who advertises for beginners usually just chooses to specialize in them

Usually it’s because they themselves haven’t reached beyond a mid-intermediate competency on the instrument. Not only that, but it is inspiring for beginners to hear more advanced students and to listen to pieces that they would like to play in the next few months to few years.

It is not good for students to be in a studio where most of the students are advanced.

While this may be true for sensitive students or young beginners, for some students, it motivates them to advance as quickly as they can. For intermediate students in a studio that has intermediate and advanced students only, it may motivate them to rise to the challenge.

Students should be allowed to quit lessons when they reach middle school or high school age.

Most students have not achieved enough skills in lessons to be able to learn new pieces independently. Not only that, but completing certain practical and theory exams often can count towards high school music credits. If a student is in a school where the playing level is relatively high, continuing lessons throughout the high school years will help them effectively cope with the demands of challenging repertoire in school ensembles and beyond. It also is a good door to leave open as a career possibility, especially if a student excels in it.

Singers who are asked to sing second soprano or alto parts in choirs are not as good as the first soprano part singers.

It’s usually because the people asked to sing the harmony parts are better musicians than average than those who sing the melody, since they are able to harmonize.

Practicing music is boring

Creative practicing, such as using fun practice strategies to master pieces, studies, and exercises, have been developed over the past 20 years. Philip Johnston’s books can help with finding fun ways to practice.

Students should stick with one teacher for their entire musical careers.

Many teachers have certain levels that they are more effective as teachers than others, or certain ages. And some teachers try to keep students well beyond when the student has learned as much as possible from them, and the best teachers will pass on such students to a teacher offering a different perspective or specializes in more advanced students.

A teacher will reject a student if students and parents inform the teacher about mental, emotional, and physical challenges in the prospective student.

This is rarely the case. Rather, it often helps the teacher in choosing and planning suitable material, or, if they know well that they have difficulties working with such students, they will refer them to a musical colleague who enjoys working with them. It also prevents the teacher wondering about students who progress well below the normal rate.

A teacher that the student likes is a good teacher

Many private music teachers that students like are not that effective as teachers, especially for students who like teachers that tend to go easy on students. And students can grow to like teachers with powerful personalities who teach them how to play well. In the case of instruments where it’s hard to find private teachers, students either have to adapt to the teacher’s personality or not take lessons.

A teacher that a friend likes is a good teacher

Most people, unless they have had a variety of experiences with private music teachers, have difficulties identifying good teachers from poor ones, and especially good teachers from excellent ones.

Great teachers have lots of students

It’s usually average to mediocre teachers that have plenty of students. This is largely because most people have difficulty telling apart a good teacher from a bad one, that great teachers usually charge higher fees than lower quality teachers, and that many great teachers have personality quirks that some people find difficult to deal with.

Music is an easy subject or major

I was once in a high school music class where at least 50% of the students FAILED the course, because they not only tested poorly on the pieces they were supposed to practice, they didn’t complete their theory or written assignments. And music majors not only have to do the written assignments, tests, projects, and quizzes like all other majors, they are required to practice for 2-3 hours per day, 5-6 days a week, attend rehearsals for 2-3 hours most days, and travel for various events.

Music is not a viable career choice

Musicians who have the right skills, know how to market themselves and have a large network of friends, both musical and not, can earn a pretty comfortable standard of living. This is especially true if you play an instrument which there are not many people who play it well. (such as double bass and bassoon) In certain areas of music there is actually a demand, such as music therapy, particularly as populations grow older in most countries of the world. There is a growing need for doctors who specialize in the physical and psychological aspects of music. And many musicians I know, despite the economic downturn, are not even close to being unemployed, because most of them do not put all their eggs in one basket; they have several sources of income!

Music is not very taxing physically

Don’t say this to any wind player, especially brass players, or concert artist pianists. The oboe and clarinet are supported on the right thumb, which is a lot of weight on a small joint; most saxophonists support most of the weight of the instrument on their neck (unless they use a sax brace), and large instruments have weight issues not only playing the instrument, but also carrying them.

If an older child does not succeed at music lessons, it’s not worth starting a younger child.

Each individual is different; some are more keen on music than others. If siblings are competitive, then this issue can be resolved by having them study different instruments, especially if it’s possible to have siblings study those that are commonly grouped together in chamber music. (eg: piano, violin, cello or piano, clarinet, viola). But if they are not too competitive, they can start on one instrument together (ideally the piano) but choose their own second instrument.

Parental support is necessary for success in music lessons

For some kids, especially beginners, this can be true. But there are dozens of musicians who do music in spite of their parents’ laid-back attitude or even being outright against doing music.

Older children should do better than younger children in music lessons.

Actually, the experience of many teachers is that younger children taking music lessons do better than their older siblings, perhaps because they constantly hear their older siblings play and practice music.


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  • V V: Wish I had read this before I fell for their scheme ! Oh well - have posted my experience on Yelp and N49 and hoping others can avoid the pain of fal
  • clariniano: Thanks for the additional information. It was actually Yelp that deleted my reviews, because of so-called bias. I too have seen the horrible technique
  • No Thanks: Former Teacher at the Ontario Conservatory of Music I took lessons at the Ontario Conservatory and when I left for private lessons from another tea
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