How to Approach a Lesson

Having taught privately for over 50 years, been involved in institutional music education for roughly 30 years, and a student of music for close to 60 years, I feel that I have a decent understanding of how to gain the most from a private music lesson. In this article, I will attempt to articulate an approach to taking a one-on-one music lesson that I have found most beneficial, both for the student and the instructor. While the intended student groups for this article are college music majors and young professionals, many of the suggestions presented here can be used at any level of study.

Like many others, I began my instrumental studies in elementary school with a private teacher. Over the next eight years, I would take one-hour weekly lessons from a variety of teachers, perform the assigned materials, receive praise and/or criticism, and then be introduced to new materials to prepare for the following week. I developed a decent technique, learned to sight-read music well, prepare my assignments on time, have a fair amount of success in school bands & orchestras, and had fun doing so. This was the traditional robot-like approach to music lessons and there were many positive aspects to it, including building one’s self-confidence. However, creativity was not a priority. I had a very limited understanding of the levels one needed to achieve in order to be prepared to enter the profession and the only responsibility I had was to practice my assignments.

At a certain point early in my college music studies and after I had developed enough “chops” to negotiate a fair amount of written repertoire, I realized that I had to gain more insight into other aspects of making and creating music in order to have a chance at becoming a professional musician. That meant studying with the best teachers in the business. I eventually landed with Joe Allard as my primary saxophone/clarinet teacher and Tom Nyfenger as my primary flute teacher. I was very fortunate, to say the least, to study with these two master teachers and performers. When I began work with each of them, I soon realized that I would need to rework my approach to the woodwinds in addition to gaining a deeper understanding of music if I was to attain my goal. It was during these years of study and discovery that I began to evolve a process for taking my lessons.

The one-hour sessions with my new instructors were no longer built around predictable weekly assignments of the next set of scales, chords, etudes and concert works in whatever books I was working, as had been the case during my previous years of study. Rather, these were lessons where concepts of embouchure, articulation, phrasing, and musical style were emphasized and I was encouraged to discuss whatever instrumental or musical problems I was experiencing. In addition, names of great players and recordings were often mentioned when justifying a particular musical concept or thought. It was rare for either Mr. Allard or Mr. Nyfenger to write down anything for me or dictate a specific assignment for the next lesson. I was forced to become responsible for remembering and practicing what had been taught at each lesson and for helping to design the next lesson. If I didn’t physically transcribe the new information that I was taught soon after the lesson, I felt that I would forget or misinterpret it over time. (I still have those music manuscript books with all of the details notated. They have served me well over many years.) I would go about practicing these new concepts during the following weeks while locating repertoire (etudes, solo works, standard and jazz tunes, sonatas, concerti, etc.) that would allow me to employ the newly learned concepts. I would also try and find recordings of the artists referenced by my teachers. 

Several important lessons were learned as a result of these experiences. I began to take more responsibility for my progress and developed a broader understanding of the repertoire for my instruments. This knowledge proved invaluable to me throughout my career when creating solo recitals and concerts as well as in my teaching. In addition to the instructor’s assignments, the aspiring professional should be asked to explore new repertoire that they have discovered as well as to listen to recordings by great artists referenced by their instructors. 

While getting in the habit of writing down what you learn is not revolutionary, it forced me to think more about the concepts that I was introduced to at my lessons since I needed to articulate them via the written word. However, I have often been surprised by how few students actually retain the most salient concepts that are discussed at lessons. When new understandings and/or feelings are introduced at a lesson, they may seem so clear to the student at the moment that it may seem improbable to them that they will be forgotten. However, that is often not the case. The esteemed former principal flutist of the New York Philharmonic, Toronto and Montreal Symphonies-Jeanne Baxtresser-went so far as to insist that her students at The Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music bring a written synopsis to their lessons of the principles that had been discussed in their previous session for her to review. According to the Learning Pyramid (established in the 1960s by the National Training Laboratory Institute), we actually retain about 30% of new material when it is initially presented in a demonstration format to us. Only with repeated presentations of the same material over time AND practicing do we retain a majority of that information. ThereforeI believe it is essential for every student to write down whatever information is disseminated during a lesson in a manuscript book or an on-line file that is designated for that purpose, solely. The teacher and student should then begin the next lesson with a review of the concepts that were introduced during the previous meeting in order to avoid any ambiguity.

Over the past decade, I’ve taken a fair number of golf lessons and have worked with a personal trainer in the gym. In both scenarios, I have benefited from having the instructors videotape me at times during my workouts in order to help me recall the feelings and body positions that I needed to assimilate in order to improve. The fact that we can easily do this on a cell phone makes this technique accessible to everyone. Videotaping is an invaluable tool for retaining new ideas or principles introduced during a music lesson and one that should become standard procedure. (I don’t believe in taping entire lessons because the tendency is for the student to not focus as intently, during the actual meeting, knowing that they can fall back on their video.)

Additionally, I believe that every serious student should bring to their lesson a series of questions and concerns that emerge during their practicing or performances. In this way, the student is more actively engaged in the creative learning process and the teacher is able to learn more about the student as well. Tom Nyfenger once told me that “the private lesson is a 50-50 deal: the student and teacher need to put forth the same effort in order to advance the student’s musical acumen.”

It is equally important to note how NOT to take a lesson. Throughout my career I have observed a number of musicians who take lessons from noted players and/or teachers for political reasons; to satisfy their consciousness that they have made every attempt to succeed; or simply to be able to say to colleagues and list on one’s resume that “I studied with _______.” DON’T DO THAT!

If you want to play for someone for other purposes than to truly study, then be honest with that individual about your intentions. Ask if they would listen to you in order to be able to evaluate your performance level and offer advise while paying their lesson fee. AND ALWAYS SHOW UP ON TIME FOR LESSONS!

Keep in mind that the study of music should be for one reason only—to learn more about the art of making music. And that, by itself, should offer enough satisfaction.

*Please also read the related article: “It’s Not Like Riding A Bike.”


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