Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond

Teaching Thoughts Pt 4 – Pleasing parents is bad for the student.

July 9th, 2008 | No Comments | Categories: bass ideas · Musing on Music · teaching news · tips for musicians |

One of the things I most like about teaching electric bass is that very few kids are ever told by their parents to play it. ‘You need to learn piano/violin/clarinet because I never had the chance’ is the bane of so many teacher’s lives and one of the main driving forces behind kids giving up playing an instrument as soon as they are afford a degree of self determination by their parents.

In all my time teaching bass (15 years) I think I’ve had 3 students ask to do graded exams. In the same time over half the parents that have brought their kids to me have asked whether or not it would be a good idea. There’s an assumption in education these days that people a) need some kind of external certificated validation in order to measure where they are up to and b) that without that, students will lack motivation and will just slack off because no-one’s telling them what to do.

For me as a teacher it’s imperative to get across to my students – especially the younger ones – that them not practicing has no impact on me whatsoever. I can just pick up where we left off in the last lesson as though the time were continuous. The point of practice is never to placate me. Practice serves two purposes – it’s enjoyable (if done right) and you get better – the two are clearly deeply linked. The idea that practice has to be torturous is another crap hang-over from the music education of the early 20th century, where suffering was a signal of how serious you were about what you’re doing. That’s clearly bollocks, especially for people with families, friends, jobs, school work and other interests. Practice time should be valued time in and of itself not just for the pay-off. The pay-off makes it even better, but playing an instrument should be fun!

That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t require a large degree of self-discipline, commitment and focus, it’s just that we’re selling kids short by telling them that those things can’t be enjoyable!

These are all elements in my reasoning for not following a syllabus. If a students comes into a lesson, tells me about a gig they just went to, and I then teach them something the band they’ve just seen – whether it be an actual song by them, or something that can be drawn from that music – they can pulled a little closer to the magic at the heart of music. The gap between them and the music they love is lessened and the feeling that the magic is in their reach is heightened.

At the heart of what I teach is a desire to help the student write and play music that can change the world. It might not, but the desire to play the songs that have soundtracked their life – whether that’s Mozart or Metallica, Stockhausen or Stock, Aitken And Waterman – and to then create their own music is what drives individuals to learn an instrument, and pandering to the wishes of pushy parents who want lil’ Tommy to get certificates so they can brag to the other mums and dads about the distinction he scored in his grade 3 exam is the death-knell of lil’ Tommy’s musical aspiration.

Parental encouragement is often an utterly vital and energising force in the music-life of a student. I still take inspiration from my mum’s on going encouragement of what I do, and am thankfully big enough to ignore the distain with which my dad views my musical endeavours. Channeled in the right way, parents can be integral to the musical growth of a student. But if pushy parents are allowed to ride roughshod over what Tommy actually wants to do with music, he’ll end up as one of the 95% who give up before they are 18, and may resent it for decades to come.

We’re your parents an encouragement or a hindrance to your creative path? Comments pleeeeeze

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  • Dean Whitbread

    My parents and other adults around me were very kind and indulgent – they didn’t mind if I was learning Bach or working out Elton John songs in my piano time, so long as did play regularly enough to make them feel they weren’t wasting their money.

    As a result, I have enjoyed a creative career which includes music as a natural part of my path. Well said, Steve.

  • Rachel Andrew

    What happens with regard to getting accepted into music college, if a child hasn’t ‘done the grades’?

    My daughter plays cello (with a teacher), guitar (is teaching herself) and in neither does exams, although she has played cello for a few years, she usually wants to play things from musicals, which her teacher is happy to teach her.

    However she also dances, is at fulltime theatre school and does the graded exams in dance as, if she wants to go on to do dance or music theatre at college not having the ballet grades would be a huge hindrance to her. Not only are the grades seen as a benchmark, but the rigour with which the technique is taught – especially in ballet – is vital. Given that this is what she wants to do professionally (no pushy stage mum here – her choice) I’d be absolutely doing the wrong thing in not having her somewhere where she was doing the graded examinations. In music, which she seems to do well at, but it isn’t her main thing, I’m less concerned. However I’d be interested to know how music courses decide who to see at audition and whether having done the grades, having the dreaded music theory etc. matters.

    I used to teach dance so have been on both sides of the fence, and I know that parents can be hard to deal with. However it is also worth remembering that if parents don’t have a background in what you are teaching, the grades give them something to help them understand the child is progressing. It isn’t necessarily that they want to brag about their kid – but that they are potentially spending quite a bit of money on lessons and, as far as they are concerned, the kid is still making a terrible racket on that thing 🙂 If they are making a terrible racket but have a grade 5 certificate they have some way to judge that the lessons are “working”. So don’t be too hard on parents, we generally are trying our best!

  • steve

    Dean – thanks, it clearly worked well for you. Like me, you were lucky in the parent dept. 🙂

    Rachen – fantastic comment. I have on a number of occasions written letters and even phoned colleges to talk about various students of mine who wanted to study there. Despite my not having any qualification to speak of, the fact that I’ve taught up to post-grad level (was brought in by Brunel University to work with one of their masters students on his solo bass performance, as well as private students doing music masters study) so the colleges are usually happy to take my word for it if I say a student is up to the standard to be worthy of audition…

    Ballet I guess comes into the same umbrella as classical instrumental lessons in that there is definitely a set path that a ballet dancer has to take, and as such, a graded system probably works rather well as an indicator.

    Your point about parents who are unsure is a really good one, and communication with parents is VITAL to all this working. I invite parents to sit in on lessons, and am always happy to debrief either in person or on the phone about how the student is getting on. Being communicative is a massive part of what makes teaching work at all, especially as parental support and encouragement between lessons can have such a big influence on how the student progresses.

    But I do think that your last point about terrible racket vs grades is one that teachers exploit – that’s the key to the title of this post. It’s only value, in my opinion, is to placate parents, or indeed the students themselves who are hell-bent on external validation, even when there’s no way of accurately or usefully validating anyone’s unique musical path, at least not via the standard ‘classical-style’ exam method…

    Send your future hubby over for a lesson, and then he can report back 😉

  • sim

    Coming from a non-musical family i was the one begging my parents for cello lessons, when they realised I was serious they happily obliged and encouraged me. Being a classical instrument I did as all others did and commenced grades. I found them to be a negative impact because I didn’t know WHY i was learning what I was learning. I learnt all the scales, arp and technical stuff, and of course the compulsery grade 5 theory. But since my only experience of cello playing was straight from the sheet music I didn’t know why I was learning them.
    It wasn’t until I started teaching myself the bass and I first experienced improvising that I realised what this scale thing was for!!! 8 grades on the cello, european tours with orchestras and it was the bass that made me realise the value of all the previously thought crap that I’d learnt with every grade. Suddenly I was dragging up this all information which was becoming vital to my improvisation.

    I now realise that the stuff learnt on grades is very useful, it opens you up to playing styles you might not previously encounter, but I realised the key is not whether you pass or not its whether you understand why you passed, how you can use the information you needed to pass and how you will apply the information to other areas. And lets be honest with a good teacher this can all be done without grades.
    The most negative aspect I found about grades was the amount of time spent perfecting your grade peices for months before your exam, time which could be spent on other more useful things.

    Ultimatley I have no real problem with grades I even decided to take myself through grade 8 bass to enable easier access to a bass diploma (which i decided not to take in the end). but if people are going to teach them please at least teach the student how the theory and scales/exercises can actually be applied to make more creative playing rather than being the boring bit that no-one knows why they’re learning it.

  • Eugene Cantera

    Steve, you make some great points about teaching and it’s obvious that you are passionate about your craft. I would make one suggestion or correction however in regards to ‘following a syllabus’.

    I think it is important that an overall plan be in place and musical concepts be presented in a sequential order rather than meandering from lesson to lesson on a whim or trend of the week.
    It’s (your) educational expertise and experience that tie those concepts to any supplemental material and makes the connection for your student(s).

    I have been fortunate to be involved with a group that have developed music learning software and we’ve been using it with students on all instruments for about 2 years. By following the same learning process for each newly introduced set of concepts, students are able to grasp ideas easily and apply them more quickly to their instrument. This makes their ‘practice time’ fun and productive.

    PS – your final paragraph is right on. And I would venture to say that poor teaching is the second biggest reason that students ‘give up’ or abandon music.

  • steve

    Hi Eugene,

    thanks for commenting – I think the word ‘meandering’ here is unnecessarily pejorative. I draw on every bit of experience I have as a teacher and player, as well as my observation of where the student is up to when devising the ongoing plan. Perhaps ‘adaptable’, ‘relevant’, ‘contextual’, ‘stylistically specific’ might be better terms….

    If a particular student thrives on having a series of concrete goals mapped out as we go along, then we’ll do that, based on their desired learning outcomes and the discussion we have that refines what’s driving those outcomes.

    Looking at the software on your site and thinking about my students, I can’t even begin to imagine how they’d react if I offered that to them in a lesson. It strikes me as exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about as not working for people who want to learn pop/rock/soul/funk or any other kind of contemporary music with any level of integrity and inspiration. What happens if the student wants to know how Sting got a particular sound, or comes to the next lesson having had their mind blown by D’Angelo’s ‘Voodoo’ album? What if they’ve just seen My Chemical Romance live and want to know how to get that kind of sound? I turn round and say ‘and this weeks exercise is on D minor – here’s the MP3’… and I’ve completely missed the chance to harness that passion and excitement by rooting the lesson entirely in the very that has inspired them!

    Your comment highlights, for me, precisely what’s wrong with not rooting the lessons in the
    ACTUAL MUSIC that the student listens to on a day to day basis. There’s a huge qualitative difference to teaching from soundalike stuff and exercises written just for practicing scales over, and teaching your students direct from the music they love and are inspired by.

  • steve

    Sim, thanks so much for your comment – great to hear your story. I’m really glad you found a path through it.

    All the theoretical info found in the grades, as well as the ‘raw technique’ – especially on an instrument as difficult as cello – is great, but as you say, the good bits of it can be extracted and used to explain the WHY.

    Hope to hear more of your story here soon 🙂

  • C.C.

    In watching students go through the process of learning , I have noticed that as with anything else in life one size or method does not fit all! As teachers we need to be flexible enough to adjust our delivery to the desires of the student. That does not mean, however, that as good mentors, we can’t open doors to areas that are new to them. Of course, opening the door does not mean that we should to force them to go through.

    Sometimes parents and teachers can ruin the music experience because they focus on their own goals instead of asking the child what he or she wants.

    Students will take in the raw data, but it won’t become part of the heart unless it is wanted and truly absorbed. What is music without the heart?

    Going back to continue my own musical journey has shown me how much more I get out of learning when I venture down the roads that I am interested in. As with Sim, I am finally seeing the pieces from many years of “formal music education” fall into place. The technical aspects of music are no longer drudgery, because they come with playing from the heart.

  • trainhitsboy

    “There’s an assumption in education these days that people a) need some kind of external certificated validation in order to measure where they are up to”

    During a summer holiday which seperated my second and third year at Graphic Design college I was fortunate enough to peddle my wares around some good graphic design studios in London for advice and to get my name about before finally qualifying in the following year.

    So impressed was one company with my work that they offered me a job there and then as a junior. I explained that I was only midway through my studies and would complete them first.

    When talking to my lecturer a couple of days later about what happened his wise words were: “You go to college, to learn the skills, to get the job”

    I’m now Head of Art. Although I’m not officially ‘qualified’ to be one.

  • Ben Walker

    I was at my parents’ house this morning, and happened to spend a few moments staring vacantly at the wall of Associated Board certificates, trying to figure out whether my brother really had more Grades (it turns out he had 16, I had 14 – but I maintain that Singing only counts for a half…). With 30 classical grades between us he’s now a full time rock drummer, and I’m a professional songwriter. He never had a drum lesson and until recently I never studied songwriting.

    I agree with your post wholeheartedly, Steve. But… I know plenty of musicians who were taught their theoretical knowledge and performance skills as part of a classical music education, and used them to engage with the music about which they were passionate *outside* the system. I know that musicians don’t need the full academic/theoretical/historical side of music, and that it often acts as a set of musical blinkers that keeps talented musicians from applying their skills to the music they listen to at home, but as @sim points out it only takes a small catalyst (ie. @sim trying out the bass, me finding a Beatles songbook in my piano stool, my brother trying out the drums) to convert all of that dry theoretical knowledge into beautiful, purposeful, passionate music.

    Your approach integrates the education and the inspirational catalyst, which is great. But there is also loads of value in a full musical education, and I would hate to see that disappear.

    Great discussion, as always. ;o)

  • steve

    Wayne, thanks for your comment – it’s certainly the case that in pop and rock, a statistically significant number of successful musicians never finished their courses, having been discovered for their skills – rather than the letters after their name – long before they graduated. 🙂

    Ben, you make a really important distinction, one I should write more about, which is how useful a classical education can be for learning classical music! The problem isn’t really with that as a model for playing that kind of music – and if you learn it like that, many of the skills are transferable if and when you switch to a more creative composition/improv/pop model for playing… the problem is using the classical model to try and teach pop music, that’s bogus. 🙂

    thanks so much everyone for the comments – it’s a great discussion!

  • Chris Downing

    There’s a whole music teaching industry out there created for the benefit of …….? Well who can be sure. You’re right that few students ask for Grade exams, but a few want to benchmark themselves to something that seems to be solid.

    Before I started teaching guitar and bass again after quite a few years, I went to a local College to study teaching and found a whole range of methods – from being student led to being wholly controlling – all were valid and achieved results in different ways. I think if you stand back and think about the outcomes you and the students are looking for, is that you hopefully then take the most appropriate path.

    The syllabus thing is very useful as a map of what might be learnt, but it’s surely shouldn’t be a sort of tourist map of all the things you should visit in lessons and you don’t get the certificate until you’ve been everywhere. That’s very much the domain, in my opinion, of the business of teaching – make it a plan, shedule the plan, check and test the outcomes, grade the student, plan for the future lessons needed – this is great for the business side of creating income for the teacher or a company providing lessons – and it’s big money for organisations to approach teaching like that.

    My ‘business approach’ is to borrow some consultancy tools from business and apply them to music teching – what is it you really want to experience with your music? Where do you think you are now? Where do you want to be? What skills, or lack, will help, hinder, you getting there? How shall we get there?

    Focus is what gets you to where you want to be and knowing what you want, how to get there and what skills to develop is the method. Of course taking that approach in a formal structured business teaching music would be difficult – so it’s mainly the private teachers who do it. Makes you wonder why we really need big music schools doesn’t it? (Oh of course, it’s a career path for teachers wanting mortgages and steady incomes……contraversial bit.)

  • Carsten Hölscher

    Hi Steve!

    Thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts about teaching music with us! You put into words a lot of things I was thinking about for a long time.
    I think I owe Kurt Cobain a big hug when I meet him in the hereafter for giving us the hookline of “Come As You Are”. It is an easy to play thing on two strings and it ALWAYS puts a glow onto students faces when they play it for the first time after maybe two or three lessons. The energy of this first momentum can be used to teach technical exercises or theoretical background to help them understand what they are playing and why I sounds so good. But it is always the “emotional link” to the music they love, that makes students want to know more.
    Greetings from the Netherlands,

  • Charlie Harris

    Both my parents encouraged playing musical instruments. 3 sons, 2 are still playing, 1 quit at 18, just not his thing. Yeah, starting out with piano, then trumpet to french horn. Then Electric Bass Guitar. By that time I had my own living quarters. Mom still comes to “concerts” that her sons play at.

  • Weiye Tan

    Hi Steve, I stumbled onto this blog post through Twitter and thought of it as very interesting – it describes 100% the situation here in Singapore.

    Here, almost every parent sends their kids to piano lessons, right up till they achieve the ABRSM Grade 8 certification. My friends have since sworn off the piano, and some have even grown to dislike music altogether. I’m not quite sure whether the certification was achieved for the passion of the music or for the parents to boast about in this seems that over here all that matters is the paper chase. No degree, no life so it seems. It certainly doesn’t help the weak local music scene.

    In my own case, I play the electric bass guitar, and went through theory lessons and the like – but I soon lost interest in playing and didn’t see much point. Thankfully, I didn’t stop entirely and a few years later today, I started enjoying playing music again after abandoning everything I had learnt previously and re-applying myself, this time, without the pressures of exams or having to sight read a solo classical piece note-for-note.

    I agree that exams are a good thing – but sometimes it makes learning music much too rote, and personally I don’t think that’s what music should be, it should be free and people should be able to express themselves creatively and most importanly, have fun.

    Cheers from Singapore!