Music teaching coach
Wendy Brentnall Wood
music school marketing

HABIT 4 –Knowing What to teach

Knowing what information and repertoire to choose for each student can make or break a lesson. Build a music library so you will never be without ideas or resources. Then get familiar with the contents by playing through yourself looking for things that appeal and focusing on the concepts that they cover. Perhaps you can keep a list of what level each book works for.If you don’t know where to start for ideas, then look through the syllabi of music exam institutions and see what books and music is being used at the various levels and styles.

In all the elements below first think specific to instrument.

Make a Habit of keeping your library of resources fresh and organized.

The 8 Content Elements

1.   Method Books

Method books have that name for a reason! They gradually progress through the basics of learning an instrument usually from a novices starting point through sometimes several levels.

As with all things, not every method book will suit every student. Consider instrument and age then presentation, with the logical , speed and simplicity of content being paramount.

2.   Performance material

What I call Performance material is in fact the songs and tunes that we play which are recognized, well known tunes or music written by others available commercially.

It is the material that usually motivates and inspires students to want to learn to play. The “Smoke on the water” guitarist, “Fur Elise” pianist and so on….

Performance Material is so called but it is usually the most appropriate material to perform due to it being classic or well known compared to method book material. Finding some classic pieces that work for your instrument at each level can make your concert planning easier AND your students happier. Do not however make the mistake of using this material only for performances as it should be regularly included in lessons to keep students engaged and motivated.

Consider Instrument, age Group, standard and musical style when exploring. Think back to what you enjoyed learning as a student and feel free to get ideas from students along the way.

3.   Writing / Theory

Theory is often discussed with fear! Many students consider it to be dry and unrelated to what they want to play. Some even quote to you the names of various rock stars who can’t read music  and would never have therefore bothered with theory!

There are still some dry tomes on the shelves with “rules” about what you can and can’t do to write music, however theory does not have to mean piles of worksheets to complete. Theory can be done in a practical manner at the instrument then demonstrated in notation. If a student then writes or composes using the theory , their understanding is being clarified and cemented. Theory can be studied through quizzes, cards and games but must be related to the instrument being learned. Theory as with all else should be kept simple and covered in sizable chunks if it is to be understood.

4.   Technique

Technique is about efficient execution, not just scales! Like Theory it can breed fear or hatred in students if mismanaged, but can revolutionize a student’s playing if used well.

Technique is something that a teacher should be always monitoring in each student as poor technique can cause muscle strain and inadequate performances. Each instrument has its own set of physical demands which will to a degree be different for different age groups and obviously for different standards.

Prevention is one course of action and curing is another, but in both instances, have some resources such as studies, exercises or technically demanding pieces to refer to at times of need.

5.   Listening

As with other areas of learning, developing listening skills is best when done as a practical activity closely associated with what is being learnt on a practical level.

As different instruments require different skills for example, drummers don’t deal with pitch as much as other instruments, the listening skills appropriate to them will vary in the early stages. Intermediate and advanced players however may need a wider viewpoint as they interact with other musicians.

As with other activities, different student age groups may also impact on what or how listening skills are developed. Learning to Play tunes “by ear” and memorizing can be practical applications of listening and playing but perhaps not suited to everyone.

6.   Sight Reading

A good sight reader, has the advantage of instant access to music they have never heard and from which they can make sense and enjoy.

Sight reading does not have to be formal “exercises” although these are an excellent way of assessing ability. Sight reading can be done whenever a new piece of music is introduced. Sight reading is easily overlooked as students strive for perfection for a performance or exam and shortcuts like memorizing, writing on finger numbers or note names are simply that- shortcuts to a short term goal.

Learning new music regularly and not expecting everything to be perfect allows improvement of reading simply by continuing forcing a student to read.

7.   Creating

Creating music can mean several things, but here I refer to improvising and often overlooked skill particularly in the early stages of learning.

Too often teachers do not expose students to this skill until they have intermediate level skills at which time the student can become inhibited and tentative to try improvising. As with all other activities, improvising can be introduced to complement other areas of learning in a practical sense by concept. Improvising can also be handled differently for different age groups and standards.

Improvising, composing, theory and listening skills weave together.

8.   Ensembles /Bands

For some people, playing with others is their main reason for learning. There are skills needing to be developed to enable this to be an enjoyable activity.

By playing duets with their teacher first, students can develop the skills of keeping in time with one another. Using backing tracks and metronomes at lesson and eventually at home can similarly be helpful to develop this skill.

Different Ensembles and Bands will have different roles for each instrument, and different age groups and standards will suit different groups.


CONTENT IS KING!  Mark Burnett

WORKSHEET HABIT 4 – Knowing What to Teach

  1. Method Books


  1. Performance Material


  1. Writing/Theory


  1. Technique


  1. Listening


  1. Sight Reading


  1. Creating


  1. Ensembles /Bands

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