The other day, in the course of my PhD work, I came across this article from 1938 entitled 'Needed Research in Music Education'. Leaving aside the "nobody under forty-five" bit (lets just make that "nobody"!), it's another to add to my collection of quotes which basically say "someone should be researching adult learning in music". They pop up in the literature every few years, whilst actual research into adult learning appears at a slow trickle. They're one of the things that keep me going with my research, when the thought of the long, slow process seems overwhelming.
Articles about adults learning music appear in the more mainstream press now and then too - why it's good for our (ageing) brains, the story of someone deciding to take up the piano after dreaming of playing for years. I was pleased to spot a magazine article this week about the benefits of learning music as an adult, but then rapidly disappointed by lines about "demoralising (or just plain boring) school lessons" and "shake off the shackles of childhood piano lessons and start having fun". There's nothing necessarily wrong with teaching yourself or making use of YouTube videos, as the article suggests, but this disparaging view of music teaching got my back up. Yes, there are boring/ miserable lessons/ teachers, but there are so many teachers that I know who are trying their best to make learning music enjoyable and engaging for all ages.
Although the article pushes the social benefits of music, it takes confidence to go and join a group - I'm not sure how easy some people will find it to step out from behind their computer and go out to play in public. That can be something that a teacher can help to 'hold your hand' through, playing with you in lessons, arranging informal opportunities for you to play with and in front of other people, suggesting suitable ensembles to try out. Going along to lessons is a social interaction in itself, and don't we spend enough time in front of a screen as it is?!
I have a couple of other issues with dependence on video lessons - firstly, there isn't someone there observing you and helping you out. I've come across adult learners who've struggled with teaching themselves through online courses, because they're trying to follow a set of 'one size fits all' instructions. The instrument hasn't been set up properly for their particular body shape and size, their hand position is all wrong for the length of their fingers, and they're wondering why it doesn't sound right, and even more worryingly, it feels uncomfortable. Look at just a few clips of professional flute players and you'll see variations in how they use their hands, arms, mouths - because bodies aren't all made the same! This is something that a teacher can help to work out, helping you to avoid injuring yourself at the same time (it might seem difficult to injure yourself with an instrument but the damage that musicians do to their bodies is a big issue - if you're doing a repetitive movement many times, you want to be doing it in the best way possible). They're also there to help with the mental and emotional aspects of learning - supporting you through the frustrating times and helping you navigate the process of learning music alongside all the other challenges in life. I entirely understand that it costs more to take lessons than to watch YouTube for nothing (and clearly I have a vested interest in people taking lessons!), but I wonder whether sometimes 'free' isn't the bargain it seems to be.
My other issue is an apparent obsession with speed (of learning, not of playing!) - online teaching resources I've seen use phrases like "fast-track your results". One, specifically for adults, promises to "skip the simplistic and slow approaches used with children and will get you playing in no time". While I'm not doubting - and research, including my own, suggests - that adults need some different approaches to children, I am wondering what's so wrong with 'simplistic and slow'? I certainly see a desire for quick results in many students (as much in children as adults, I would say), but surely there is nothing wrong with taking your time? As well as getting away from the screen, why can't learning music also be a change in pace from the rest of life? I'm reminded of the 'slow food' movement which celebrates traditional methods of growing and cooking, and of the trend for mindfulness which encourages people to slow down and observe. Why should learning music be a race? Why shouldn't we enjoy the gradual process, and celebrate the beauty of playing something simple well.
Perhaps my research will reveal that adults want quick results. Maybe they don't want teachers (although my initial findings suggest that plenty of them do, and that the teacher-student relationship is really important). I suspect that what really works well for most learners, whatever their age, is a combination of approaches - individual lessons, playing with groups, making use of some online resources, experimenting on their own. We need to look at what benefits learners most - musically, but also mentally and physically - is it the quick fix that seems initially most appealing, or is it taking your time and immersing yourself in the long, wonderful process of learning? We could say that 'slow and steady wins the race' but I think what's most important is that it isn't a race!
In part one of this post, I talked about the technology - mainly iPad apps - that I use in teaching. Today's post is about the less techy, but no less useful, gadgets that I carry around!
The 'physical' gadgets I use mostly involve blowing. The flute is a bit of an oddity in the way you 'blow' - for most woodwind instruments you blow down into the instrument to make a sound. Lots of people have played the recorder at school and often beginners will try to blow down the flute in the same way. But on the flute the breath needs to go across the lip plate, hitting the 'riser' or 'chimney' inside to make a sound.
Helpful image from http://www.justflutes.com/blog/ian-mclauchlans-guide-to-making-a-headjoint-the-riser/ showing the parts of the headjoint.
I remember as a beginner being taught that it was a bit like blowing across a bottle, and attending a fabulous flute day where we all blew bottles, 'tuned' to different notes with different amounts of water in them, to play a piece. It would be a bit awkward to carry a glass bottle around to all my lessons, but thankfully there is a bit of flute 'kit' which helps students get to grips with 'blowing across'. Presenting, the Pneumo Pro (and my chin)...
The Pneumo Pro is a plastic replica of a flute headjoint, with a gap to let the air through and what is basically a collection of small windmills attached. A couple of my younger students know it as the "helicopter thingy". Essentially, it's a fabulous way of seeing where you're blowing - you blow across, and the windmills go round. It's great for getting to grips with the initial idea of blowing across, but also useful as students progress. The different height windmills relate to the different angles of blowing required to play in different octaves, so it's helpful for feeling the level of lip and jaw flexibility needed. And it can also be used for practising keeping a steady airstream, both soft and strong, and for making sure that tonguing isn't getting in the way of the air. Plus, it's a bright yellow, fun, "helicopter thingy", what's not to love?!
The other bit of equipment I've used quite a lot is a straw. Squeezing a straw to narrow it and blowing through helps to feel the 'diaphragm' muscles which are needed for breath support, another one of those things which is easier to grasp through feeling it than through explanations! But partly inspired by new website Flutemotion, which sells all sorts of flute gadgets, I've recently invested in some more fun ways of demonstrating and practising breath support, and now have a stash of these...
This simple pipe and ball toy (bought in bulk from a kids 'party bag' toy supplier) does the same job as the straw, but with the added bonus/ challenge of having to keep the ball in the air. It really helps you feel those breath support muscles engage, and kids (and big kids) like testing themselves with how long they can keep the ball up each time. It's only disadvantage is having to retrieve said ball from the floor/ other side of the room several times per lesson!
I'm currently awaiting a delivery of some whistling lips to try out, and am planning a few games of Blow Football at my next student workshop...
With that reference to Inspector Gadget, I suspect I'm dating myself a little! I grew up in a (not that long ago, honest) age, unimaginable to some of the youngsters I teach, without iPads, iPods, YouTube or Facebook. All my school – and music theory – work was done on paper. If I wanted to hear a piece of music, I had to buy a recording, listen out for it on the radio or go to a concert. Downloading music was a very new thing!
This isn’t a post about the ‘good old days’ though. Technology is a hot topic with music teachers, with articles in magazines about the latest software, apps and gadgets to help with teaching. I’m generally a fan of technology so I've investigated quite a few of these, and adopted some for use in my lessons. I use quite a few internet resources for sheet music and theory (see my links section for info on some of these), but today I'm concentrating on my favourite apps - mainly iPad but some of these are available for Android and other systems too.
Rhythm Cat (http://melodycats.com/rhythm-cat/)
Rhythm Cat was one of the first musical apps I downloaded, drawn in by the name! It's a game which gradually builds rhythm skills, teaching how note values match up to sounds. There's a great, really varied soundtrack to play along to, and some beautifully-designed cat-related graphics.
There are a few apps for testing and improving aural skills - those skills of clapping in time, echo singing, sight-singing etc, which build general musicianship and are part of the ABRSM exams. ABRSM themselves offer the Aural Trainer, which is pretty good. AuralBook has a couple of advantages over this though - for one thing it's free, the full version for all eight grades. It also doesn't just play exercises or record your responses - it does both of these, and analyses your responses! So it plays you a melody, you sing it back, it records your singing and compares it to the original. Same with your clapping to see if it's in time. The one offputting aspect is the tone of voice of the 'examiner' who asks the questions and tells you how you've done - it's quite abrupt and doesn't pull any punches when it comes to saying you've made a mistake. Even the "wow" when you get something perfectly right sounds a bit sarcastic. But I've found if I warn students about this in advance, we end up having a giggle about it - one asks me if I've "brought the rude woman this week"!
Another app that 'listens' to you! This one tests your scales and arpeggios - again, recording them and comparing them against how they should sound, checking notes, tuning, speed and rhythm. You can work on a particular scale, or ask it to 'challenge' you which prompts you with scales picked randomly from the appropriate syllabus. You get a mark and a really detailed note-by-note analysis, plus a big cheer if you do well! I've found this one really motivating for some students, being driven on to get a better mark. The big downside to this one is the price - there's a free version but that's quite limited. The full app is £4.99 and then there are further costs to download exam syllabuses (sets of scales for each grade).
I also like ScaleBox - although this doesn't 'mark' the scales for you, it encourages self-assessment which is a really useful skill to develop.
Alongside these apps, I make use of a metronome (lots of free ones available), a piano app which gives you a small playable keyboard on the screen (handy for theory - explaining intervals etc), and a recording app - again really helpful for encouraging students to listen to and self-assess their own playing. My favourite is Voice Record Pro which is free but has lots of useful features, including the ability to upload and share recordings online - handy if students want to keep a copy of their recording.
Not all teachers are fans of apps and gadgets – I’ve heard them dismissed as gimmicks, a waste of time, or only used as a ‘treat’. I use them as part of a range of materials, and I do think you need to take as much care testing them out and assessing them as you do with any teaching materials, tutor books etc (so yes, I have sat at home and gone through all eight grades on AuralBook, and all the levels on Rhythm Cat)! Just as there are books I choose not to use as a teacher, there are apps that I’ve decided were badly designed, pointless, or just confusing to use. I make sure the ones I use actually teach students something, but I also want them to be intuitive to use and fun too.
Part two of this post - coming soon - will look at more 'physical' gadgets, including the "helicopter thingy" that my youngest pupils are very keen on!
Flute player and teacher blogging about playing, learning, teaching and researching music.
The Reliable Musician - a series of blog posts on the skills that make the sort of musician people want to work with!