Archive for the ‘Teachers Forum’ Category

Teachers forum: success in a down economy

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

As everyone is aware, these last three years have been a brutal experience when it comes to making a living as a musician or any other type of artist. It took a little while but the bad economy has finally trickled down to all manner of teachers and performers these past few years. Several orchestras’ have disbanded or are on very shaky ground (including my own) and all manner of employment for working musicians has been scaled back.
Even the colleges are starting to really feel the heat with severe cutbacks in many states.
So what skills can we teach our students to weather these rough times? Surely there will be other recessions as time moves forward. I myself have experienced three of them since I started my career.

The most important ingredient to surviving and even prospering in times like these is versatility. Personally I have always made sure I am constantly learning new skills even as I am continuously polishing old ones. It is not enough anymore to be just a drum set performer just as it is becoming impossible to have a high quality of life solely as an orchestra percussionist. We must teach our students to be competent in all areas of percussion at a young age. I learned audio engineering at a young age and this has really paid off big time for me. Being able to play any type of gig is also a huge factor in a musician’s success.

Gigging often at a young age is vital to building a solid career. I have noticed that many players do not even attempt to gig until they are out of college. This is a huge blunder. You can learn so much from older, experienced musicians that I consider this a form of higher education. I started actively gigging in a wedding band with much older players when I was 13 years old. I know that this is still possible since I have young students playing for money in bands and with theatre companies. I am also always pushing the entrepreneurial vibe on my students to get them to create there own gigs and some have done just that.

Another thing that is not taught much in this country’s academic institutions is general living skills. These are skills that you can learn that will save and can even make you money. Learning how to fix items in your household and do basic building and automotive repairs can save you a fortune over a lifetime. Years ago I could not afford to pay someone to build a studio for me so I learned how to do it myself. The same goes for putting an addition on my house. Over many years I have improved my skills exponentially where I feel like if I had to, I could do professional finish carpentry. Learning these things was not a burden to me. On the contrary, it was allot of fun and really satisfying. It also served to recharge my battery when I was burnt out from playing too many gigs!

All of us have talents we may never really explore, whether it’s out of fear or just plain laziness. I still believe that if you are really good at what you do, people will pay you for it. That goes for teaching, playing and creating things.

In my opinion the biggest factor to surviving a bad recession is stringent money management. Unfortunately most people sorely lack this skill. Saving money ahead of time is always a really good idea. Always have an emergency fund. Once I began a family I tried hard to put away enough money so that if I did not work for a year my family would still be ok. Living check to check does not cut it anymore in our modern society with it’s overpriced healthcare, pricey higher educational system and ridiculously expensive insurance options . It just takes one thing to go wrong and you could be out on the street. I also avoid debt at all costs, which means if I don’t have the money to buy something, I won’t buy it. There are exceptions of course and these may include student loans, a house or a car. The rule is, stay out of debt as much as possible and save your money.
Money = freedom and freedom= happiness.

Teachers Forum: Motivating Your Students

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

This essay is on motivating your students.

Over the years I have been blessed to work with many talented students.
But even though these students might be very gifted their motivation to improve has varied from non existent to manic determination. I have always felt that as their instructor, it is my job to make sure they retain the desire to continuously improve their skills. Usually the better a student gets, the more motivated they become. The form of motivation really depends on the particular student. Obvious factors include age, disposition, ability to take criticism and discipline which is either learned or part of their being. Other factors such as insecurity and fear of failure are sometimes the result of their family life and peer contact. These can be improved upon with the teachers support but are somewhat out of your control.
Let’s look at some behaviors that I have observed in my 25 years of teaching.

You would think that an older student (9th grade and above) would be very self-motivated as taking the time to seek out advanced private lessons, asking their parents to pay for them, and then assuming the responsibility to prepare for each lesson would seem to prove the fact. However, that’s not always the case. Usually what happens is that when beginning lessons for the first time the student will be very gung-ho but they soon become very inconsistent in their preparation. This is sometimes the result of the realization syndrome which can be defined as “hey, this is really hard and I thought I would be great after 2 lessons. You mean this is going to take years!!! Can’t you do a download”?

Students suffering this syndrome will need to be continuously hounded by you (the teacher) or even worse, their parents. In my own teaching I use the “three strikes and your out” rule which means that if a student is unprepared for the lesson three times I will refuse to teach them and I let them know this from the onset of lessons. Obviously this scenario is not a good model for the vast amount and speed of improvement that must take place for a young percussionist to be successful .

In my opinion true motivation must come from within. It is a combination of desire and self confidence which the student has been born with or somehow brainwashed into at a young age by outside sources. This self motivation really depends on several things: their love for the craft, the natural confidence of the student and where they see themselves as compared to their peers. In my experience most serious young musicians are not aware of their abilities as compared to their peers throughout the country. Sure, they may be the best at their school or even the best in their county or state but they have no idea how they stack up nationally or even internationally. I would argue that depending on the region of the country in which the student lives it would be remarkably easy for them to create a false image of their own abilities. Unfortunately, without proper guidance the student could be in for a rude awakening when college audition time rolls around.

This self-awareness is even more important if the student is looking to attend a major conservatory or a competitive university program. Repertoire and musical maturity must be up to particularly high standards. This is where the teacher comes in. A knowledgeable teacher who has had experience with other talented and high achieving students knows exactly what it takes to compete at this level. And this level keeps rising so the teacher must keep evolving along with his students. As a case in point, repertoire that was commonly performed on college senior recitals by my students just five years ago is now expected at undergraduate auditions. I have had students perform their undergrad auditions with the same repertoire that students who were doctoral candidates would have used 5-10 years before.
Hopefully the teacher will have been through this very selective process themselves and knows what it takes to get there.

So how do I motivate my students? Well, it depends on the student.
Different students respond to different motivational techniques.
First, let’s talk about two things that I don’t do…
1. I never yell or raise my voice with a student. When I was coming up many teachers had the reputation for doing this (not my own teachers thankfully). I think any kind of physical fear factor intimidation is completely useless and an utter waste of energy. It has no place in any kind of artistic instruction. If a student gets me to the point where I feel like yelling I will refuse to teach them or have them removed from the particular program.
2. I don’t give my students a false sense of reality. That is, I never tell them how great they are to make them just feel good about themselves if it isn’t warranted.
This seems to be rampant in society today and I believe it is the cause of much narcissism. Instead I focus on how they compare with their peers (no names are mentioned) in an accurate and non malicious matter. I also make it a point to try not to talk about students with other students although this is sometimes unavoidable.

Good Motivation techniques

1. Inspiration is a major part of motivation. Playing a great recording or video for a student can really motivate them to achieve a higher reality. Likewise the teacher should play and demonstrate for their students as much as possible. This may be the only time the student gets to see close hand what a particular piece of music sounds and looks like while being performed.
2. Challenge the student to outperform what they think they are capable of. This can be done with faster tempos, more difficult literature, performing different styles of music or even learning different instruments. For example, a student who is (or thinks they are) a “mallet specialist” and has a fear of the drum set might be motivated to learn to play the Drum Set if you take them on a gig with you and have them sit in (on a simple tune). Likewise you can record them playing with some music and show them that “yes they can” play the instrument on a basic level. Once the initial fear of failure is removed the student is usually motivated to try something new. You also need to make it clear that the student may need a particular skill in order to be successful in their musical career.
3. Talk to your students about your life and career in music. Invite them to come hear you perform. If they see that you are enjoying your life and manage to make a decent living they will be motivated to do it themselves. I have had lots of students tell me they want to do exactly what I am doing. While this is very flattering I always have to explain to them that my career was created by my motivation to be as good a musician as possible. I explain to them that I did not set out to make a lot of money or acquire lots of things. I tell them that what they see is a result of my motivation to be the best artist I can possible be. I always make it a point to explain that I am still always learning and seeking to improve my skills.
4. Get your students involved in community musical organizations such as youth symphonies, wind ensembles, drum corps, jazz groups, etc. They will be around students that are interested in the same type of careers and in this environment the motivation is strong.
5. Competitions are one of the strongest forms of motivation. District and all-state bands carry a certain amount of prestige for students and many are motivated to “beat out” their peers. Since these competitions are not always judged by panelists who play the same instrument as the auditioned it is important to put these events in perspective. Other reality issues exist as well. A student who is consistently #1 in the state in timpani can find out that they are woefully unprepared for a college audition which stipulates skills on many different percussion instruments.

When it really comes down to it my most successful students have been extremely self motivated and I rarely have to tell them anything twice. Others need a good talking to every once in a while but end up ok. If you find yourself having to constantly motivate a student to practice perhaps it may be time to advise them on a different career path. My general rule is that if after a year of study a student finds it difficult to become motivated to practice their craft they should not attempt to become a professional musician. The other alternative is to recommend a different teacher but 9.9 times out of ten this student has no chance in hell of doing this for a living and you can do them a favor by telling them this.