The Trouble With Teaching Music

February 10th 2012


“But, you’re singing a soul standard and you sound like a cheap cabaret singer. Who are you trying to emulate?” 


Last week. James’ first singing lesson. Spoken by me, the ever-frustrated music teacher.


James booked his first singing lesson with me in lieu of auditioning for the latest in TV talent shows; BBC’s The Voice, and, he wanted to sound like Stevie Wonder. James had no singing experience and contorted his voice in such a manner, it was laughable. But James thought he was “going to nail it”.


The week before, I told my 15-year-old piano student: “pull your finger out of your butt and practice, or I won’t teach you anymore” . And only yesterday I told a student her theory homework was pants and proceeded to write PANTS all over it, in capital letters. PANTS, PANTS, PANTS, PANTS, PANTS. 


Lately, I have been so cross with my students. These angry remarks and scribblings have not been made with a smile on my face but in genuine anger and frustration. And my GOD, do I get frustrated. When I teach, I put a massive amount of energy into my students; I encourage, inspire, use a variety of techniques and fun tips to keep them interested. If they don’t reciprocate by at least trying a bit, I’m upset.


I could accept this as a regular job qualm and just ‘take their money’ but really, money is only 50% of the reason I teach. I would much rather be broke than teach a lot of half-arsed students.


And right now, some of my best students aren’t coming through.


“Please! Give me good students who will work hard!” I want to shout.


I did just that. I worked my arse off as a student. Sure, in my twelve years of tuition, I had the odd questionable month but overall, I put in what was needed to achieve a high level of technical ability and now I enjoy the musical freedom my hard work has given me.


Although I found them a bit boring, I practised my scales and technical exercises, got good at them and now use them regularly as a jobbing musician. But my students refuse to practise scales or implement techniques. More often, they are fans of the quick fix.


I refuse to be one of those old-fashioned strict teachers who slaps a students finger with a ruler each time they play a wrong note (I have a friend whose teacher actually did this). When I teach exercises, I explain why they are important and set small achievable targets, simplifying them if needed. I encourage them to practice in a positive manner and practically pay my young students to put a bit of work in by providing ‘sticker cards’. Each week, every correct piece of homework and well-played song receives a sticker. And once they have 20 they receive a prize. Do other teachers do this? Probably.. if only out of desperation.


But still, none of them want to work on their scales and exercises and even if they do, they can’t seem to find the time and come back next lesson with no improvement. There is however, always an excuse. “Spend 5 minutes”, I eagerly beg, “honestly, 5 minutes a day. That’s an advert break between programmes on TV. It might not seem a lot but 5 minutes a day will build up and you’ll see an improvement over time”. And do they spend 5 minutes?Do they heck.



Why don’t they want to practise? They do want to be good. They say, “I want to play jazz” or “why won’t you teach me this?” and I explain “you need to know your way around your instrument first” or “you’ve only been playing for a few months”… 


It is my opinion that if you decided to put time and money into having music lessons you should justify that by practising and exploring your instrument; developing muscle memory, learning how to express yourself, having fun…. And you should do this whether you are learning for fun or for a career in music.


I wonder if the current obsession with celebrity is to blame? Our culture is producing a lot of disillusioned musical wannabes who think they can be a famous singer with only karaoke experience and no training whatsoever. And the notion of instant talent is bull shit. Those that do publicly make it are often dropped by their label and singing in pub bands within 18 months. More often, they aren’t good enough to continue earning their living as a musician because they have poor aural skills, can’t read music and have little or no skill on a musical instrument. What they do have is an OK voice that happened to make good TV in a sea of terrible singers and fame seekers.


I have always battled with the notion of teaching music privately. Most full time musicians do subsidize their earnings by teaching a few students or working as a visiting teacher in schools. Each year I say to myself, “next year will be the year I no longer teach private students”. By teaching so much, I feel I have harmed myself musically. At times where gigs were sparse, I have taught more. And after a long day of teaching I have no inclination to practise my own instrument or work on my own material. The creative drive and energy I am usually so full off has been sucked out of me by my students and by the time I have recharged my creative battery, the doorbell rings and another student awaits.


Whenever ‘next year, the year of no teaching’ does come around, I find myself rounding up all the positive things teaching music brings and once again, I am lured into its trap. 1. It’s flexible 2. It’s really well paid; where can you work for one hour, in the comfort of your own home and earn what the average person earns in a 6 hour shift? 3. It’s rewarding.


And on occasion, you do get a great student who makes it all worthwhile. Perhaps to one or two of my private tutors, I was that great student because I listened, became inspired, stuck at it even when I felt like quitting and have never earned my living doing anything else. I hope to one of my students, they will remember me as having helped them pursue a dream or simply enjoy a hobby they felt passionate about.


If I could be selective, I would tell any parent who asks: “do you think Jimmy could do his Grade 3 piano by the end of the year so he can get a music scholarship into Fame-Academy Grammar?”  to take a huge reality check. Jimmy has usually only had ten music lessons. Jimmy still can’t remember that a semibreve is 4 beats long and he will never remember this because Jimmy never practises. Mummy always makes excuses for Jimmy’s lack of practise and cancels lessons every other week. “He’s got so much on. Fame school. Drama class. Dance class”…she whines.


Sometimes, the parents really are to blame. But they are all too willing to blame you for Jimmy’s lack of improvement.



When I was young, most music teachers were fragile old souls whose only focus was teaching scales and learning exam pieces. The cycle continued… grade 1, grade 2, grade 3, with no respite until you were so uninspired, you quit. But this is not the case anymore. The world is full of amazing and inspiring music teachers and I am fortunate enough to know many brilliant musicians who like me, also teach. These musicians not only have a strong technical background but they excel in jazz, funk, rock, blues… you name it. Music education is constantly improving. Why then are the quality of students not?


I will no doubt continue to teach into old age but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t starting to drag a little. After 12 years in the game it’s all wearing a bit thin; the excuses, the parents, the need for little ones to be famous,the grown adults who think they can be jobbing musicians in only six months…


P.S. If you’re reading this and you are one of my students, I love you.


* This blog was originally published on my Public Emilie website, here.

2 responses to “The Trouble With Teaching Music”

  1. Chris says:

    Teaching Piano killed my passion to the instrument – I watching bored kids all the time …all of them have tablets, computers, games, Netflix …I’m trying to explain parents that preparing to grade 1 takes around 1,5 Years – If child is practicing daily – And the are practicing 2-3 times in the week – 10-15 minutes max ..because it’s BOOORING for them.

    Normal people (98%) have NO IDEA what it means to practice regularly and work toward some distant goal – As you have mentioned They really think that piano should be a fun for them – and at the end they will become famous celebrities…

    And countless APPs are investing huge amount of money to convince everybody that they will be virtuosos after 3 weeks of using their piano app.

    Sad times …200 years ago playing piano was like tablets and computer games – it was a fun… now it is a pain – for kids – parents and ..teachers …I think I will switch jobs and i will start composing soundtracks for Video Games – that what people want – having fun all the the time – spending thousands of hours in front of their screens.

    Piano is booring – it’s like healthy food …for kids McDonald will win each time.

    And the worst part …when Parents are saying …Little John (or Jessica) will decide if he want to continue… and after few weeks Netflix Internet and computer games are winning with boring and time-consuming piano… Little John doesn’t see any sense with spending time practicing.

    I decided to teach only few pupils if I will see great passion and talent in them (that means 2-4 students in my class instead 40) and simply…I QUIT.

  2. Mage, NCTM says:

    Oh my goodness–this totally resonates with me! I am a creative artist who happens to be a Nationally Certified Teacher of Music here in the US, and although your article is nearly a decade old, it is STILL relevant today! I get too many students who “want to be famous” or “only want to learn pop” or something. And then they don’t practice their scales, don’t practice their technique, and they don’t care about reading music. It makes me say, “That’s it–I want to stop teaching.” Instead, I have been raising the tuition rates in an attempt to get fewer students so that *I* can breathe and do my art and attract ONLY the SERIOUS students. To me, the serious students don’t have to be looking at music as a career; that of course is fine and welcome (I teach at the college too), but even if they simply just WANT to learn and WANT to practice and COMMIT to improvement…that’s what makes teaching worthwhile to me! Thank you for writing something so refreshingly honest and relatable for us dedicated teachers (who spend too much time on unappreciative students! ). And of course there are some amazing students at my studio too…it’s just that digital distractions and other “instant gratification systems” in society have encouraged the proliferation of non-practicers, in my opinion anyway!

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