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MUS654 Session 9: On Lessons and Learning

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It would be impractical and really unthinkable to provide a single lesson that was somehow meant to represent all lessons, or even an ideal lesson. There are so many variables: individual students, personalities, music, goals… the list can continue indefinitely.

There are going to be all variety of students and situations across the sea experiences in music learning and teaching, and it makes a fitting beginning to consider some of the ‘who’ learns and ‘why’.

That beginning is very different to the experience of Professional Violinist Nathan Cole. He explains growing up in a musical family and starting at a young age in this short post here. (3-5 min read)

And they are both very different to the way Alan Levine began learning music.  I asked him about musical learning and he spoke about his ambitions as a child, and how his learning and musical goals have changed now. Listen to the interview HERE (sorry about the wind noise!) Transcript is below:

Alan: I’m going to take a picture of you recording!

Laura: So I’m in the middle of the Arizona desert and I’ve come 5,000 miles to talk to Alan Levine to find out

Alan: That’s not the only reason you’re here

Laura: No, no, but it’s an excellent reason

Alan: laughs

Laura: and I’d like to ask him, how he learns the guitar, because as a performer, as a musical guitar player, not everybody approaches the instrument or learning in the same way – and having insight into an genuine person’s practice that hasn’t been necessarily – I haven’t primed you for this,

Alan: right

Laura: I don’t see a script written out – but , you know, I just want to know how to you learn things, because it isn’t the sort of thing a music teacher doesn’t often know.

Alan: Right. Well I’ve been trying to learn for, let’s see, at least 40 years, and that guitar there is the one I got when I was 15 when I think I told my parents I wanted to learn. ‘Cause 15 year old, I decided I wanted to be a rock star or something like that. So they said ‘ok, take guitar lessons’. I think in middle school (In fact I used this as an example in my talk yesterday) I wanted to be in band, cause it seemed like band was interesting and I didn’t play any more than the plastic flutes and I got my mind set that I wanted to play saxophone. Because the instrument, that shiny saxophone, the alto sax looks so cool, and you know, they rented me a saxophone and I’m in band class, and I’d go home to practice and my dog would howl, and my older sisters would tease me, cause the dog was howling and I never practised because I just didn’t like – I felt like they were making fun of me and I never got good at the saxophone.

And so I said, maybe I’ll be a guitar and my parents said they’d pay for lessons and when I first started with those lessons they said if I’d stick with it for more than 6 months we’ll get you a guitar – a real one. The one I got was a super cheap-o and it was like red white and blue with stripes on it. It was kind-of embarrassing standing in the store with it, but I did persist and that kind-of worked at the time. I don’t think I took lessons for more than a while and learned a couple of chords and I think he was just starting to get to the theory, and you know teenagers, you loose your interest so I never really stuck with it, but I always had the guitar and mostly strummed.

I had a friend in High School who played keyboards with us, and Larry could just sit down to a song on the radio and listen to it and just pick out the notes and I was jealous, cause I just couldn’t do it. At that time to learn music I’d go to a music store. I’d go through the sheet music, and I’d try to look at two or three songs and try to memorise the chords, so I’d be walking out of the store going D-C-G-F, D-C-G-F… (laughing) and if I was lucky I could get the chords for maybe one or two songs. I didn’t play consistently but I always had the guitar with me.

Laura: So now if you were going to learn a song, how would you do it?

Alan: Well now, sometimes I can pick them out, but I kind of decided – when I played a little bit more 4 years ago- that I wasn’t trying to make an exact copy and so I kind of moved to a place where I want to pick songs I like but I kind of want to sometimes do it my own way. So I might take a rock song and try make it into a blues or something like that, or if it was too complicated I might say – oh, I just like playing it this way. And you start to learn, now because you don’t have to go to music stores to steal TABs and you can find them on the internet, and sometimes they really help you figure out a song, and sometimes the don’t and sometimes I say – that’s not really right.

So now I can sometimes I can pick up the chords, and sometimes I look up the music and I have the Guitar TABs app on my phone, and I’ll look it up and I’ll start from that, but then I’ll listen to the song a bit and I’ll say well I don’t really want to play it that way – because a) cause it’s way too complicated (because I’m still not very good) and sometimes it’s like, this is good enough for me – because I don’t really perform much. I jam with friends and so I kind of like playing for myself. And in the last couple of years, I don’t know if I play everyday, but I play a couple of times a week, and some of the things with the DS106 class is we have this internet streaming radio station –I NEVER thought I would perform or play a song for anyone else, but you play for like 3 people who might be listening and all the sudden I passed that kind of barrier where I’m thinking I’m afraid to play for people. I’m already thinking that we’re in public, and that sort of concern, and so that was a nice way to get over that, because when I do that I’m sitting alone in my place and people can’t see me, but people started to say some nice things.

And I started a thing this year where I started to write some parody songs, and Dave Cormier’s birthday came up – he runs that Rhizome class – and for some reason I got in my head this idea of a song, and I don’t know where it came from, but Rhinestone Cowboy, the Glenn Campbell song. And I started thinking Rhizo Cowboy, that would be funny. So I started doing this thing where I would take a song and try to figure out the chords and write my own lyrics as a little gift or something. And I ‘ve actually recorded a couple of those and shared them, and I know when I hear myself I know that my singing isn’t really great and I missed the rhythm and chords, and I’m really envious of, I hang out with, people who are really good musicians, like Grant Potter who was with DS106 Radio, and we have a whole group of people and we get together for conferences and hire a jam space when we Brian Jackson who teaches guitar to High School teachers – super talented people and they’re very encouraging. So it’s not one of those things, you know where you think if you play with better people, and maybe this is true, that they’re going to ridicule me because I’m not really that good, but I mean the kind of people I hang out with…

Laura: only if they’re mean people.

Alan: You know how people think about self-perceptions that become sort of a truth and you talk yourself out of things…

Laura: So did you have encouragement the first time you played on the radio?

Alan: Yeah. Just the fact that someone listened, and it was less about the fact of what I was playing and they appreciate the fact that I was trying.

Laura: Yes.

Alan: And that really mattered. I have some dreams.. my friends who have the brewery up in the town, they have musicians, I think if I could get a couple of songs together, and if they’ll let me play – I don’t even want to get paid- but it would be a huge step to play in front of strangers. And then get to the place where I have a number of songs- I don’t want to look at an IPad. I want to memorise the songs completely. And so I’m just working on getting some songs together. And that’s… I’m still learning.

Laura: I think the most important thing that you said is that you’re still learning, because it applies to the students and the teachers and the everybody, because it’s only when you stop that learning that things become scary.

Alan: But there’s so may places where you can stop and say like, either -I don’t feel like I’m getting good or what am I getting out of this?

Laura: There’s lots of places for that.

Alan: And like you I’m very interested about what keeps people on that path, and some of it like if they have specific expectations like they want to perform, but hopefully I’d like to say if they get in a place where they like that act, because as a kid that’s why I never did the stuff that would have made me better sooner, the practice, because I didn’t really get much out of the practice- it wasn’t interesting to me, but teenagers are supposed to be like that. They’re supposed to flit from – I didn’t realise that at the time, and sometimes you don’t realise that when you’re a parent “why is my kid not focusing on anything??”Well they’re supposed to try a lot of things out. I know friends with parents and they get frustrated when their kids because they don’t ‘stick with the grit’ to one thing, and man, what a better time to decide if you want to be a flute player, or a ballerina, or a football player – I sometimes regret the things I didn’t try! (laughs)

Laura: No… That’s really good. Well, thank you very much!

Alan: Oh, you’re welcome!

Task: Experience the lesson

By giving you the experience of the teacher in the video in this first task I hope to make you think… about music, about learning, and about teaching and interaction with people. It is worth watching the whole video. Really.

Watch this 40 minute video of Professor Hans Jensen teaching and speaking about his teaching:

Taste The String from Richard Van Kleeck on Vimeo.

Taste the String is a documentary that gives an inside look into the teaching of cello professor Hans Jensen. Why did I choose that teacher? He is an extraordinary person and teacher who uses a very different approach from the school teacher sitting behind a desk, and works with students to jointly find the music within them. I had the privilege of studying with Hans for much of my cello education and I still find myself reflecting daily on things that he helped me to learn, moments, ways of looking at pieces and understanding relationships within the musical structure. His teaching taught me how to continue learning.


In music teaching, most lessons happen in a private setting, and there is rarely an opportunity to see behind those closed doors. Take any opportunity that is offered to you and soak up what you can learn like a sponge. Also, the archive of masterclass footage on the internet is a fantastic resource. Watch with a learning eye, and be careful not to be swooned by the playing, but concentrate on elements of communication, improvement, technical issues… Is that interface something that you would want to have? There will be something that you can take from every situation.

For my MUS654 university students developing a year’s curriculum to submit at the end of the term, consider how you might interface with your student and write some of this into your plans. Specifically look for examples of teaching in your specialism area: masterclasses, beginner lessons, ‘taster’ glimpses of lessons.

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Lesson Examples:

There are a few dozen videos showing teaching in a wide variety of instruments and across musical styles in a series of 3-5 minute short introduction to many different professional teachers in New York – via this link.


Below are a few examples that show professional classical musicians on the giving end, receiving end, and a technical explanation/demonstration in a formal masterclass setting. In the first example we see Lang-Lang receiving instruction, and in the second video he gives the instruction. The final clip is of James Gallway explaining embouchure. (with the two piano masterclasses there is a full performance of the work before instruction/comment begins) How do they talk? How is it received by the performer? Is the communication effective? Can you hear improvements/change? They are by no means a comprehensive representation of what is out there, but they are a starting point that begins to show diversity. Now you take it from here! Search the internet and find current and vintage recordings of performers from your instrument, and from other instruments and see what you can learn…



Write about your most valued qualities in a lesson. This doesn’t have to be something that you have experienced within your teaching or learning, but may be a compilation of what you have seen and experienced with different teachers. It could be what you aspire to. This is your teaching wish list, and something you can use as both a reminder and a checkpoint as you develop your own teaching practice.

Share your thoughts and your tasks! You can comment or tweet links to your tasks and hashtag #MUS654 or you might want to post on  your own site. … everyone is welcome, whether you contribute once or every week.

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