As musicians, we often spend some of our time teaching. At least half of the students in the music class I lecture are either teaching an instrument or have taught an instrument at some time.
We must never reinforce negative feeling as an educator. I heard one teacher say many years ago about a particular student he was teaching, “I wash my hands of her. I cannot do anything for her unless she gains confidence”.
To me, that was cast iron evidence that the teacher had given up with the student and had never done anything at all to develop her confidence in the first place. In fact, it was quite the reverse. Now when I look back on that encounter, I think what a terrible thing to say to a student and an example of total blame shift onto the very person who is paying you to help them to get better. As teachers, we must measure our effectiveness by the changes we make in others. Some teachers I know are super confident people and have no idea what it is like to feel un-confident. In fact it is often easy for us to forget times when we were very scared ourselves when we meet students or pupils who are suffering badly with nerves. We have our own concerns about that person’s confidence and can feel that it is a reflection on our teaching if they have a lack of confidence. I have seen some teachers, when they meet somebody who has low self-esteem or is a performer with bad nerves, unwittingly; they simply reinforce the fears in the student by recreating the same scenarios and veiled judgements and disappointments that the student came to them with in the first place. A student will fall into the trap of not feeling good enough and some teachers would be glad to adopt the role of oppressor.
Some teachers offer no strategies, no solutions for the student to get more confident. If you have students who are nervous and not getting any better, then look to create opportunities for that student to perform regularly in a safe environment free from negative emotions. This is the best way to develop confidence and a cycle of learning and getting better. Also do not wait too long before you get them performing and do not make a big fuss about it. I know students who have waited so long after starting to learn an instrument before they perform that they have built up in their minds the idea that performing is a monumentally massive deal. Clearly this is a really bad place to let students get to in their minds. I have noticed through my own experience and the experience of watching excellent teachers that organising fun performing opportunities dissolves away the nerves of students who get more and more confident as a result.
Only the other day, I was watching a busking session in Bath run by Richard Perkins and his guitar students from the Bath Guitar School. Richard was leading the students from his own guitar and singing leading by example of how to be confident and have fun playing music. The Christmas repertoire gave the young guitarists a low risk opportunity to jam along and gain confidence without feeling too exposed and really enjoy playing with a group of musicians. The first song saw a few of the younger guitarists not keeping up with the chords but were still relaxed and quite focused. I returned 40 minutes later to the second set of the same songs to find the group of young guitarists now playing the right chords in the right places looking more confident than they had been earlier in the same hour. It was amazing to see (see picture left) and a real testament to the performance based ethos of the Bath Guitar School. There had been no input given to students in the 40 minutes I had been away, their didn’t need to be but the students just got better by playing, listening and watching. It works because we only learn through performance and the more we provide real opportunities like this for the people we are teaching, the better and more confident each student becomes. I have heard it said that one should never have low standards which is something I agree with fully but letting people learn and enjoy themselves should be at the core of every interaction we have with our students. Being a friend and colleague of Richard, I know he has very high standards and great expectations but he lets people develop through careful guidance and plenty of fun opportunities with which he shares his own enthusiasm.
So. If you are supporting musicians who are nervous and everything you say or do doesn’t make your students any more confident, look at what opportunities you are providing to allow that confidence to grow. Confidence is like a seedling. It needs to start off in a small seed pot, be watered carefully, live in a warm environment, kept out of strong sunlight. A good gardener knows when the seedling needs re-potting and knows when it is ready to go outside and when the supporting cane can be removed. As it grows, it becomes stronger and stronger and eventually it bares fruit of its own.
From my own experience of teaching, regular gigs or playthroughs in front of others are amazing for developing confidence and excitement and enthusiasm for a musician. This is at the core of BA1 Records where I work. When I was younger, my piano teacher would invite me over to play piano for all of her mature piano students for their tea and scones afternoons. It was an amazing experience and such a wonderful environment for me to improve my confidence and get some positive feedback from a small, warm appreciative audience. My confidence grew so that I was able to take my grade 8 and audition for the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
Here are a few key points worth remembering as a teacher or coach of an instrument:
- Always make it fun.
- Play duets with your pupils.
- Rejoice in the simple things in music. It doesn’t need to be difficult music to be fun!
- Take part yourself. Lead by example.
- Always talk about the passion in the music and share your enthusiasm for it.
- Make opportunities for your students to play in public in a safe way which will improve confidence and instil purpose into the skills they are learning.
What opportunities are you providing? Are you allowing for growth or are you saying, “if only they were confident, then I would be able to teach them and they would be ok….”
Photo of smaller group of buskers, Courtesy of Clare Kingswell Photography