Who needs a good Teacher?

Learning a musical instrument breaks down down into three main areas: technique, musicianship and knowledge. A good teacher has an in-depth knowledge of all three and ensures that his pupils receive a thorough grounding in them, showing how they interact to form a valid whole.

We can say that someone is naturally “musical” in that he is able expressively to evoke an emotional and/or intellectual response in the listener. But without a firm technical foundation the effect will be limited. Furthermore, if lack of knowledge means that musical instinct is not appropriately directed the result can be incongruous, even ridiculous, especially to those who do understand music.

Technique focuses primarily on the physical aspect of playing, whilst musicianship more on the psychological. Depending upon the instrument in question, technique addresses such elements as breathing, posture, fingering, dexterity and coordination (for example between hands, or between tongue and fingers). Repetitive exercises, such as scales, arpeggios and other specially constructed note patterns are frequently practised to improve facility.

Musicianship deals with the way sequences of notes are shaped, or “phrased”. Good tonal quality and flexibility are the bedrock here. The ability to manipulate the sound’s volume and colour, use vibrato, articulate notes with immediacy and join notes smoothly also comes into play. Knowing what speed is suitable, understanding how the music of certain periods and genres “goes”, ie stylistic awareness, is also necessary.

We might also say that while we learn technically to able able to play pitches correctly and rhythms precisely, we learn to play musically so that we can distort the rhythm, so as to heighten the psychological response and discern (so as to adjust if necessary) the pitch to compensate for any deficiencies in the mechanics of the instrument, or of our fellow ensemble members!

Lurking in the background, as it were, and essential to technique and musicianship, is theoretical and general musical knowledge. Without this framework musical opportunities will be missed and ideas – if they are there at all – can be misdirected or out of proportion. A good teacher is sufficiently far-sighted to make sure that the theoretical side of instrumental tuition is not overlooked. In earlier lessons this means that everything written on the page has to be understood. In advanced lessons it means that there must be an awareness of form and harmony with an ability to analyse the diverse elements contained in a musical structure.

The sad fact is that the average music teacher, having studied or practised only to a limited extent, knows little of technical matters and even less of musical ones. Nearly twenty years of examining all over the world have made me painfully aware that nearly all the candidates that do badly do so through no fault of their own, unless out of idleness. Moreover, those that do well do so thanks to their being well trained in both technique and musicianship by a good teacher.

In music, like in just about everything else, you get what you pay for. Having cheap lessons from “the lady down the road” or the peripatetic “specialist” employed by the Local Education Authority to teach a whole family of instruments, but who can only play one instrument – and that not very well – is a false economy. Worse than that, it can destroy any latent musical predisposition in the pupil. It also makes it far more difficult for the good, and more expensive, teacher who, inevitably, has to be brought in later to put things right.

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