Goal-Driven Music Education

I see this question posed frequently by elementary, early-childhood, and general music teachers, in different forms: "How do I fill up the time?" I think this question comes from thinking about music education as a series of activities. Activities in the music classroom seem to be a model favored by our profession, lots of the curriculum, lots of lesson plans, encouraged in music teacher preparation programs, etc. Many teachers and curriculum designers strive to develop activities that touch on music concepts or ideas or standards, in an introductory or exploratory way. And so we need activities to fill up the time.

If we're struggling to figure out how to fill up the time, I think a goal-oriented or goal-driven approach can help. One where we set learning objectives and strive to ensure each student achieves those learning objectives. Where we're not simply touching on topics but practicing them and learning more deeply so that students actually develop real musical knowledge and skills, that can then be put into practice in performance. If we sit down and make a list of all the things we wished we could teach a grade level in a year, so that each student became proficient in a grade-level of musicianship, we would quickly see that there is no where near enough time to accomplish this, in whatever time we had -- even if we had two 90-minute weekly classes, for example. But doing this also will demonstrate how easy it is to fill up time: with teaching and developing real usable, presentable skills. There won't be enough of it to accomplish all we want to accomplish.

If we move away from the introductory, exploratory, activity-based model (which often feels more like entertaining kids rather than teaching music to students) and strive to teach real musicianship with the goal to develop real musical skills in all students, we definitely will have the problem of not having enough time! But we won't have the problem of trying to figure out how to fill up the time!

Approaches to Music Note Reading

There are a variety of approaches to teaching note reading. Probably any approach can be made to work by a skilled and devoted teacher and capable students. But with so many frustrated students and teachers that I encounter, and students that have studied for years but still cannot read notes on the staff, I think it’s important we all discover an approach that works well for us. I’m going to briefly mention a few of them, and then discuss my personal preferences.

There is the mnemonic approach. I don’t like this approach because the memorization is random and haphazard. There’s no inherent logic, there’s little or no student understanding of underlying structure, purpose, or intent, and there’s no recognition of useful patterns. Many students rely on the mnemonic for years and never truly memorize the grand staff notes or benefit from understanding their patterns.

There is the one-note-at-a-time approach. This week we learn C. We play songs with note C. Then next week we learn note D or G or some other note, one at a time, week after week. This approach is common in band and other instrumental ensemble methods, as well as some piano methods. It’s unnecessarily slow, tedious, (tortuous?), doesn’t take advantage of the powerful intelligence and capabilities of learners (that I see), and still doesn’t help students recognize patterns (except perhaps over a long period of time, eventually, when looking back and striving to make sense out of what was learned).

There are pattern-based approaches. These are the approaches I prefer. In many of the pattern-based approaches, students learn guide notes, and then learn patterns based off those guide notes. The most basic pattern is the music alphabet: A,B,C,D,E,F,G, going up, and G,F,E,D,C,B,A, going down. The clef signs point to one guide note each (treble clef = G, bass clef = F, alto clef = C, etc.). From these guide notes, students can quickly learn and memorize simple patterns: the note just above the guide note, the note just below the guide note; the scale going up and down, based on the music alphabet; intervals, triads, and more. Other guide notes, and other patterns, such as the pattern of C’s on the grand staff, can be useful and fun (for example, five C’s can be shown in an interesting mirror-image pattern that can be a useful memory aid for note reading).

When working with students, I use guide notes and then drill just a few notes related to the guide notes at a time. For example, treble clef G, A, and F; bass clef F, G, and E, Middle C, D, and B, etc. In a very short time students can learn 9 notes, and then 15, and sooner than you might expect, the whole grand staff including several ledger lines in each direction. If one note is memorized, then the note above and note below can be instantly recognized also – if students understand the pattern. It also help if students learn a little bit about the history and development of the staff, lines and spaces, pitch direction, clefs, etc., so they understand the underlying structure of the staff, its logic and its relationships.

Flash cards and online note identification apps can be useful, but not too early, because they are likely random and haphazard. If using flash cards or apps, limit the notes to just a few at a time, as discussed above, until those few notes are learned solid. Then add more notes, and build from there. Don’t teach just one note a week, but also, don’t simply jump into the whole deck and have students frustrated and guessing, or worse, trying to use the dreaded mnemonics crutch!

I like paper and pencil, along with other modes of learning (playing, gaming, speaking, audiating, online apps, visual aids, flash cards, and internal memory). I don’t skip paper and pencil; I think the work students do on paper helps to speed up and strengthen the memory.

If you’d like some FREE note identification worksheets that guide students through guide note and pattern-based learning and memorization process, visit the page linked below. There’s everything you need (and I am adding more worksheets regularly, including other topics)! You’re students will be reading the full grand staff in weeks or months, not years!

(Free means truly free. I do not ask for email nor collect any information. Simply download the pdf files and they are yours to print, photocopy, and use in your studio, school, or private teaching practice.)


The Beat of a Different Drummer

The reason we should strive to eliminate stereotypical, inauthentic “Native American” music from the teaching repertoire is because these pieces tend to portray Native Americans as “primitive” – past and present. In doing this, we continue to oppress a people even in our contemporary, striving-to-be-more-enlightened world. Native American culture today is modern and contemporary. Native American people participate in the arts, sciences, education, medicine, engineering, technology, fashion, and pop music.

(Check out the website for the Native American Music Awards: https://nativeamericanmusicawards.com/pop).

When we educate students about Native American culture, we should actually start here!

Now, Native Americans have older traditions, yes, just as other cultures have older traditions. When we teach older traditions, those traditions should be presented as authentically as possible; they should be honest, they should portray the cultures mostly in a positive light, and they should not contain stereotypes. For example, it is both dishonest and unfair consistently to portray traditional white European and American men as forward-thinking, capable, inventive, happy, modern, winning in battle (with all the songs that go with these presentations), and then too-consistently to portray traditional Native American and other minority people as primitive, on the losing side, child-like, being taught by missionaries, ponderous, weak and sad, even mistreated, sidelined, separatist, old-fashioned, uninterested in the modern world.

I love folk music, and I believe we should teach students all kinds of folk music. But, real folk music! Not trite stereotypical music invented by dominant-society composers for the purpose of educating dominant-society students, ignoring the real culture and people, then and now. So when we include Native American folk music, it should be as authentic as possible and not derived from “Hollywood-inspired” misrepresentations. And we should credit the Native American culture, and thank them for the music they passed down, and acknowledge their ongoing contributions to contemporary and popular music.

One more thing: Want to have open-fifth drum beats in a song? Almost every culture uses drums! Let’s use some of those other cultures and not uncouthly stereotype one group!

Here are a few pieces that strive to be more authentic of Native American tradition, for beginners (could be late beginner, could be taught partly by rote, or full reading, and they have some technical things that could be worked on with students).

Also, here’s a song with a drum beat that is Scottish!

Bebi Notsa (Baby Sleep) (Creek), Song of Happiness (Navajo), Macochi Pitentzin (Aztec), Aiken Drum (Scottish). Here are links to my website and also to Sheet Music Plus.

Order from Presto! It’s Music Magic Publishing website:


Order from Sheet Music Plus website:

Bebi Notsa (Baby Sleep) (Creek)


Song of Happiness (Navajo)


Macochi Pitentzin (Aztec)


Aiken Drum (Scottish)


Confidence, Not Fear!

One of the most important states of mind that we can help instill in our students is confidence. When a child or adult begins piano or other music lessons, they are often filled with excitement and anticipation, but too frequently also, fear. Fear of making mistakes, fear of looking bad, fear of feeling inadequate, fear of being perceived as having no talent... The worst thing we can do as teachers is to confirm or worsen those fears. We should help to alleviate those fears, to mitigate them, and ultimately to develop and restore confidence.

As a piano teacher, one way I strive to instill confidence at the piano is by introducing songs that encourage big, free movements of the hands and arms while playing at the keyboard, early on. Too many methods start students out with narrow, cramped finger positions, where the student's fingers seem glued to the keys, and students learn to feel afraid to move out of position or else lose their place. This results not only in timid playing but also introduces tension and teaches bad habits such as finger wiggling and crawling.

The best methods, including my own (Presto! It's Piano Magic), introduce students to songs that encourage freedom of movement, graceful swinging motions led by the wrist, hand movements flowing from the shoulders and arms, and allow students to play up and down the piano keyboard, getting comfortable and confident right from the start. It's fun, and young students feel really big doing it! Students avoid developing bad habits that will have to be corrected later, and learn tension-free playing technique. And, so importantly, we begin to cultivate confidence, poise, and self-assurance in our students' practicing and playing. No fear! :)

Guided Practice in Teaching

I hear many teachers lament that if a student doesn't practice (adequately), they will make no progress, and the same lesson will be repeated over and over, and lessons will be no fun for the student or the teacher.

I have to wonder, then, what is being taught at the lesson? If a student has weekly lessons, they should learn new things every week, regardless of how much they practice. And if they learn new things every week, by definition they are making progress, and are not getting the same lesson repeated each week. And, the learning and teaching of new things should be fun, challenging, and rewarding for both student and teacher, always!

In my education and career I have experienced many teachers, observed many teachers, and coached a few teachers. I have noticed that a large number of teachers follow (basically) a "perform, critique, assign" process in the lesson. Student performs. Teacher critiques the performance and works with student on a few things related to the performance. This could repeat for multiple pieces or exercises. If student's progress is satisfactory, teacher assigns new material. Otherwise, no new material. (So, progress or no progress is essentially a consequence of satisfactory performance.) If there is something within the material a student is unfamiliar with, teacher will explain/teach. (So, teaching is often coincidental, fleeting, possibly of secondary importance, or may not occur at all.)

Consider an alternative process that might be called, "teach, practice," that can work very well for all students, but especially for students who don't practice enough at home and for students with anxiety or other challenges and struggles where the conventional strategies don't work as well or result in disappointment and frustration (and too often animosity toward students and parents).

Lessons begin with learning something new. A planned lesson. This can include review of prior knowledge, reinforcement, scaffolding of concepts and skills, etc. But always something new. Then, practice. Drills, repetition, playing small exercises, off-instrument work, ear training, listening and analysis, practicing small sections of repertoire. The practice can be all about getting better at things already known, or also about learning new things, but it's real practice, not performance. Then, the assignments flow from this practice in the lesson: essentially, to do more of what we've been doing together, on your own. But, whether they do or not, the student has learned new things and gotten better at some things in the lesson. They never, ever, walk away empty handed. The parent never, ever, wastes their money.

Performance grows out of the practice in the lessons when students are ready. They may be eager to perform at some point. Teacher may want to challenge them at some point. The performance for the teacher should result in positive feedback, and then the teacher will know what to practice with the student (this is formative assessment). No need for critique, per se. No need for disappointment and frustration and animosity.

Teacher teaches and gives much guided practice with student. That's the lesson. Student may or may not practice independently at home. But they will make progress. And the chance that they will grow to love music and practice more on their own down the road remains. And we're really teaching, not simply assigning students to go learn on their own, and get consequences of "no new assignment/no learning" if they don't do what they were previously assigned well enough, or don't perform adequately for the teacher.

Try this and I can virtually guarantee every student will make progress. Even more progress if you're teaching them things they really want to learn and in ways they can relate to and find relevant. And let's never say negative things to colleagues about students, even if they don't practice. It's our job to reach them, to teach them, to help them grow... every lesson!

Making Music Begins with Joy!

The root of learning music, of making music, including at the piano, should be joy. Once joy is firmly established, and, well, enjoyed by the student, then it's time to layer on challenge, and complexity, and the rewards that come from struggle and hard work. If we begin with complexity, right and wrong, errors and mistakes, struggle and hard work, we run the risk of removing the joy from music-making early on, and possibly for life.

In our society many (most!) enjoy listening to music, but too few enjoy making music. As a music teacher, I've decided to own that. Almost every day it seems I hear someone lament that they are "not musical." Often they tell me it's a teacher that told them so, a teacher that gave up on them, or that they gave up themselves because it was too hard.

How is it possible that anyone is not musical? It's not! How is it possible that making music is too hard? It shouldn't be! Our primary function as teachers should be to help our students experience joy in making music from the start. Everything else, including getting better at making music, seems secondary and conditional. If not, it's putting the cart before the horse, and of course both horse and cart get hurt.

So how do we help all students find joy in making music from the very start? We meet students where they are, we learn what our students' goals are, we help them achieve their goals, we help them make music they love, we offer challenges when they are ready to accept challenges, but we move at a pace that keeps the joy alive!