‘So little time and so much to do’ is undoubtedly a mantra for peripatetic teachers. When you’re sitting in a traffic jam while eating your lunch and lamenting the loss of your afternoon bathroom break, it’s easy to feel like you never have as much time as you need. While we may not have lessons as long as we’d like, or have enough rehearsals before our next concert to make us feel completely at ease, in the sage words of Gandalf the Grey, “all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
As we all know, progressing on an instrument requires far more than moving bits of our body in the right direction at the right time. Developing a sense of pitch, pulse, phrasing and creativity are all vital to the success of instrumental learning, but if your lessons are only 10-15 minutes long, fitting everything in can be challenging.
Here are a few tips for making the most of your time:
Be organised and encourage your students to do the same. Yes, there’s always one who would forget their head if it wasn’t screwed on, but help them by asking their class teacher to write their lesson time on the board or even set an alarm to remind them if they are having real difficulty being punctual. Utilise every minute of time by asking each student to arrive five minutes early to set up, so that they are ready to play at the start of their lesson.
Plan what you need to teach in each lesson according to each student’s goals. (You can check out our previous blog on planning here.) Prioritise what is most crucial to progress right now and make it a theme of your lesson, ensuring everything you teach is relevant to moving towards the next goal. However, be careful not to lose sight of the big picture by driving hard in a single direction, particularly if a student’s goal is to take their next exam.
As musicians, it’s a fact that we are excellent multitaskers. Our ability to switch seamlessly between different tasks is one of the many positive outcomes of a musical education, and if you’re short on time, writing in the practice book of one student while warming up the next is a skill you’ll never be sorry you mastered! Multitasking (or task switching, to give it it’s scientific name,) is an inherent part of playing an instrument, so it makes sense that we would teach in a way that develops multiple skills at once.
It’s easy to weave the development of pulse and aural skills into teaching a piece of music. For example, if your student is struggling with a particular passage, you could have them tap the beat and sing the letter names in time, enabling them to internalise the rhythm and melody. If they’re struggling to get their fingers around a passage, you could tap a steady pulse while they move their fingers in time and sing each letter name. This would allow them to practise their finger work rhythmically and relate the pitches they are singing to fingerings on their instrument. If they’re struggling with the rhythm of a passage, then they could count the beats out loud while they clap the rhythm, strengthening their sense of pulse while enabling them to feel how each rhythm fits within the context of the beat. Each of these steps will help the student break down tricky passages, and forms part of an effective practice strategy that develops musicianship as well as the ability to play a particular bar or phrase.
Similarly a ‘warm up’ can have many more uses than physically warming up our bodies and instruments. For example, try singing a simple melody for your student to play back to you as a warm up. If you’re working on a particular scale then sing your melody in that key, or if you’re working on a particular technique then sing something that promotes it. You’ll develop their sense of pitch as they figure out the notes they need to play, their ability to negotiate a particular scale, and their technique all at once. You could even add in a creative element by asking them to improvise a response to your melody using the same scale.
There is a plethora of ways to layer in the skills that our students need to become independent, well-rounded and creative musicians. We just have to do what we do best - get creative!