Stickers Not Scales

When you are fresh out of music college, you imagine teaching in collegiate terms.  I’ve had many young teachers who work at my music school, Kaleidoscope, advertise that they teach (say) guitar, songwriting, music theory, composition. The reality is that your entire evening might be six- to ten-year-old students who are beginners. Scales suddenly become (for the most part) irrelevant. The Greek modes (a favorite subject of college improvisation courses) are so far off on the horizon that they are ships against a distant sunset. The critical matter becomes: are lessons fun enough to motivate your young students to continue? You find yourself shopping at Michaels for stickers of dinosaurs, bunnies with sunglasses and Plants vs. Zombies.  You design practice charts to put the stickers on. You rebrand chromatic finger exercises with names like Sharks, Centipedes and Helicopters. That is, if you’re smart and you really care about your students. The need to retool my music education for beginners was at first disconcerting, then depressing, but in the end illuminating. Did I know my music theory well enough that I could explain it not only in layman’s terms but in six-year-old terms? Could drawing smiling sharks in the margins of a student’s notebook put them, somewhat sneakily, on the path to lifelong musicianship? Now that I’ve had several six- and seven-year-olds stay signed up for lessons with me for six to ten years–well into high school–I know the answer can be yes!

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