Current thinking suggests that engaging your students in interrelated activities, which encompass a range of skills in a seamless experience, is the best way to support learning and develop musical understanding. Here, Brian Ley explores how this approach can make your lessons more effective.
Perceptions of instrumental teaching and learning
It was at the beginning of the new millennium, in ABRSM’s publication The Music Teacher’s Companion, that Paul Harris and Richard Crozier introduced the term ‘simultaneous learning’ to define an innovative approach to instrumental work; an approach that, in the intervening years, has transformed the teaching styles of many teachers through ABRSM courses such as the CT ABRSM Plus. Paul Harris, who originally coined the phrase, developed this idea in more detail in Improve Your Teaching (Faber Music, 2006). So what exactly is simultaneous learning in music and how do teachers successfully implement and develop this approach? Historically, instrumental teaching has focussed predominantly on a one-to-one encounter, formulated on what Paul and Richard describe as the master-apprentice model. It was a model that was promoted in the past by music conservatoires and by a vast majority of teachers in schools and in private studios. In recent years this approach has been challenged, and attitudes and practice have changed as we gain a greater understanding of the learning process and of the role of the effective teacher. As teachers, our primary aim is to enable learning to take place. But it is not a one-way process in which the teacher merely imparts technical skills and information to students. Good teachers engage and lead students in rich musical experiences that motivate them to continue to learn. But the technique-driven approach still often dominates lessons. One reason for this has been the false perception on the part of so many teachers that the instrumental curriculum is dictated by the requirements of graded exams. These focus mainly on performance skills, sight-reading, aural skills and a knowledge of theory. The exam syllabus has often determined what the student studies, taking little account of the nature of learning or of broader aspects of instrumental work. This can result in a fragmentary curriculum, since the exam has influenced rather than reflected the practice of instrumental teaching and learning. This is not to be critical of an exam process that is well established and provides achievable goals and motivation for so many learners. Summative assessment in the form of exams will demonstrate what the candidate knows and can do on a particular occasion in particular circumstances. But, however important these exams are, they ought not to dictate how the learner is taught in the intervening period. An over-reliance on ‘teaching to the exam’ denies students access to a broader range of musical experiences that can enhance and complement exam requirements.
Defining simultaneous learning
An instrumental lesson will, more often than not, comprise a number of musical activities which may include warm-up exercises, scales and pieces. Often, however, the focus of the lesson is exclusively on pieces. This means that other work, on such things as sight-reading and the development of aural and listening skills, is neglected, or left until needed for an exam. This may result in teaching becoming reactive rather than proactive. It may also mean that some activities, such as improvising and composing, are omitted. Effective teaching will include a range of interrelated activities in an integrated approach, so that: warm-ups and scales relate to the pieces that the students are learning; sight-reading forms a part of every new experience of a notated piece; and listening and aural work permeates all musical activities. It is by making these musical connections that teaching becomes more proactive than reactive, with far more interaction between teacher and students. This is the basis of simultaneous learning. We now better understand the different ways in which learning takes place. We recognise that some of our students learn best from doing, others from listening and others from visual stimulus. Each student will have a different combination of these strengths. We also recognise the importance of understanding the learning process and of adapting our teaching to take account of the variety of ways in which students learn. Most of us now accept that an exclusive ‘I tell you and you do’ approach is a narrow concept that takes little account of the interactive nature of teaching and learning. Current thinking about instrumental work promotes this broad approach, where students will:
- listen and internalise – developing aural awareness and acuity
- play and sing – individually and with others
- create – developing and interpreting musical ideas, through improvising and composing
- perform and communicate – including evaluating their own and others’ music
Of course, underpinning these musical experiences will be the development of technical control, without which students will struggle to master their particular instrument. Technique will usually form the major focal point of instrumental teaching and its mastery must remain central, because little else can be achieved if technique does not improve. But technique should serve the cause of music-making, not dictate it; technical control should not be achieved at the expense of those other areas of musical experience. By adopting a simultaneous approach we go some way to ensuring a balance to the teaching and learning process.
Simultaneous learning in action
In 2010 ABRSM launched a new online course – Being an Effective Teacher. This course, available worldwide, aims to introduce teachers to current trends in instrumental work and to encourage a more holistic approach to their teaching. Taught using text, audio and video resources, and discussion forums, the course features films of actual lessons that demonstrate simultaneous learning. The following case study is taken from one of the online film clips.
A group guitar lesson
Five 10- and 11-year-old students receive acoustic guitar tuition. They have been learning for just under a year. The aim for the lesson is to reinforce understanding of pulse and rhythm and to relate this to a piece that the students have been learning.
The teacher shares the aims of the lesson with the students – a focus on the pulse and a particular rhythm (tango).
The students warm-up by tuning their guitars and playing a rhythmical pattern that they will find in the new piece, later. The warm-up, which is played on open strings, also encourages finger dexterity. A call and response exercise then allows some simple improvisation.
The teacher uses note recognition cards to introduce a scale pattern (the same scale that the students will discover in the tango piece). The students are encouraged to listen as they play the scale. They vary performance by starting at different points in the scale, in two and three parts. Listening skills and aural acuity are developed simultaneously with scale and chord playing.
The new piece is introduced. The teacher uses flash cards to reinforce understanding of the rhythms in the piece, and the notated music is broken down into small segments, which students and teacher play together.
The students clap the rhythm of the piece whilst the teacher plays an accompaniment. The students clap the rhythm again and then sing the melody line.
Individual and paired guitar practice now takes place. The students work on particular sections and the teacher provides support in improving technique.
A first performance of the whole piece; the teacher accompanies. The students discuss and evaluate their performance recognising that the rhythms they practised earlier are found in the piece. They note particular features that they need to practise at home. In this well-planned lesson the teacher employed a variety of strategies – warm-ups, games, listening exercises, practising and performing – and used a number of resources – flash cards, visual aids and notated music. One activity led naturally to another and all related to the aim of the lesson. By the end, the students had made good progress and most of the group performed the piece fluently. Music and the development of musical understanding formed the heart of this lesson. Effective teaching engages students in activities that not only support technical skills, but also allow them to develop their overall musicianship – to listen purposefully, to explore their own musical ideas through improvising and composing and to find ways of interpreting the music they sing and play. When connections are made between these various activities our teaching becomes more holistic, and this is the cornerstone to simultaneous learning.
Brian Ley is a freelance music consultant and part-time Deputy Course Director for ABRSM.
This article was originally featured in the January 2012 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.