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How I Incorporate Student-Centered Learning into My Teaching Practice

Fall is almost upon us, and as I being preparing my home studio for the next wave of developing musicians, I think about all the exciting things to look forward to as a music teacher. For me at least, the most important (and the most fun) is the very first lesson where I begin the process of student-centered learning.

Getting to know new students, the results they want to see, and determining the best teaching process to help them succeed is the core of student-centered learning.

As my students will tell you, I focus a great deal on learning about my students’ interests, goals, hopes, and more so that I can provide the best experience for them. All of this starts at the first lesson.

For vocalists, we begin with a full assessment of the person’s vocal ability. Through the assessment, we (myself and the student) identify any habits or challenges that might be preventing them from getting the most out of their instrument, then developing a list of objectives and goals for that student as the progress through my studio.

For composers, I listen to or look at some of the music they’ve created and mention some techniques that could enhance what they have to make it even more impactful on listeners. We then create a lesson plan for the next few months of study which teaches the composer skills they need through mini-compositions and development of their own work.

I begin lessons in this way because I have a strong philosophy that acknowledges every student as a unique individual. While as a teacher, I do have a responsibility to ensure that proper technique and practice is learned by the student to help them succeed I also feel it is equally important to address students’ specific needs for growth. This might mean spending more time on warm ups in a voice lesson so that good habits are formed while also making connections to what certain popular singers are doing if that’s the focus of the student. It might also mean re-arranging melodies that are meaningful to the student in a piano lesson so that they are interested and excited to practice.

Teaching to the student isn’t about changing content, it’s about changing the process a little to help students engage more with the learning material. And the best way to start this process is in the first lesson by getting to know the student and learning about their goals and dreams.

See you in the fall!

~Tim

 

 

 

Singing with Seniors

A short post today, but I figured it had been a while, and this has been mulling around in my brain today…

As a professional working in health care and community settings, I have taught singing and piano lessons to a variety of people – including Seniors. It is something I have a great passion for, as the benefits of music for this population are profound and exceptional. For one, many seniors have a drive for learning because they want to stay active and involved in their later years. Music is an excellent intellectual exercise which helps to keep the brain healthy and fit -which is so important as we get older.

I have also seen the benefits of music with older adults in senior living communities. Not only does it help maintain cognitive skills, but it helps retrieve memories. Singing in particular helps to keep the voice active and singing in a group helps to build communities. Programs like Music and Memory are excellent additions to any senior living facility and the research around creating personalized music playlists for people in health settings is showing a huge range of benefits.

So if you’re a senior or someone who would like to learn more about the benefits of singing and music lessons, consider learning a new instrument. It’s fun…and its healthy.

Preparing for Recitals

This week marks the CCRI instrumental recital as well as other final projects and concerts, and it gets me thinking about performance anxiety and stress.

Every musician struggles with performance anxiety the day (even if they’ve been performing a while) to some extent and it’s normal to be nervous when you are about to put your heart and soul on display in front of others. Some things that I tell my students to do to redirect this stress include:

  • You’ve prepared authentically for this performance, you will succeed.
  • Let the performance happen naturally and organically. Focus on experiencing without judgement.
  • Focus on your breathing. Whether you’re a vocalist, composer, guitarist, or any other musician, breathing techniques before a recital will calm your nerves and your mind so that you can stay fully focused on what you’re there to do which is to give the audience a musical experience.
  • If you hear your own personal critic chiming in, tell it to take a hike that day.

Good luck to all the students and performers this week! You’ve got this!

In Song,

Tim

So What are Song-Writing Lessons Anyway?

Let’s say you have a great idea for a song. You record yourself singing or playing it, and you enjoy listening to your creation. So then what happens to it? Does it just stay on your Smart Phone until it dies? Do you avoid playing it for anyone else but yourself because you’re not sure if it’s any good? Maybe you have been writing some songs for a while and feel like you’re running out of ideas because you need some new material?

These are the reasons to take song-writing lessons (also known as composition lessons). Just like singing lessons, composition lessons help you learn and refine skills that help you create music that not only sounds good to you but that others can play and enjoy too. When I begin teaching a new student, they learn the basics of writing music notation and gradually apply these basics to the songs they write. In addition, we discuss how to create music which tells a performer how to express the meaning of the song more effectively.

Maybe you’re thinking…but I already take lessons with someone, couldn’t I study with my teacher?

While most music teachers have some basic composing skills (and either fondly or not-so-fondly remember the assignments they used to do in their music theory classes) not everyone is a skilled composer. Composition teachers have an intimate knowledge of how music is put together. They also know the subtle nuances of how music theory concepts can be applied to produce a beautiful and memorable piece of music. This is why many music students take composition lessons along with their normal instrument.

Studying with a teacher specialized in composition helps students to build a palette of tools to bring their music to the next level, much like an art teacher can help those who are skilled in visual mediums to expand their own abilities and produce pieces that draw out the emotion they see in what they create.

Have you ever thought about studying composition? If so, I encourage you to look around for a good instructor or mentor. While it’s encouraged, but not always necessary to find someone with a degree in composition; it is important is to find someone who has a thorough knowledge of the composition process, and has composed music which is or has been performed. You should also take an introductory music theory class as many composers do not start working with students until they know at least the basics of music notation. There are some excellent courses online and at local colleges and music schools.

And of course, my shameless plug! If you’d like to start composing music and are in the Rhode Island area, you might be interested in the Songwriting 101 class I am putting together this June. It’s a six-week course designed for beginners who want to start getting their music out of their head, and onto a page! For more information, check out my upcoming classes page.

Until next time!

In Song,

Tim

The Importance of Good Posture

When I teach my voice classes and lessons, many students comment on how surprised they are to notice a difference in their sound simply from changing the position in which they are standing. Voice, as it is a physical instrument is strongly influenced by our posture. With the amount of time that we spend at computer screens, it is not surprising that many of us are developing negative posture habits. These are things we need to fix when we begin singing.

There are three great benefits to maintaining a strong singing posture:

  1. You create more space in your torso, which allows for better, lower breathing. This establishes better control over your sound. This is why it is important to keep your chest high and your shoulders down. Breath should fill the body from the belly up and it is harder to do this when your shoulders are hunched forward.
  2. You are more balanced, which helps the body focus on breathing rather than keeping yourself upright. This is why keeping one foot slightly in front of the other, and your spine lengthened. When you have a stronger balance, you are more likely to keep less tension in your body. Lack of tension = better sound.
  3. You present a more powerful image and message to your audience. Think of it this way, if you saw someone come out on stage with their shoulders hunched forward and their head down (and they weren’t performing a song by a character depicted as an old crone) what would your first impression be?

So the next time you are getting ready to sing, check your posture. Are you getting the most out of your position?

And for more information on this, stay tuned. I have been working on a free video course that will be available for people to access to get started on their singing journey. The series will be geared toward beginners who are thinking about lessons, but not quite ready yet. So keep a look out!

In Song,

Tim

The Vocal Virtue of Patience

So let’s say you’ve been taking voice lessons for a few months and you’re wondering “why am I not singing ___insert the name of your favorite song here___ yet.”  I’ve heard this before (and even felt it before) and in my opinion is that this  type of question really is a variation of “why am I not where I think I should be yet?”

Before students take lessons, they are often singing their favorite songs along with a recording. Sometimes this is even what prompts them to take lessons. What is crucial to remember is this: when you are singing something by yourself, you do not really know whether or not you are singing the notes properly or using correct technique because you are too focused on “how awesome it would be to be ____insert name of favorite singer___.” This can lead to prolonged improper singing which can lead to serious problems with your voice if you are not careful.

When you hire a singing teacher, our role is to help you:

  • Identify your best vocal range
  • Fix singing habits you have which are impeding your ability to sing
  • Establish new habits which promote healthy and efficient singing
  • Apply these habits to songs that fit your range and sound great in your voice
  • Create powerful performing skills so that you can “wow” an audience

These things can take time depending on how much you practice, how ingrained the habits which are impeding you are, how motivated you are with making those changes, and most importantly…how patient you are with yourself!

Learning and mastering the art of singing takes a lot of time and dedication. This is one of the reasons many vocal teachers only take students who are mature enough to handle the discipline of lessons.  While it is true that after two or three lessons you might notice a difference in your voice, there may be a period of time where you might progress a little slower, as different techniques take different lengths of time to learn for every student.

It is also true that some singers are born with natural talent, but even though they might be able to match pitch better than most, they may struggle with other singing strategies. Our society places so much value on “fast” and “quick” results that we can often get discouraged when we aren’t able to “transform” at the rate we “think” we should. It’s another form of perfectionism and I’ve seen it create more challenges than success. We also compare ourselves to other people far to often in my opinion which is a completely different blog post.

So if you are worried that you aren’t where you want to be with your singing yet (and I emphasize “yet”), remind yourself that development takes time and don’t be afraid to ask your teacher about your progression. A great way to ask this is “I’m interested in singing __insert name of song here___, what are some things I should be aware of before I start?” Your teacher will be honest with you about what you need to do to progress.

You can apply singing techniques to any style of singing, but you have to be so comfortable with those techniques that you don’t have to think about them before you can start to apply them to songs. And this takes time. So give yourself a little freedom to experience the process. Be patient and keep trying!

In Song,

Tim

Reading Music is Essential!

I have often been asked if it is important for singers to be able to read music. Speaking from experience, I can certainly say that I have noticed a difference between singers who read music and singers who don’t.

Many singers start singing by listening to others, and the development of recording technology has made this much easier for those who have not yet learned the skill of reading music to access a multitude of songs. The drawback to this is that it limits the repertoire a singer can learn to only what they can hear. Learning to read creates flexibility and a larger volume of songs a student can master. It also creates independence as it means they do not need assistance from a pianist or other musician to learn their part.

This leads me to my second point. Singers who do not read music tend to take a longer time learning the music assigned to them. This results in a lot of time in the lesson focused on learning the song, rather than applying proper vocal technique to the selection, which is the real goal to vocal lessons.

This is one of the main reasons that I opted to offer longer lesson times to students with a portion of each lesson dedicated to the learning of music reading or what some term “musicianship.” The remainder of the lesson focuses on technique and vocal development while applying these techniques to musical selections. I encourage students to learn their notes outside of the lesson so that we can maintain an efficient education session. My studio also offers an 8-week summer class which teaches the foundations of music to musicians of all types.  There are also a great number of music theory lessons that aspiring singers and musicians can access online.

Ultimately, the choice to learn the skill of reading music is up to the student and the teacher they are studying with. From my experience the learning of musicianship skills help to create independent and well-versed singers with a large repertoire available to them that they can present to the world.

In Song,

Tim