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Teaching Philosophy, Part One

June 22, 2017

I’d like you to think back to your private lesson experiences as a student. What do you remember working on with your teacher - executive skills, etudes, pieces, for example - and how did you go about it? Dig even deeper—what was the first thing you remember learning? What is the first thing that really clicked with you; something that guides you even today?


Let’s talk teaching materials. Did you primarily work through a book? What was the process–linear (you must finish page 13 before attempting page 14), or were you able to skip around freely? Did your teacher create their own learning materials? What about your relationship with your teacher—did you connect well or was each lesson pure drudgery? Were you happy with your overall success? Was there any sort of teaching sequence or methodology that you could discern; maybe even a teaching philosophy of some type?


Hopefully this trip down memory lane wasn’t too traumatic! Chances are that your private lesson teacher had some sort of philosophy or framework that they were guided by. And if you plan on doing any type of teaching, crafting a philosophy is an excellent way to help organize your thoughts and provide an underlying structure to your methods. You may even have something similar already! Philosophy has always played some role in music education, stemming back to Plato in Ancient Greece with the Quadrivium. Philosophy first helps us justify “Why should we study music?” without resorting to misguided claims like “music makes us smarter at math.” Philosophy can also help educators understand the big-picture goals, objectives, and inherent themes that exist in our teaching methods.


A philosophy of music education can be rooted by something as short as “I want to foster _________ in my students,” or it can also be as detailed as Bennett Reimer’s aesthetic A Philosophy of Music Education and David Elliot’s praxial Music Matters. Philosophy is indeed a useful tool, but the role of a philosopher is to ask “Why?” and not necessarily “How?” Your job as the teacher is to put the rubber to the road and put philosophy into action! In the next two posts, we will go through the process of crafting an effective sample teaching philosophy and discuss putting it into practice in your own teaching life.


Always be thinking about your students’ musicianship after your formal musical relationship is over.



The first step  


If this seems overwhelming, fear not! The first question you should ask is:

“What do I want my students to know and accomplish upon completion of our lessons?”


Notice that the question is phrased with terminal language. Always be thinking about your students’ musicianship after the formal musical relationship is over. For the sake of our example, let’s aim for a fundamental skill that is often the focus of beginner instruction; something like…


“Upon completion of our lessons, I want my students to know all of their major scales with correct fingerings and various bowings.”


This is a common learning objective and certainly a worthy skill to instill in your students. Let’s create a line of questioning that will better help us understand implicit biases and shortcomings in our learning objective:


  • Does completion of this task indicate anything about the student’s musicianship beyond their executive skills? How are you engaging their ear throughout this process?

  • What if the fingerings are correct but they can’t hear if the scale is in tune? Have they succeeded if they can play their scales but don’t understand how scales work or their harmonic implications?

  • Does this teach them anything about how functional harmony works on their instrument?

  • Are playing scales by rote a creative endeavor? 
    What’s the first scale you teach? What’s the second? When do you teach minor scales?

  • Will you use notation?

  • Will you relate this task to familiar and unfamiliar repertoire?

  • Is the idea to teach a functional layout of the instrument, or are you hoping to talk about intonation, time, and bow use throughout development of this skill?

  • What does this do to foster a love for music?


One simple statement really brings up quite a number of diverse questions! This line of questioning can get us closer to understanding precisely what we’re teaching and why. Try it within the context of your own teaching and see what you can conjure up! Defining nitty gritty learning objectives (with detailed insight!) allows us to explore our potential philosophy. Now, let’s zoom the focus out and revise our previous statement to reflect our philosophical inquiry:


“I want my students to be able to play scales in tune with harmonic understanding, aural awareness, varied bowings, and a supportive, focused tone. I want students to understand their role in the music they play, seek out and connect with unfamiliar music, and feel empowered to improvise without fear.”


Notice the educational buzzwords in our statement: understanding, awareness, thoughtful, empowerment, and improvisation. We started off with a singular skill and are now dealing with larger ideas, building a deeper understanding of what is important to us as teachers. The focus here seems to be on creating autonomy and confidence. Great!


Zoom out even further—what’s the largest single umbrella term you can use to connect all of these terms?


How about creating independent musicianship?


All of these learning objectives—development of harmonic understanding, aural awareness, and especially empowerment—are signs of developing innate musicianship. Empowerment refers to autonomy, defined as freedom from control or influence. Helping students become musically autonomous means they will continue to learn after our formal time together ends–our exact learning goal. This will be the foundation for our philosophy!


In our next post, we’ll dig further into this idea and talk about putting it into practice.





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