The Case for Apprenticeships in Teaching a Musical Instrument

By James Flood

For centuries the idea of training for a profession has been assumed, whether that training is in the form of a school or university, or an apprenticeship in a skilled craftsmen’s shop, or an internship for a doctor. So why not teaching a musical instrument? While many musicians have a degree or degrees in performance on their instrument before embarking on teaching, is such a degree sufficient for understanding how to teach? Or what about music education majors? They’re trained to “teach music,” right? Shouldn’t that be enough to know how to teach an instrument? With the exception of probably a small number of music education programs, and maybe, just maybe a couple of performance programs somewhere out there, the answer is a resounding no.

Why a Music Degree Isn’t Enough to Prepare One to Teach

I believe I was blessed to receive one of the best trainings possible in my instrument during my college years as a classical guitar performance major. The training helped me to become a far better teacher of guitar than I could have without it, but my studies did little to teach me how to teach. During my bachelor’s we were required to take one semester of guitar pedagogy, which was a very good class. But it was in no way sufficient for the task of sitting across from a child or adult and explaining to them how to play the guitar. I was left to figure it out largely on my own over the years. I had good principles to impart, but it took me years to properly unpack these in order to effectively teach them.

Many music schools require a music degree to be hired. This is a good start. The graduate knows his or her instrument. They’ve presumably learned to play it well. But let’s consider what conservatory/college level performance training involves. It involves (hopefully, at least) great detail in how to play one’s instrument. It also involves music theory, ear training, music history, and some form of piano studies. These are all important in order to teach well, but they do little teach one how to teach. After learning how to play the Bach Fourth Lute Suite, how is one supposed to teach someone who has no idea how to even play “Hot Cross Buns.” These two individuals are worlds apart. The teacher may know how to play the Bach 4th Lute Suite very well, but he or she doesn’t know how they do it. Does that sound like a contradiction? It isn’t.

Any accomplished musician has gone through a process that involves a heavy amount of muscle memory. As they practice for hours day after day, year after year, the part of the brain that remembers muscle position and movement becomes very highly tuned. The memory has direct communication with the body and fingers, such that the conscious part of the mind can deal with other matters. (This is why when you know a piece very well your mind can wander onto entirely different things like what’s for dinner tonight, or what’s the capital of Wyoming, and your fingers will continue playing the piece note for note in perfect time.) The movements involved with playing become assumed and the player sees a note on the page, hears one in their head, or remembers a passage and plays without a thought as to the physical processes involved in producing that event. It’s like tying one’s shoe. We don’t know how we do it, we just do it. Ask anyone to explain how they tie their shoes without having a shoe to tie or without mimicking the movements in the air. The vast majority won’t be able to see it in their head let along explain it to others. Yes, we know how to tie our shoes, but we don’t know how we do it.

But when we first learned how to tie our shoe, it was a very deliberate, awkward, and difficult process. (The parent who taught us had to tie their own shoes a couple of time to “observe” what their fingers did.) After a number of slow and failed attempts, we eventually found consistent success, albeit still with a slow and very conscious effort. The muscle memory was watching the whole time. The more we did it, the more it remembered until it knew it so well, it took over. The fingers could then do it without a conscious thought beyond “OK, need to tie my shoes.”

But playing a musical instrument is thousands of times more complex than tying one’s shoes and took thousands upon thousands of hours more to learn. So, likewise, it is eons more complicated to teach. So we have all these musicians who know how to play their instruments, perhaps extremely well, but don’t know how they do it. For many they don’t even remember what their teacher told them when they were first learning how to play because they were young at the time. How can they teach others to play if they don’t know how they play or what the process was through which they learned.

And this opens another can of worms. How do we know that the good musician necessarily received good training? As stated in my previous blogs, just because somebody plays well doesn’t mean they were trained well. They may have overcome the handicap of sub par training through sheer talent and effort. They would be better musicians today had they gotten better training to be sure, but they have achieved proficiency nonetheless. If they do remember how they learned, they’ll pass on the flawed information they were handed.

The Other Side of the Problem

Now the other side of the problem: the people who hire the teachers.

My first guitar teaching job was in a suburb not far from San Francisco. I was 22 and had just finished my four years at Peabody. At Peabody I did a voice minor. It involved four semesters of private voice lessons. Because of this the music store owners said, “Oh, you can teach beginning voice then.” Hmm, I had never thought of that. I was pleased. I was primarily self-taught on the piano, but had taken a piano class for a year and private piano lessons for a year as was required, so they said “Oh, you can teach beginning piano too.” And then they said, “If you can teach piano, then you can also teach organ!” You see the logic, right? Being completely naïve, and in need of as many students I could get for much needed income, I readily believed them and became guitar/voice/piano/organ teacher at my very first teaching job, without a smidgen of experience teaching the guitar let alone anything else.

In addition to my guitar students, I had a few piano and voice students and one organ student. Eventually I was hit by a sobering experience. The organ student I remember was a shy 13 year-old girl who was taking beginning level. I used to sit to the side and would only demonstrate with one hand or both hands as I had never tried to coordinate my hands and feet on an organ before. She was a little sharper to the situation than I realized. On one occasion while I was asking her to play something that she was having trouble with she spoke with a confidence that I hadn’t heard in her before when she said simply, “You play it.” I was a little startled. After hesitating and probably mumbling something, she repeated “You play it,” this time even including a gesture towards the organ. So I sat at the organ hoping for the best. Though it was very beginning level, I couldn’t play it. I then had to confess that I couldn’t play the organ. After this humiliating experience I told the owners, no more piano, voice, and certainly no organ! I would only teach guitar. This story is an extreme, but it illustrates one of the reasons for the problem: faster money. Now I’m all in favor of successful business and making a good profit, but sometimes the need to increase profits for the month can get in the way of good music instruction. I believe this pressure contributes to mediocre as well as simply bad teaching.

The irony here is that insuring better teaching will win out in the long run for a more financially successful business. Teachers are generally hired according to the needs of a music school. There are students interested in lessons, and if the school hesitates in hiring, students will be lost to their competitors. So the next teacher who comes down the pike to “catch” these students means a more successful month’s profits. But this kind of mentality makes for a sloppy hiring process. Losing a few potential students to competitors in the interest of guaranteeing hiring better teachers is worth the sacrifice. The building process may be a little slower, but the long term results will be more fruitful. If the teachers are excellent teachers, the school will gradually build local prestige over the years, and that will make for a successful business enterprise. Higher quality teachers will naturally have higher student retention rates, and they will also less likely be fly-by-night teachers (I remember that in my first two and a half years of lessons as a kid at a music store, I had four teachers). They will stimulate greater word of mouth, a form of advertising that is absolutely free. As the school develops greater prestige, it will attract the area’s more accomplished teachers since they would more likely wish to be associated with it, and an upward dynamic is established. Aggressive, expensive advertising not only becomes less necessary, but the advertising that is spent will have a better return on investment since the consumer already recognizes the product and perceives it to be a good one.

What Would a Music Teaching Apprenticeship Look Like?

The apprenticeship would be instrument specific. Only a teacher who teaches piano would apprentice a new piano teacher. And not all piano teachers would need to go through the apprenticeship. Rather, only less experienced teachers would. The apprenticing teacher would spend a couple of paid hours discussing with the new teacher their process of teaching. Then the new teacher would sit in on piano lessons that the “master” teacher gives. The new teacher would be paid for observing these lessons. Music schools should go to great lengths training their office staff, and some do, but almost none offer any training to their music teachers. Inexperienced teachers need the training. (Many seasoned teachers need training as well, but it is very unlikely they would open to it.) This is partly due to most teachers being independent contractors, a necessity for many schools. The independent contractor vs. employee is worthy of another article in itself.

There is another piece to this, and that is hiring. I spoke above about “sloppy” hiring. Hiring new teachers should be done slowly and with deliberation. Now this is going to sound unusual, but the teachers themselves should be involved in the hiring process. I am not aware of this happening anywhere. But how am I, a guitarist, qualified to determine whether or not a trumpet teacher is a good trumpet teacher? A good trumpet teacher is more qualified than I am in making that determination. Part of the problem is that people who have little expertise in a specific area are the ones doing the hiring at nearly all music schools. The owners should have an expert in the instrument there by their side helping them to make the decision.

I can hear objections to this approach, but the excellent solutions to the problems one might rightly perceive with this model are not something I can share here. Suffice it to say that teaching an instrument is by itself a skill, and if teachers are trained to teach, they they will be better teachers. If they are better teachers they will make for a more successful music school, and, more importantly, produce better musicians.

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