Intelligent Music Teaching is short textbook published by the University of Texas at Austin which concisely outlines the main principles behind teaching music. These can be primarily summarized as the ability to express precisely what you are looking for from the student, continually assessing the students’ skill level, structuring lessons in short, incremental steps toward the ultimate goal, and teaching in such a fashion that the students learn to apply these skills to all pieces, not just the one under consideration. Many of the principles in the book are applicable in the teaching of any discipline, not just music, although the organization of the lessons for non skill-based disciplines will be substantially different.

The first principle is that music teachers are ultimately teaching students how to play music beautifully. They are not teaching the student to play a particular piece well, but to play all pieces well, specifically this one. One implication is that learning to play difficult pieces is not the important thing. (“Sloppy Paganini doesn’t win over beautiful Handel”)  This means that teaching to students with differing skill levels is qualitatively the same—musical beauty. Another important aspect of teaching beautiful expression is precise descriptions. It is easy to describe how you want students to play in terms of adjectives (e.g. “lyrically”), but adjectives cannot convey to the student what you want them to do. Instead, good music teachers communicate precisely what needs to be done so that the student can understand what, physically, one must do with the instrument in order to play with a certain quality (e.g. “don’t take a breath in the middle of the phrase”, “crescendo through the phrase”, etc.).

From the perspective of teaching music, the most important aspect of teaching is the lesson structure. Musical skills are learned through repeatedly playing pieces beautifully; lessons must be structured to facilitate this. The most important principle is that students need to play correctly as much as possible; if they spend much time playing incorrectly, they will reinforce bad habits. So the lessons must be structured into small, incremental pieces that build to the goal of the lesson. The teacher must continually monitor the student’s performance in order to assess their current skill level and have the student perform tasks appropriate to that level. If the student has difficulty with a task, the teacher should jump back to a task that the teacher knows the student can perform correctly and work forward from there (reinforcing correct performance), rather than work backwards and reinforce poor performance.

Although this structure is very music-oriented, it comes from a principle that is independent of music teaching: skillful teachers continuously monitor their students to determine where they are. This assessment is traditionally limited to tests, with the result that teachers are sometimes surprised at students’ poor performance on the test. Duke argues that assessment should be continuous, otherwise the students will not learn. (Thus, the test results should not be surprising). He also argues that what is tested should be the material that the teacher desires that the students learn, not just some subset of the material covered in class. The purpose of the class is to teach the skill, not the content.

The nature of the tasks done during class is also important to learning. Because the goal is to teach the skill, not merely the content, the class should progress in small, incremental steps towards the ultimate goal of that particular class. Each step should be a subset of the ultimate goal; tasks that are not subsets of the ultimate goal are distractions. However, each step needs to be small, otherwise students are less likely to perform it correctly and will thus practice incorrect performance. Since the teacher has control over the tasks, the teacher effectively controls whether the student “succeeds” (by assigning tasks that the teacher knows the student can or cannot do). Clearly the tasks should be chosen in an order that the student succeeds. However, the choice of tasks is also used by skillful teachers to provide opportunities for feedback. Empirically, skillful teachers give positive and negative feedback frequently and about equally. They arrange for these opportunities by their choice of tasks.

The prevailing wisdom is that only positive feedback should be offered, to reinforce the students’ confidence. This is incorrect for two reasons. First, while it is usually desirable to avoid hurting people’s feelings in our relationships with friends, acquaintances, and strangers, the teacher-student relationship is unlike our normal relationships. In this relationship it is expected that teachers will correct students when they are wrong, otherwise they will not be able to learn. Second, avoiding negative feedback when everyone (the student included) realizes that a performance was bad actually emphasizes the mistake—it must be too bad to talk about. Likewise, circuitously avoiding negative feedback, or complimenting something irrelevant, also emphasizes the mistake, and makes the student uncomfortable.

There are two side points that Duke makes that are worth noting now. First, for each lesson, begin as if the students do not yet have any knowledge of the subject. They have probably forgotten a good deal of the previous lesson and this will help reinforce the concepts. However, this does not mean that you cover the identical material. So if the student is a beginning piano student, the first lesson might be sitting up straight and not resting the wrists on the piano. At the beginning of the second lesson, instead of asking “ok, what is the correct posture?” and then correcting the student when they fail, simply have them address the piano, and then perhaps straighten their back or lift their wrists as necessary. Then continue with the second lesson. This will reinforce the concepts and give the student practice without making them feel like a failure. Second, when designing the lesson (or when modifying it as part of responding to the continuous monitoring of the students), ask “will this topic help now?” Although it might be interesting to learn that Beethoven was a Romantic composer and that explains why “Für Elise” is so lyrical, it probably will not help the beginning piano student learn to play lyrically. Hence it is using up time that could be better used leading the student to play “Für Elise” beautifully.

Even if everything has so far gone well, with the teacher monitoring the student’s skill level, assigning incrementally more difficult (in terms of beauty, not necessarily technically) tasks, providing the appropriate feedback, there is yet another important goal. The goal of teaching is to teach the student a skill that they can apply in the all situations where it is appropriate. Obviously these situations cannot be exhaustively taught, so the student must be able to transfer knowledge and skills to new situations. Some types of transfer occur subconsciously through the development of good habits; since the teacher is already teaching these, the student should be able to transfer them. Other types of transfer happen consciously, and these need to be taught. One obvious way would be for teachers to expect and teach students to apply musical techniques learned in previous pieces to knew pieces. Sometimes, however, information necessary for transfer is not explicitly taught. For instance, a trumpet is naturally somewhat out of tune because the harmonics created by the changing lengths are not in the equal-tone scale, so some valves are a little longer to attempt to compensate. The teacher may not explicitly say this, but should lead the student through tasks the demonstrate these effects, so that the student develops an intuitive sense that will transfer to other brass instruments.

Duke ends with a short essay on the importance of expectations. He notes that expectations are everything, and that many teachers quit within five years because they expected to be able to motivate students, but discovered that they were unable to. The fact is that students come with differing backgrounds and not all will be willing or able to be motivated. Furthermore, external circumstances such as how they are feeling at a given time will influence how much they can be motivated. All these things are out of the teacher’s control. The teacher can provide an atmosphere conducive to learning, but cannot cause learning, and it is important that prospective teachers realize this before they begin teaching.

This book is an excellent primer on principles of teaching, filled with illustrative examples. Unfortunately for the non-music teacher, these examples are often not something that can be immediately used. So I would like to examine three examples of these principles outside the field of music education. First is a recent experience that I had in teaching some friends to canoe. From my perspective, the important thing about canoing is the J-stroke, where the steersman does a forward stroke and then twists the paddle at the end of the stroke to act as a sort of rudder. The first part will tend to turn the canoe one direction, while the second part turns it the opposite direction, with the net result that the canoe goes straight without having to switch sides all the time. My teaching process was to introduce the basic strokes, then jump right into the J-stroke, with the result that my student never got a feel for what the two pieces of the stroke did, and would either over-rudder or under-rudder (which was complicated by the fact that the person in front had a stronger stroke and was unconsciously trying to steer). The problem was that I did not incrementally teach the skills. I should have had my student do each stroke several times, then progress to sort of half-J-stroke by doing two forward strokes and then a rudder, and only then putting them all together.

A second example of these principles at work in another discipline is the format of the math classes in my high school. The class generally started with the teacher assigning a number of students to present certain problems from the previous day’s homework on the blackboard. This is an example of how the teachers continuously monitored students’ skill level: each day the teacher got a snapshot of how well five or six students understood the previous day’s material. Over the course of about a week this would give a snapshot of the entire class.

However, high-school mathematics is still largely a skill-based discipline, and it is not obvious that these techniques transfer to disciplines that are less obviously skill-driven than music. This book was recommended to me by a music-teacher friend as applicable to Sunday School teaching, a decidedly non-skill-based discipline. There are two primary purposes of Sunday School: to educate students about God, His character, and how we relate to Him and each other; and to motivate students to (by His grace) practice God’s character. How do these teaching principles transfer to this, much more knowledge-based, discipline?

Clearly the class can be taught in incremental steps. Applying Duke’s advice to begin as if the students knew nothing, the class should start with a review by the teacher. At this point the teacher may want to solicit thoughts from the students on the previous week’s topics (after the review, so as to set them up for success, in the event that they do not immediately remember the last week). The teacher should then motivate the topic for that day by presenting the problem. Most likely this would be done by raising the question in students’ minds that the topic will answer, clarify, or explain. This might be a good opportunity to assess the students’ knowledge by asking for their thoughts. There is the danger that some students may already know the answer, but that is not a problem because the class will present it in more detail than the student has time to explain. The next activity, whether it is lecture or discussion should lead to the answer to the question (or if the answer does not exist, directions to search). Another opportunity for feedback should be provided at the end of this section by soliciting thoughts if the format is a lecture or by summarizing the discussion if the discussion was done by separate groups. Specifying and motivating the change in our behavior or thinking that should result from the material should probably be a goal of this section, perhaps the largest part. Finally, the conclusion should present the question again, along with a statement of the solution, the motivation to change, and the change that should be done.

This outline shows the teacher frequently assessing student’s absorption of the knowledge and their understanding of the change we should have. It shows the teacher incrementally arriving at the goal (understanding and/or change). If the students are not understanding, the teacher can back up to a topic they do understand and, by asking questions, find the area that they do not understand. If a lecture format is used, the teacher should avoid interesting topics that do not aid in understanding the material. If the format is a discussion, the teacher needs to quickly redirect tangents. Transfer skills can be built in the students by having them examine (or perhaps identify themselves) various scenarios where this knowledge is applicable.

Intelligent Music Teaching is a well-written guide, not only to music teaching, but to teaching in general. It presents the principles of teaching, as applied to music, with well-reasoned arguments to support the principles, as well as examples that illustrate both the principle and the application of the principle. Although the discussion and examples are generally music-specific, the examples are well-chosen, and with a little thought (such as was demonstrated above) these principles should be transferable to other disciplines. In fact, since the book exclusively presents principles of teaching, even music-teachers will need to apply these principles to their lesson. This is probably not a unique perspective on teaching or even music-teaching, but (other than a rather overly academic word choice) it is very clearly presented, and could well be a book that lasts 100 years (if marketed outside the University of Texas).
Review: 9.5
This is a very excellent book for music teachers. It clearly states the goals of music teaching and how to achieve them, complete with examples that effectively illustrate the principles. The author is knowledgeable about areas other than music, bringing in examples from other disciplines (including a statistics equation!). I think that probably the most telling aspect of the book’s ability to teach how to teach is that I was able to easily transfer the ideas applicable to two unrelated disciplines (canoing and Sunday School teaching). Indeed, because of the book, I can now give a name to why I do these book reviews: they require me to tell (or, in a way, teach) the contents to whoever reads it. Without an understanding of this nature, I cannot hope to transfer the information to another area. In fact, my original goal was to transfer the ideas of good fiction writing the novel I hope to begin writing by 2022.

The writing is excessively academic (something this reviewer also suffers from), but I certainly hope that this book is marketed outside of the University of Texas because anyone studying to be a music teacher will benefit from this book (as well as some non-music teachers).

Literary comments

  • Written in a reasonably conversational style, but word choice is excessively academic (i.e. if the concept has a big word and a small word, the big word is chosen, or to rephrase that the way the book would, “The author consistently selects Latinate vocabulary instead of using the vernacular.”)
  • Uses examples outside the discipline of music
  • Concepts are well thought out and well argued, but kind of hidden by the words