Monthly Archives: February 2018

To Scale and Etude. Or Not.

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A recent question on a music teacher’s forum asked how to motivate two middle school students who won’t practice well their assigned scales and etudes even though the teacher is happy with how their pieces are progressing. This is a rather more complex issue than you might think.

First of all, I have interviewed an awful lot of teachers and Famous Musicians and many seem to be divided into two camps:

  1. I did scales and etudes and by God you will, too.
  2. They traumatized me with scales and etudes and I won’t inflict that on anyone.

I had both kinds of these teachers myself. Neither of these philosophies works well and here’s why.

Philosophy 1.

Teacher being right and student being wrong is not a good way to get through to your students. The question here seems to be if the student is going to do what you say or not. Expecting obedience is a parent’s job. Yours is to help your students get the best possible result. If that means forgoing a scale or two, especially if their pieces are going well, no one is going to die. There will be plenty of time for scales and etudes when they are old enough to appreciate their value. Middle school students just don’t/can’t/won’t and perhaps shouldn’t. They don’t care how their smart phones work – they just want to use them. They can learn about code when they get older.

There is also something else to consider – do you realize how many things they have to do in the course of their schooling that they don’t want to do? I include even getting up too early in the morning when many studies show that adolescents do better when they start school at 9am or even later. Here in Italy, and I am told also in the USA and other countries, these kids are so burdened with homework and outside activities (many already aimed at getting them into a good college) that having to face yet another thing they don’t want to do is just the last straw. And I can’t blame them. So the “Procrustean Bed” school of teaching (one size must fit all, whether you have to stretch them or trim their legs a little) is guaranteed to fail for most of your students who simply can’t bring themselves to practice what they don’t want to.

“Ah,” you say, “but some students willingly practice what I give them to do, so these others are just undisciplined.” Yes, there are some perfect students out there. Somewhere. But the world is also divided in another more-than-one-camp. There are people (I am not one of them but I have lived with some of them and have had lots of students like this) who just cannot do something they don’t like or don’t feel like doing. It’s useless to argue, plead, bargain, bribe (which may work for a while), threaten, whatever. It’s simply physically impossible for them. It isn’t a question of discipline. Plus, can we really expect middle school students to have the discipline we have now (and probably didn’t have at their age either)?

Philosophy 2

This consists of taking every single beautiful piece that your student will learn and making a study out of it. Yuck. This was an important principle of the method I use when I started using it (back in the Middle Ages). I found out fairly quickly that this didn’t work very well for my students when they got to more advanced pieces. Why? Because, not having prepared for, say, the Bach Double’s difficulties with judicious use of etudes and scales, the piece was too difficult for them and remained so in their minds even when this was no longer so. My teacher (the old school type who had studied with Sevcik but never assigned me any of his studies) did this to me with my first concerto. I always avoid listening to that beautiful piece – too much baggage. Continue reading

18 February 2018