How to Help Students Develop Musical Skills

Instructor: John Hamilton

John has tutored algebra and SAT Prep and has a B.A. degree with a major in psychology and a minor in mathematics from Christopher Newport University.

This lesson discusses how to help students develop music skills and a lifelong appreciation for music. Students should strive to learn how to play both independently and with other musicians.

Why Music Education Is Important

Have you heard that many school districts are cutting back on music education funding? This is unfortunate because a lifelong love for music can enhance students' lives. Some research also suggests that music education helps improve performance in other areas and may even help SAT scores.

A violinist must practice many hours to develop her musical skills

Which Skills Are Important

The Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) has been around since 1876 and has established the following list of 10 desirable skills that should be taught by music educators.

  • Read music
  • Perform both alone and with other musicians
  • Hear notes
  • Internalize rhythms
  • Perform technically
  • Grasp music theory concepts
  • Conceptualize music
  • Play by ear and improvise
  • Express emotion
  • Problem solve

Examples of Teaching Skills

Now let's take a look at some examples of how a few of these important music skills can be taught.

Internalize Rhythms

One way a student can work on rhythm is to purchase a metronome, which is a fairly inexpensive device that can be set to tick at regular intervals (commonly 60 to 120 beats per minute). This device can be employed for all sorts of practice session exercises. For instance, teaching the student to clap on beat is a technique that has been utilized by no other than John Lennon.

One exercise is to have the students clap on beat for a minute or so. Then have the students stop clapping, but try to continue keeping track of the beat in their heads with the metronome turned off. Finally, give students a visual signal and see if they can resume clapping on the correct beat again. Surprisingly, even many seasoned musicians struggle with this seemingly simple exercise.

Hear Notes/Read Music

Some basic music skills, such as hearing notes and reading music, are learned by practicing ear training. Students should attempt to actively discern elements of a musical piece, instead of just passively listening to it. They should try to identify:

  • Chords
  • Intervals
  • Melody
  • Pitch
  • Rhythm
  • Tone

Do you remember the hit show American Idol? The judges would often complain that the singer had a nice voice, but was having some pitch problems. Absolute pitch, or the ability to recognize a note on its own, is a rare gift, but most music students can develop fairly strong relative pitch.

Ideally students should be taught to read music to make sure they are singing or playing the correct pitch. Reading music by sight can be difficult and frustrating, and can be likened to learning a whole new language. Encourage students and have them start out with a very simple song, or even a nursery rhyme.

Another method that can help is solfege, which is the use of the musical scale Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do. These notes should be practiced often during the course of the day. The student can practice singing the musical notes (remember the song from the movie The Sound of Music?), or playing them on a musical instrument.

Perform Technically

Fingering is a process in which the student changes the positions of the fingers to achieve a desired result or sound. Of course, the fingering for a clarinet will be much different than the fingering for a guitar. For example, a helpful guitar exercise is to finger an A chord, and then switch to a D chord, and finally switch to an E chord. Instead of playing a song, the student could spend 15 minutes simply switching back and forth between chords smoothly. Students should start slowly and then speed up when they can do so without mistakes.

Eventually, students will come to understand the music theory concept of modulation in which music changes from one key (such as an A major) to another key (such as an A minor). It is not enough to simply shift musical keys. The student must learn to do so smoothly and without awkward pauses or hesitations.

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