When I started college as a music major, I was worried that I was very far behind my peers. All of my friends knew so much about things I had no experience with. They could talk at length about historical conductors, prominent orchestral musicians, operas, instrument models, and on and on. Not knowing anything about what a career in music entailed, I had only ever paid attention to what was relevant in my public high school world. On the other side of the process, with my current faculty perspective, I see this in my students every semester. Incoming college students come from a huge variety of backgrounds with a wide range of skill levels, and very few of these differences can be attributed to the talent level of the student. Almost all of the disparity in preparation comes from the student’s high school environment.
Private lessons are the single best way to improve as a musician. Students who have not had the benefit of private study are usually the farthest behind, but that deficit is usually surmountable with hard work. Even regular private lessons yield a wide range of results, and I don’t think it’s necessarily because of the level of investment by the student or the quality of the teacher. A “private lesson” can mean lots of different things, especially for younger students. To some band directors and parents, a private lesson is a remedial effort to bring a sub-par student up to the level of the class. In the worst of cases, these lessons are used to work on the student’s parts in band so they don’t detract from a concert or contest performance. Naturally, the student only learns how to play those specific parts and does not actually improve in any global sense. Even when private lessons are not remedial in nature, they can suffer from the same flaws. In some geographic areas, students compete for placement in honors ensembles by auditioning on a common set of etudes. This leads to “teaching to the test,” and students practice only those etudes for months at a time. In this environment, private lessons serve to teach these etudes and prepare for that audition. Again, the restricted scope of study leads to a minimal overall level of improvement.
Many of these disparities are erased at the college level. Everyone takes private lessons as the centerpiece of their course schedule each semester. Adjudicated contests, when they even exist, are at most extra-curricular events rather than the focal point of the curriculum. Studio teachers operate fairly independently from ensemble directors and are able to pursue their own objectives. With the benefit of this personalized instruction, students who received less than adequate instruction in high school can work hard and make up for lost time. The additional demands of theory, musicology, and other challenging classes guarantee that even the most advanced students will grapple with new concepts. The chances of success as a music major are determined more by students’ work ethic than their previous experience. In short, the amount all music majors need to learn is so vast that an incoming disadvantage can be made up over time.
Given this equalizing effect of college, it is crucial that incoming students (especially those with less preparation) understand the nature of the post-secondary private lesson. Beginning with a good understanding of the enterprise allows students to apply their efforts effectively and capitalize on the available opportunities. In college-level private lessons, students work toward two primary goals: technical facility and effective interpretation. Any repertoire that is studied is nearly always a showcase to demonstrate development in those two areas rather than an objective in itself.
To work on technique, your teacher will ask you to practice a variety of drills, exercises, and etudes in addition to repertoire for performance. The value in much of this material does not lie in your ability to play it back for the teacher the next week, but your conscientious repetition of the material over the course of many weeks. A significant part of learning music is analogous to weightlifting: the physical act of going through the motion is at least as beneficial as the mental challenge of learning how to do it. Because of this, a significant fraction of your practice time will be spent on things you will never perform and might not even be asked to play in your lesson. Even if your teacher never asks to hear you play a given exercise, the amount you have invested in that exercise are plainly obvious, both to your teacher and to a public audience, in the other things you play.
The real reason for good technique is to be able to make your performance sound the way you want it to. A deep insight into a score is worthless if you are unable to convey your understanding to an audience through your rendition. It is for the connection between that understanding of the music and your presentation of it that private lessons are often called “applied music.” You will take classes in musicology, music theory, formal analysis, psychology, and other areas, and your challenge is to integrate what you have learned in these other classes and apply it all to your performance. Your teacher will help you synthesize all this content and design compelling interpretations of your music. You will tackle a range of repertoire from short etudes to massive concertos as your fluency with this content grows, but the process remains the same.
You might have noticed that I talk more about the private lesson than any other class. Your private lesson may not be worth as many credit hours as another academic class, but it is more important than almost any other activity in the long run, if only because it incorporates the content from the other classes. You will study for one or two semesters with your classroom teachers, but you will see your private lesson teacher every semester until you graduate. Your private lesson teacher will serve as your advisor, career mentor, counselor, and personal trainer. Your undergraduate private lesson teacher is more invested in you and involved with your professional success than any other teacher you will ever have. The relationship you have with this person is very important, and it’s worth considering what that means.
From the first lesson of your freshman year, you embark on a mission with your instructor to maximize the quality of your playing. From the very first minute of that first lesson, your instructor is dedicated to making you the absolute best musician you can be. This isn’t just rhetoric; your instructor will be evaluated by the quality of your musicianship after you graduate. His or her professional pride rests with your success. Your teacher desperately wants you to succeed, so anything he or she says should be taken in that light.
The most powerful tool that your private teacher has is the dedicated one-on-one time with you. In a typical class, the teacher delivers a lecture to many people, and the content is designed to reach the majority. If a few are lost along the way, or a few are bored, that’s normal. So long as the majority are served by the content, that’s the best that can be done. The lecture is usually prepared ahead of time, and delivered more or less the same way regardless of who is in attendance. The exact opposite is true of private lessons. The instruction is absolutely personalized for you and you alone. The instructor talks about whatever he or she thinks is the most crucial thing for you to think about and practice, immediately. The content is tailored to your individual strengths and weaknesses, and it is responsive to the way you react to the content throughout the duration of the class. This is a remarkable opportunity that students in most other disciplines do not get.
Your dedicated individual time with your instructor comes with some obligations. Because your instructor has reserved that time for you, it’s important to be present, on time and prepared — or let your instructor know in advance if you’re going to be absent or late. After all, there’s not a classroom full of other students to teach if you’re not there. The instructor is waiting for you and probably has other things to do with that time if it’s going to be available. The other main obligation you have as a student is to be receptive to your teacher’s advice. Your instructor is offering you his or her perspective with the honest belief that it will help you improve. The least you can do is give that advice a genuine try. If the advice seems to conflict with something a previous teacher said or something you have read, maybe there’s a bigger picture to consider before you make a judgement. Try everything the instructor suggests, and only then determine whether or not it works for you.
In return, your teacher has some obligations to you. That private lesson time is yours. It should not be spent multitasking, dealing with other students, making copies, or fielding calls from administration. If your instructor appears to be paying less attention to you than you’d like, it is within your rights to ask (politely) for your instructor to focus. On a larger scale, your instructor owes it to you to focus on your individual career goals, not someone else’s. A career in the pits on Broadway requires different preparation than the orchestral audition circuit, and both are within the scope of the applied music lesson. Your teacher should learn about your goals and design your personal curriculum to prepare you for your desired career.
Once those basic obligations have been met, it’s up to the student to maximize the value of the private lesson. As they say, “you get out of it what you put in.” At the most basic level, you should come with a list of any questions that have arisen in your playing since your last lesson. That time is yours, dedicated to increasing your understanding of the art form, so there’s no better time to ask whatever’s on your mind. No question is out of scope or too dumb, since the only purpose of that time is your own edification. Overall, the most effective way to maximize the value of your lesson time to be prepared. If you play something for your teacher that has problems, your teacher will point out those problems, so the quality of instruction is directly correlated with the quality of your problems. If you play wrong rhythms or wrong notes, for instance, your teacher will identify that you have not played what the sheet music says to play. This is something you could have figured out on your own, and something that you don’t need a teacher to tell you. Even though you could have figured it out yourself, the time it takes your instructor to tell you what you already know is now time that can’t be used for anything else. If, on the other hand, you play your assignments as well as you can imagine them going, your instructor can suggest new ways to improve that didn’t occur to you – after all, if they had occurred to you, you would have already done them! In this way, your instructor expands your horizons and opens your ears to new possibilities.
It is inevitable that some students enter college better prepared than others. It is inarguable that a better pre-college education is advantageous in securing college and career options. However, a strong work ethic and dedication to self-actualization in college can mitigate grade school inequality and build momentum for later career success. Regardless of what happened before college, the best thing you can do to prepare for future success is communicate with your private teacher about your goals and collaborate with your instructor to prepare yourself for those goals.