Edition 149 - Thursday 1st April 2021

Why is it Important to have Lessons on my Instrument?

I was motivated to write this article after listening to the Co-Curricular Music Program auditions which were held towards the end of 2020. Although it is written with members of the Co-Curricular Music community in mind, I encourage all instrumental players and singers to read it. 

While 2020 was an extraordinary year for all of us, one of its ‘side effects’ was that many students stopped having face-to-face instrumental lessons. While I was pleased that so many teachers and students took the initiative to continue having lessons online, I was somewhat disappointed at the number who did not. Although nothing is better than teaching (and learning) face-to-face, one-on-one lessons online do work very well as a ‘temporary’ substitute. 

The following article looks at the question of ‘Why having private instrumental lessons is important’.

While the recently held auditions made it clear that some students are not currently having individual (private) lessons on their instrument, it is pleasing to see that most are. It is VERY important to be aware that it is IMPOSSIBLE to learn an instrument properly by attending a single band or orchestra rehearsal each week. You will, of course, learn things from your conductor, but in most cases, it is not possible for a conductor to give individual members personal attention, their primary focus being on the ensemble as a whole. This is particularly true for beginner players. In a beginner ensemble, a conductor is not able to give every member of the ensemble the personal attention required when starting a new instrument, and personal attention is what every beginner player MUST have. 

Attending band/orchestra rehearsals once a week is not a substitute for having private lessons.

Finding a teacher can be tricky, with several questions needing answers. Do you go to a professional player or an advanced student? Can a teacher who plays a different instrument to me, but belonging to the same instrument family, teach me - for example, learning French horn from a trumpet player? Should I have half-hour or one-hour lessons? None of these questions have black and white answers, with most of them coming down to what stage of development the student instrumentalist is at. Having weekly lessons is a commitment and an expense that must be seen as a necessary investment for a student to advance and develop on an instrument. Travelling to lessons can also be a time commitment. In many cases it’s not possible to find a teacher close to where you live, especially for less common instruments - my parents used to drive me from Bondi to Seaforth every Saturday for French horn lessons.

Not only will an instrumental teacher be able to teach you about pitch, rhythm, fingering and reading music but also other essential basics including correct posture, bow hold and correct breathing, not to mention how to look after your instrument. They will also be able to teach you how to practice efficiently, so that you can use your very limited and precious time effectively. Most importantly, a private teacher will be able to pick up and correct any bad habits a student may develop before it becomes a major issue - once a bad habit has become part of the player, it is very difficult to get rid of. It is very unlikely that a conductor of any ensemble would notice individual bad habits of players in their ensemble (unless it’s something obvious, like bad posture). 

A good teacher brings structure to how a student learns an instrument. They guide and nurture them along their journey by providing a teaching plan that is specifically tailored to each individual student. Teachers show students how to practice and balance their practice sessions and lessons with scale and arpeggio work using different articulations; technical studies such as etudes and exercises; solo repertoire work and band/orchestra pieces. 

I have seen many students, who have never had private lessons, quit their instrument after less than a year of playing simply because they were not having private lessons. I have personally witnessed the following scenario many times over the years - students who are having private lessons will improve quickly, surpassing their colleagues, who are not having lessons, making them feel like they are “hopeless” and that they “can’t do it”. 

While much of what I have written about above may seem to relate directly to beginner students, all these points are just as valid for more advanced players. Many of our more advanced players took private lessons up to a point and then decided to stop them, while continuing to play their instrument. 

A major reason for students stopping lessons is that they have achieved their goal of attaining what they set out to achieve - in many cases this may be reaching a certain AMEB grade. I must be honest here and say that, personally, I find these exams to be of no major value and most of the time I don’t pay attention to a student’s AMEB level (I prefer to judge for myself). While I appreciate that exams can offer students (and teachers) goals to work towards, I believe that is all they offer.

Any instrumental student who only works towards an exam without participating in an ensemble is completely missing the point of what playing music is all about, that is, the opportunity to come together with others, work together towards a common goal and produce one of the most incredible things of beauty that is possible to create. No exam (or exam result) will ever be able to substitute for that experience.

I might also take a moment to comment on self-confidence. The excuse I hear more often than any other from students deciding to leave the program (apart from wanting to focus on academics [a discussion for another time]) is that they feel they “aren’t good enough”. In most cases, students who feel this way are the ones that have stopped having lessons. What they are actually feeling is a lack of confidence, because they have ceased to improve on their instrument - they have reached a certain level and just remained there, in some cases, having even regressed. It is a gross misconception to think that just because a student has reached a certain level of proficiency on their instrument, that they will continue to improve without receiving any further guidance. This simply won’t happen, and students will develop a feeling of inadequacy and diminished self-confidence as far as their playing ability is concerned, not to mention difficulty in maintaining focus, self-discipline and interest.

There were several signs from the recently held auditions which indicated that a number of students were no longer having private lessons. These included some students reauditioning with pieces they had played in past auditions (in some cases more than once [yes, we noticed]), playing with bad posture, incorrect bow hold and other such issues, which, any good teacher would immediately notice and correct. I might also take this moment to mention the number of instruments we see remaining at school through the week, which not only indicates an absence of lessons but also a lack of home practice.

It is a requirement of the Co-Curricular Music Program that students undertake private instrument lessons, and the responsibility to undertake lessons belongs to both parents and students. 

If you require assistance with finding a teacher, please get in touch with me. We maintain a database of instrumental teachers who are currently, or have in the past, taught an NSG student and I would be pleased to pass on contact details to you.

Steven Hillinger

Director of Ensembles

North Sydney Girls High School