Category: Teaching Philosophy

Learn by Doing Music Caveats and F2F / OE Leveraging via Coaching

Every F2F (Face to Face) music teacher I’ve studied under, or chatted with has mirrored something like the following: Learn by doing seems a reasonable approach to music, but its also dangerous as it can open the door to bad technique which a student wont necessarily know until they hit a brick wall. When students hit said wall, they either plateau at that stage, or have to go back and unlearn things, often with significant difficulty. In addition, learn by doing also runs the risk of ineffective practice habits. Six hours of daily unfocused practice is no where near as helpful as 30 minutes of highly focused activity on the right stuff.

With F2F, student contact is usually limited to scheduled lesson frequency which is for the most part driven by student finances, but also instructor workload. With a weekly contact interval, some students will completely forget what was worked on, or even assigned the prior week… Yep, life happens sometimes, but in other cases, its just that playing / practicing the some cool material one learned a year ago is more fun than achieving proficient with 5-10 new jazz chords.

OE (Online Education) presents an opportunity to address the above factor by using a bi-weekly, or even daily coaching model. In addition, if done with a fair bit of automation, a coaching model could present significant value to the student, with a low workload on the part of the instructor (after one has developed their coaching methodology of course). The upfront workload to develop a online music coaching system will likely be pretty intense… but once developed, the scaling potentials are huge.

As far as how such might play out, consider the following scenario.

  • Student has been assigned piece ABC for the following week.
  • You know that various sections of the piece tend to be trouble areas, and have a tips / tricks sheet already to go.
  • On Day 2, the student gets a communication as to how its going, specifically referring to the trouble areas and/or practice habits.
  • If the student indicates no problems, offer some words of wisdom / encouragement, and perhaps a few more difficult exercises to practice.. If the student indicates problems, send off tips and tricks for the particular section of difficulty, and or practicing tips and tricks.
  • On day 4, check in with student, see if they have run into any other difficulty. If no problem, words of encouragement as above.
  • If difficulty, on day 5, review tips/hints trick with student (the only significant workload) and try to diagnose. if the student expresses no problems, discuss the additional exercises from a couple days ago if applicable.
  • On day seven, F2F lesson is scheduled, you already have an inkling of students trouble areas, student has already tried to address them, and you have a semblance of a diagnostic framework ready to go… This is a lot better than trying to fit diagnosing, dialoging, and offering suggestions for improvement all in the span of a 30 minute lesson. In addition, if life happens during the week, the next lesson can be adjusted to compensate for such, thus avoiding frustration on the part of the student. (Sometimes, its a good idea, just to run over ‘fun” stuff mixed with a tad of instruction in order to bolster motivation etc).

The value the student gets when online coaching is added to F2F lessons has a ton of potential… and for a lot of students will be worth quite a bit more than the nominal fee increases needed to cover the instructors time. In addition, once the instructor has built up their curricula / coaching plan, such a method scales in a huge way unlike 1:1 lessons. Lastly, the dramatic increase in the rate of a students achievements under such a model is likely to serve as a recruiting tool for to reach other students.

Granted, such an approach is not for everyone. Students needs and desires need to be at the forefront and online coaching may not be part of where they want to go… but as an option for others, it could be huge.

Fretboard Knowledge

Damian Erskine over at notreble.com has some excellent tips on how to gain fretboard knowledge. A lot of folks struggle with this. A lot of bass instructors struggle with how to teach it too. The big deal, is one approach doesn’t work for all students, even though the desired outcome is the same.

Personally I really like Damian’s approach, but I think a lot of that might do to the fact that I think in patterns… and have caught myself on more than a few times visualizing my fretboard should I be asked what notes are in a Gb-7b5 chord, albeit for more common keys, its automatic.

Some students on the other hand, might best approach this using a series of flashcards to get the note knowledge down for each chord, and then following such up with exercises on the fret board.

Another approach I’ve found helpful for some over the years is to grab a series of melodies, and have the student play them successively starting on each fret position. The next thing to do, is to tell them they just had a string break, and they need to play the melody missing a string (in each individual fret position). A final progression for students with 5 or 6 string basses, is to assign one string as a drone, and then have the students play the melodies, all the while keeping the drone going. Obviously one doesnt do this all in one session, nor make it the main focus for an extended period of time… but too slowly add fingerboard knowledge as the students experience grows.

Nashville Notation, Circle of 4ths, 5ths, MS-Excel

I made up some new business cards, and thought it would be a good idea to put something useful on the backside. Over the years, I’ve experienced Nashville Notation many a time, although realistically, each person who has given me such a cheat sheet has called it something different. As such, I sat down with MS-Excel for a bit and created a table… and then got thinking a bit more, and tied in the circle of 5ths/4ths with it as well with the following result.

nashville

In addition, here is the actual Excel spreadsheet. Its free for anyone to use as they see fit, albeit a link back here to my blog is appreciated.

Thoughts on online music lessons

In many ways, online music lessons seem a good idea, but there are some caveats one should be aware of. Lets take a look at the pros and cons.

Pros:

You can learn at your own pace, at your own time frame, and at the best time that works for you.

This is a pretty decent benefit, as with on site lessons, you are subject to the scheduling of your teacher as well as your own meshing up properly. Missed lessons will happen, its a fact of life, online lessons mitigate this issue completely.

Often times due to the scaling of the instructors time, you can save a lot of money.

Again, especially in this economy, this can be a great benefit. The instructor can have hundreds if not thousands of students with an online program, where as a personalized plan of instruction is limited to the amount of time the instructor has, which can mesh with your schedule. Of course, not all online instructors create canned packages, some may choose to teach interactively, via video and or audio conferencing. Others may use technology to offer group classes. This may save some money, but the scheduling issue is still a factor.

You can find a specialist

Are you having trouble with a specific technique or style? Perhaps you can find a online instructor specializing in that aspect. Doing so locally is likely a challenge, unless one is in a major metropolitan area with a lot of diversity.

Cons:

You will need significant self discipline and motivation.

If you know you need to prepare songs a,b, and c for a lesson, and the lesson is in 3 days, you will put in the time to make it happen (at least most of the time anyway). With online instruction, its all too easy to let things slide, and slide and slide.

You can go off track

Unless the online instructor provides some method of evaluation, and few do so, its very easy to go off on a tangent, and even pick up bad technique which needs to be unlearned later.

The lack of instantaneous feedback can slow progress

An onsite instructor may catch errors, or observe things that would be missed in the online arena. The end result, progress often times ends up being slower, than if you had an onsite instructor. Its possible, online instruction could cost more than an onsite instructor to achieve the same level of proficiency.

Learning plateaus require you to recognize them and take appropriate action.

An online instructor, unless they are providing some type of feedback, and even then may not catch learning plateaus as quickly as an onsite instructor. The responsibility then lies in your hands, as to identify them, and come up with a course of action. This can be especially difficult for the beginning student.

Finding a good online instructor is filled with headaches

This is a case where google is of not much help. Far too many get rich quick outfits are hocking online music lessons… The other day I saw one that held off teaching a beginner how to tune their instrument until much latter in the curriculum. In other words, someone was selling lessons who had never played, much less had ever taught a student. Referrals online, just as offline must play a role, as the risk of getting something of no to marginal value is just too high at this time.

The future:

I think there is potential in online music instruction. As multimedia and interaction continue to improve, I think it has some real potential, especially when the instructor is actively involved, rather than just selling a canned package. The basic technology exists to accomplish much, but as of today, no one I am aware of has taken many steps in that regard. Its possible for sure, I might even give it a go at some point, but for now, my focus remains in the onsite instruction arena.

Thoughts on bass tabs

I dont teach bass tabs for three reasons.

First, they are an easy short cut and as such a temptation. Its not that I’m against things being easy, in fact simplification of complexity is a key part of teaching, but that they can become a crutch. Ie, rather than learning notation, chords structure, or working on ear training, its easy to grow dependant upon tabs. Sure, if all one wants to do is play tabs, thats fine… but if one learns them first, it can make it much more difficult to learn notation and to play by ear later. Now, for the experienced bassist, who is up against a brick wall trying to learn something, by all means check out tabs. 🙂 They can help one work through a complex fingering issue, or maybe catch something you aren’t hearing correctly. They are not all bad by any means, the problem is short cuts in the early days often times end up costly later on.

Secondly, tabs dont provide any information on rythym, the cornerstone of bass guitar performance. Again, for the experienced player, its a none issue, but for the beginner, if rythym gets short changed early on, and its not a natural gift, it will more than likely make it harder later on.

Thirdly, they are limiting, ie if someone has not already made up a tab, one is out of luck without notation, ear training skills, or enough music theory/experience to improvise. This is especially key when playing new compositions, or with a group. Granted, there may be a few composers out there willing to write tablature, but they are in the minority. The vast majority either expect you to improvise, or will provide chord charts, likely mixed with a limited amount of notation.

Again, tabs are not all bad by any means, and for the experienced bass player can be a really nice lifesaver. But for the beginner, tabs imho bring more trouble to the table than they are worth.

On Classical Music (mixing styles)

While searching out music with interesting time signatures, I came across Rachel Barton Pine’s cover of Spirit of the Radio. A most fascinating mix of classical and progressive rock performed on violin. Granted, the alternative time signature thing I wanted to use as an example is not readily apparent… its there of course, but the Rush version which includes percusion makes the use of 7/4 over 4/4 much more apparent. Yet, thats not the focus of this posting…

Its that exposure to a wide range of styles is key, and that bass guitar and classical music is pretty rare. Part of it no doubt is mindset, ie electric instruments and orchestral styles seem at odds with one another, albeit it is becoming more common. Ie, a full rock band with orchestral backup. Another aspect of course is material, few composers write for bass guitar and orchestra, and the song writing styles of most rock and roll sound writers often times does not transcend itself very well to writing a full score for an orchestra. Its not that it cant be done, but that its a huge challenge, and few have stepped up to the plate.

Thus, on the surface it appears we are limited before we even start… but not really, its just where to look. There is a wealth of material out there which can be used, albeit it may take some creative thought processes to get there. Just as a band I was in did a speed metal version of Johnny Cash’s Folsome Prison, as well as a C-W version of Ted Nugents Cat Scratch Fever years ago, one can also use a multitude of classical music, and morph it into any number of styles.

Then add in the capability of home studio recording, where one even with a modest built in sound card can add a multitude of differing instruments, and the sky is the limit when it comes to transceding and mixing multiple styles. Of course, the other key is having an appreciation for different styles to start with, and that begins with listening. Rachel Barton Pine is doing some amazing things with introducing rock fans to classical music…

How much should I practice and goals

This is a common question asked by many bass students. In many ways, it comes back to ones goals. Granted, a jr high student may have vastly different goals, than 40+ individual who wants to play bass in their church group. Yet, the goals really do set the stage…. but they need to be manageable goals as well, and likely subject to evolution/review as time passes. Ie, a youngster may start out wanting to be a top 40 bass player, or maybe all they really want to do is impress the young gal next door, or perhaps school work / sports ends up causing ones goals to be re-aligned. The older student may start out just wanting to play in church, but then realize he really wants to get out in the public more, or enhance his skills by expanding the styles he plays.

Initially, there is a wanting to practice a lot, perhaps a bit too much. It takes time for a thicker layer of skin to develop on ones fingers. It does no one any good to end up with bloody fingers and demoralized during week one. Thus, initially, it may be best to limit practice to 15 minute intervals, perhaps even up to a couple times a day, but no more, at least for a week or two.

If one’s goal is to play music for fun and personal enjoyment, and not so for profit or in a group, a reasonable practice schedule is 30 minutes a day. It will keep one learning, and develop skills, albeit not nearly as quickly as a more rigorous schedule.

If a group is where ones heart is, than an hour a day at least for the first few years is really the key. Less than that and progress is not as fast as one would like, and more, unless one has an abundance of time is likely not to produce significantly more value for the time invested.

From a professional perspective, practice time can end up being pretty substantial, with one caveat, and that is the potential for injury. Once one gets much beyond 4 hours a day, even if broken up into multiple sessions, combined with performance hours the potential for reptitive motion injuries skyrockets. Thats an arena no one ever wants to be in, thus care and planning is needed.