Unhappy boy on guitar-boring lessonsWhat do beginning musicians (of any age) want to do most when they decide to play an instrument?

They want to play songs that they recognize and enjoy. 

Now, how do we get them there?

As is true with most musicians, I started the “traditional” way: reading and playing at the same time. I never had a problem reading, but it sure took a long time before I could play with good tone quality and an efficient embouchure.

Do you start off with learning any kinds of songs? Or do you start on page 1 of your chosen method book, expecting students to remain interested in learning their instrument?

I have found that in all the years I have been teaching beginners, when I started by using the method outlined below, I had many more students dropping out of Band or lessons. This was also true if they were an older student studying privately. What were the reasons?

–       It’s too hard

–       I can’t read the notes

–       It’s not as fun anymore

–       I just want to play songs, not all these boring exercises

Many teachers and parents have heard these excuses too. There has to be a way to make the lessons more interesting….

Here’s what I do:

  1. The first few lessons are mostly spent learning to hold the instrument properly, practicing breathing exercises, singing simple songs, and echoing tonal and rhythm patterns. Build their music vocabulary while they are learning to do the basics of instrument assembly, breathing and posture.  They are experiencing success by performing (singing) songs they know and echoing basic patterns. Sing the songs in different keys and tonalities. (You can easily convert Hot Cross Buns into a minor key or changing it into Triple meter.) We learn by experiencing the opposite.
  2. Mouthpieces are next. This is another area where the student can have success without the worry of dropping an instrument or remembering fingerings. For Brass players, this is the best part, because they can play songs on the mouthpiece and work on articulation. Woodwind players can do fun exercises and make high and low sounds. They can also play the song on one pitch and practice articulation styles at the same time. (I know students just want to put the instrument together in the first lesson. It is best to approach this carefully and AFTER they have sung a number of songs and have had success performing with connected and separated styles of articulation on their mouthpieces.)
  3. After instruments have been assembled properly, students have already sung at least 4 songs in duple and triple meters, major and minor tonalities, and (for Brass players) have played them on the mouthpieces. (Each lesson starts with learning to sing a new song and echoing tonal or rhythm patterns.) They are ready to play articulation styles on their instruments. With each new note I teach, students echo patterns on their instruments by ear. Students are still achieving a high level of success and interest because they can play the patterns back after echoing them and playing them on the mouthpieces in the previous lessons. There is no pressure to read and they are developing their ears.
  4. By the sixth lesson, students have performed articulation styles on at least four new notes, and have moved back and forth between the different notes, gaining technique and ear training skills. They are performing patterns that sound familiar. At this point, they echo patterns (phrases) from the simple songs they have been singing at each lesson.
  5. The last step is the most fun! This is where we put the patterns (phrases) together and play a song by ear (the way they know the song should be performed). The look on their faces when they perform their first song is priceless! What’s even better is when they learn how to convert that song into a triple meter and can now play two new songs very quickly.

You can relate this method to the new National Music Standards. Under the Creating-Imagine Level – Novice, by the 3rd or fourth lesson, you can have students improvising their own rhythm patterns on the mouthpieces, and brass students can also improvise tonal patterns as well. Once students are performing songs on mouthpieces and instruments, they can evaluate their own and their peers' performances and learn how to fine-tune their efforts (Performing-Rehearse, Evaluate, Refine-Novice).


By focusing on singing many songs (by ear) and playing them on mouthpieces for the first month or two (or three), the teacher can help students build a strong musical vocabulary that will set them up for better music reading success. These first few months are critical; many students quit because they find it too difficult to physically manipulate a new, heavy instrument and read and play music notation at the same time.  Proper technique, breath support, posture, and hand position can be reinforced while students sing fun songs that they will be looking forward to playing on their instruments.  Students, in turn, look forward to lessons because they can show their parents all the fun songs they can perform.

Action Steps:

  1. How is this different than the way you teach, or have been taught? Post your comments below. Let’s start a dialogue.
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In future blogs, I will talk about how students can practice at home with this method, where I fit in technical exercises, and knowing when the students are ready to read.
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