Teaching and learning music is a unique experience, different from almost any other leaning experience available to us. The relationship between music teacher and music student is quite unlike other teacher-student relationships. For starters, whereas most learning environments involve a teacher teaching a class of students, the music lesson is almost always a one-to-one experience. The teacher must devote 100% of their efforts and attention to the student for the entirety of the lesson. It is also a unique experience in that most of the learning achieved by the music student is actually done at home, during practice, and not in the presence of the teacher – and certainly not during the lesson. You may find that a shocking fact, and admittedly it may be hard to swallow, but for all intents and purposes it is true. Aside from learning to read music notation, aside from learning music theory, music history, or aural skills (all useful tools for the aspiring musician), there is actually very little to know about music. One of Australia’s most well known pianists, Gerard Willems, once told me “Everything you need to know about playing [a musical instrument] can be written on the back of a postage stamp, but it takes a lifetime to learn it.” This sums up well the process of learning a musical instrument. It takes a lot of hard work, a lot patience, and a lot of persistence. In essence, you can’t be taught how to play a musical instrument. The most a music teacher may do for you is to show you effective and efficient ways of learning and practicing. The rest is up to you.
From the music teacher’s perspective the task is no less difficult. A music teacher often has to try to fit into a single 30 minute to one hour lesson instruction in technique, interpretation, music theory, sight reading, how to practice, and any relevant music history, among other things. And it is often the case that for each student a different explanation will be needed for each of these areas. Music teachers then, must be excellent communicators as well as skilled and knowledgable musicians.
In a sense, music teachers need also to be psychologists. Everybody responds to situations differently and in order for a music teacher to motivate and encourage a student they must try to figure out through communicating with and observing the student the best way to help them get the most out of their lessons, knowing when to stick with a difficult area, and knowing when to move on. This is a skill which can take many years for a music teacher to develope.
Also consider that for most, performing music seems to be (for whatever reason) an very personal experience and there are very few music students (if any) who don’t get nervous while having to perform for their teacher, particularly in the early stages of lessons with a new teacher. Because of this, the teacher will often need to try and exert a calming influence on the student while still keeping their attention on the work at hand, which can be a difficult balance to achieve.