Why Smart People Succeed More with a Lesson Teacher than Without

Julie Brandenburg
Submitted: Wed, May 20, 2020 - 1:59pm EDT
How to select a lesson teacher, why a lesson teacher is better than self-teaching.

When I was in my early 20s, I taught myself to crochet from reading books. I decided to make a huge afghan as a Christmas gift. It took me weeks and weeks to create hundreds of granny squares that had to be joined together. The finished product looked beautiful, and I was so proud of it when I presented it to my friends. Well, I didn’t realize that the rings I made to start each square weren’t done correctly, and within weeks, the afghan imploded on their sofa. It was quite embarrassing and frustrating to have wasted so much time to learn a hard lesson on how not to make a granny square! I consider myself to be a clever woman, but the bigger lesson I learned from this episode is that even if you are a really smart person you don’t know what you don’t know.

This is why trying to learn a musical instrument exclusively from watching videos and/or reading books isn’t going to be worth it in the long run. A video may show you exactly how to do something correctly, but how will you know you are doing what you are seeing? I always joke about how my coordination is limited to the anatomy between my wrists and my fingertips. The rest of me is as clumsy as a toddler on a shag carpet. I have taken yoga classes with some great instructors, and I have realized that I can’t always tell when I’m doing the form right. For example, the instructor will ask students to put our arms in an “L” formation, but I will put my arms in a “Y” formation and think I’m making an “L” formation. The instructor has to move my arms into the right pose for me to get it. It’s pretty silly, but even though I’m not great at yoga, I enjoy it. For me to get the most out of my hobby, I want to do the forms right and need to be guided by someone who is an expert. Even if I were coordinated and had a natural talent for yoga, a teacher could help me to advance to more challenging poses that I might not realize I’m ready for. I can dream.

I have worked with a number of adult students who reached out to me because after doing some work with DVDs and books, they felt that they hit a wall. Indeed, many times they had picked up counterproductive habits and misdirected thinking. Also, many students waste a lot of time “reinventing the wheel” when it comes to simple things that could be learned in a more efficient way. Students who do manage to navigate well through video learning may not realize where their abilities and natural talent could be better channeled. A one-size-fits-all program may not bring out a student’s true capabilities. Finally, meeting with another person once a week establishes a commitment to learning that self-direction doesn’t enforce.

Students who develop counterproductive habits are impeded from progress and may also experience pain. One aspect of “counterproductive habits” is executing the mechanics of playing or singing using inefficient techniques. One common example is placing the hands on the piano in a way that will ultimately lead to lack of even flow in playing at best or hand pain and carpel tunnel syndrome at worst. For vocalists, a common example involves trying to get volume by pushing in the throat rather than using the resonating chambers of the head cavity to get a louder sound. It is human nature to push in the throat when trying to be louder because in general speaking situations, it works. But for the singer, this approach is damaging and simply sounds awful. I certainly can’t blame people for making these mistakes because for them, like me in the yoga class, it is hard for a beginner to know for sure if she or he is actually on track with what the instruction in the book or video is presenting. For a singer there is the additional hurdle of not hearing in one’s head what the true sound is actually like out in the world, so what sounds good to a student might not work for the listeners!

Another pitfall of self-learning that falls under the category of “counterproductive habits” involves misdirectedthinking. Directed thinking is a very important part of learning an instrument. Your hands or your vocal apparatus are controlled by your head, and what your brain has decided is a good approach might not be quite right. Ultimately, wrong ideas do get in the way of success. A common example of this I see with most novice singers relates to the idea of singing the “high notes.” I put “high notes” in quotes because technically there is no such thing as “high” notes. Notes we have labeled as “high” are actually notes that are created by a force that causes air molecules to compress and decompress at a faster frequency than notes we have labeled as “low.” The concept of “up” and “down” is an artificial construct. Yet students often have anxiety about singing high frequency pitches, and the thought that notes are ascending causes many people to start craning their neck upwards to “reach” the note. This is exactly the opposite of what needs to happen in transitioning to notes that have a higher frequency. But again, I can’t blame a student for not knowing. We have set up in our culture ideas about “high and low” notes and people carry these ideas around until they are told otherwise. There are so many other examples of how misdirected thinking can get in our way as learners, please see my blog article below about good practicing techniques. You may find some surprising thoughts there.

As mentioned above, sometimes students spend a lot of time “reinventing the wheel.” There are certain concepts in learning music that students stumble on by trial and error. Some of this experimentation and discovery is really cool and fun, and I’m not against students trying different stuff and being creative! Really! But some of the ideas students spend a lot of time “discovering” are rather simple foundations that can be shown in a few steps. Once again, there is the risk that the new discovery is paired with a poor fingering or technique that leads to a counterproductive habit. Because I absolutely do encourage students to try improvisation and experimentation and just “messing around,” I’d rather my student not waste their time discovering simple things that can be shown quickly and save the creativity for juicer and more original ideas.

Every music teacher was once a music student, and a great teacher can remember their own mistakes and misdirected thinking in their learning process. This is a reality that facilitates empathy in a teacher when viewing the same errors in their student. A great music teacher will remember the best methods of guidance from their own great teachers and will pass this information on to the student. The passing on of wisdom is a truly wonderful component in the experience of teaching and learning music! In many cases, teachers have taken classes in pedagogy on their instrument that outline different teaching methods and discover which ones are most effective for which students. An experienced teacher will draw on all this knowledge to customize a learning plan specifically for you!

I think using books and DVDs to supplement music lessons is terrific! I often show other teachers’ videos in my classes because even though they are laying down the same foundations I am, it is helpful for the student to hear a different person explain it in a different way! Books and vids might lead a student to ask about something they wouldn’t know to ask about. However, just like diet advice, travel advice, financial advice, etc., there are a lot of so-called experts that do not know what they are doing or are trying to present something “revolutionary” just to push a product. One of the voice DVDs I ran into online promised that “Everything your voice teacher told you is wrong!” I was curious so I spent the $30 to find out what in the world they could be talking about. What they were pushing was exactly what any good voice teacher would agree with but repackaged with weird and confusing jargon and flimsy demonstrations. Some youtube vids are very good, Eric Arceneaux and the Singing Channel are two examples of good online voice teachers that demonstrate solid information that I show to my students to enhance my classes. However, I have seen some truly frightening instruction vids online showing viewers techniques that are downright damaging. Yet these vids get thousands of hits and likes from smart people who just don’t know what they don’t know.

Those who begin music as a hobby and find they actually have a propensity for it will especially find the guidance of a lesson teacher valuable. A relative beginner at anything will not be able to see the entire realm of possibilities and how those possibilities may lead to even more satisfying and challenging directions. I have had more than one student fall in love with a style of music they never would have expected to just from being exposed to new genres they were not familiar with. A lesson teacher who recognizes a student’s talent will know how to direct that person to his or her full potential by steering the student to work on an appropriate level.

Finally, as a professional, I consult with other teachers regularly and take coaching from a peer from time to time. Awhile ago a community arts group I volunteered for brought in a jazz singer from New York, Kat Reinhert, I asked her if I could take a lesson from her while she was in town, and she graciously agreed! She is an amazing instructor, and my session with her showed me a different perspective on some techniques, reaffirmed for me my own pedagogical approach, and inspired me to try a few new ideas. Learning from an expert is valuable no matter how far you are in your career!

A good private lesson teacher will give you feedback and customize your learning just for you and only you! A great teacher won’t push any style or direction you aren’t interested in but will inspire you to develop the good techniques that will get you to your goals more smoothly. The process of learning should be fun but it is not as rewarding when progress isn’t efficient. Adults are very busy, and something I emphasize in my lessons is the importance of always moving forward even if some weeks the student had too many life obligations to practice as much as she or he wanted to. A DVD can sit on the shelf and be ignored for weeks while progress and enthusiasm slips away. My students tell me that being accountable to a teacher every week helps keep them moving forward and inspired to continue.

Working without a guide will, for most people, lead to counterproductive habits, misdirected thinking, re-inventing the wheel, and possible missed opportunities for challenges. “The hurrier I go the behinder I get” from Alice in Wonderland is one of my favorite quotes, and I remind myself of it every time I catch myself rushing through something to get it done. Scrambling toward a goal without a thoughtful plan will often lead us to slide backwards. The journey up the Everest of learning an instrument can be joyful. Find yourself a great sherpa!