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Teaching Methods

What’s in a Good Music Education Program?

Duet at the Community Music CenterIntroducing the Basics

The most important goals of a program are to introduce young students to the basic elements of music: melody, rhythm, sound quality, harmonics, and pitch. Physical technique should be taught as part of making good music, not just muscle training. The same could be said about integrating the practice and theory of music into a program.

Learning to Listen

It is crucial that the child learns how to hear her/himself play, identify when something isn’t right, and know what to do to make it better. Therefore, students should learn how to practice, so the time in between lessons is productive and rewarding, even exciting. It will definitely help the young learner to choose pieces that are engaging.

Parental Support

Your support and encouragement for your child is critical to his/her progress in the study of music. For example, the instrument is kept in good repair, the family knows the practice assignments and expectations, the music is in good order, and the lessons are attended on time. Children should hear live music (age appropriate), and whenever possible, sing together. If you can, play together. Be a good audience. And talk from time to time with your child’s teacher about musical goals, practicing, and any other related subjects helpful to making music study a positive experience.

Play Well with Others

In the best of musical worlds, students experience playing with others sooner rather than later. Sometimes this can be with the teacher. But playing with peers is a special experience, including accompanying other instruments, which requires a unique kind of listening skill.

Finally, a good music education program is one where the joy of music is part of the experience. Hopefully, music learning never becomes just another chore or obligation, but is part of a richer life

Stephen Shapiro is the Executive Director of the Community Music Center, San Francisco, CA

To Suzuki or Not to Suzuki?

Crowden School's Summer ProgramThrough the Suzuki method young children master basic musical skills, improve listening ability, and acquire physical comfort with their instrument and with performing. Intermediate and advanced students learn to read music, improve technical proficiency, and play skill specific repertoire.

Features of the method are:

  • It combines individual and group learning situations. Children learn from observing their peers as well as from their teacher.
  • Parents/caretakers attend and participate in individual lessons. 
  • Frequent performance opportunities. Even the youngest student is encouraged to perform in front of an audience.
  • Lesson materials progress gradually, encouraging memorization through repetition.
  • Children learn technique in the context of music. Musical expression is introduced early on.


  • The method assumes that music learning is as natural to a child as learning to speak, and takes advantage of that ability
  • Participation of parents and/or caretakers provides a context of encouragement, love and support building self-assurance, esteem and compassion.
  • It is fun! Children play tunes early on not having to wait until they are proficient in reading music.
  • Children earn a sense of accomplishment early on.
  • Performance, solo and with peers, in front of an audience develops poise and confidence
  • Since the Suzuki method is based on the belief that every child has innate talent, the program welcomes all children.


Prepare to commit time and energy. Some teaching centers schedule group and individual lessons and recitals on different days requiring multiple trips per week. Likewise, parents are expected to be actively involved with the lessons and practicing. 

  • Ideally parents/caretakers should learn alongside the child. When this is required, the extra expense and time commitment is considerable.
  • Beginning study at a very young age, children can quickly outgrow their instruments physically. Be sure to inquire about trade-in programs to upgrade to larger instruments.
  • Some children may do well in the rote learning and memorization work, but become discouraged if they have difficulty when they begin to learn to read music.

All in all, the Suzuki program is a successful, time-tested program for gaining proficiency at playing an instrument with confidence and expression. For students, there is an immediate connection with the music in a nurturing learning situation.

Kathy Butera is Lecturer/Supervisor of the Arts, Entertainment and Media Management Department at Columbia College Chicago. She was formerly Executive Director of Sherwood Conservatory of Music (now merged with Columbia) and has held management positions with the Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Chicago symphony orchestras.

What is the Dalcroze Teaching Method?

Students perform a Dalcroze exerciseThe Dalcroze method, also known as Dalcroze Eurhythmics, incorporates the basic elements of music—rhythm, melody, harmony—with body movement, to provide a multi-dimensional approach to music learning. Unlike most traditional methods, improvisation is a major component of the Dalcroze approach and one of its three aspects:

  • Eurhythmics trains the body in rhythm and dynamics
  • Solfege (sight singing) trains the ear, eye and voice in pitch, melody and harmony
  • Improvisation brings all elements together according to the student's own invention, in movement, with voice, at an instrument. (Dalcroze Society of America)

Beyond musical intelligence, the Dalcroze approach engages and exercises several other aspects of intelligence. Musical games and experiments engage logical thinking. Eurhythmics appeals to kinesthetic and spatial types of learners. The social quality of music-making develops communication, feeling, and empathy. Dalcroze is fun! It has the physicality of sports, aesthetic appeal of the arts, and is mentally challenging, for all ages. Unfortunately, programs are not widespread, and where they exist, they are frequently for children only.

The Dalcroze concept of improvisation is close to the nature of childhood play. According to, improvisation means to compose and perform or deliver without previous preparation; to compose, play, recite, or sing (verse, music, etc.) on the spur of the moment. Improvisation frees a child to relate directly and spontaneously to music within a range of musical knowledge. Improvising with full-body movement, singing or playing an instrument, helps the child internalize complex elements of rhythm, pitch, tone and dynamics without having to read a musical score. Through improvisation, composing becomes a personal and immediate creative act. A child enhances his creative spirit through improvisation and carries that spirit into his daily life.

Emile Dalcroze was a visionary 19th-century pedagogue. He did not like his approach to be labeled as a method. In fact, there is really no set curriculum. Teachers are trained in techniques and principles, which they adapt to the characteristics, needs and abilities of their students. Dalcroze certificates and licenses are conferred by master Dalcroze teachers who hold the Diploma from the Dalcroze Institute in Geneva, Switzerland In California, two established musical institutions that teach the Dacroze method are The San Francisco Conservatory of Music (415-864-7326) and The School of Performing Arts Division of The Colburn School (213-621-2200).

Kathy Butera is Lecturer/Supervisor of the Arts, Entertainment and Media Management Department at Columbia College Chicago. She was formerly Executive Director of Sherwood Conservatory of Music (now merged with Columbia) and has held management positions with the Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Chicago symphony orchestras.

Should My Child Learn to Improvise?

Drumming at the CMCImprovisation—the spontaneous creation of music—is an ancient art practiced in cultures worldwide. We tend to think of it these days in terms of jazz, where improvisation, the making of melodies in the moment, is an essential element. But there’s a long tradition of spontaneous music making in Baroque and classical music. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin were all brilliant improvisers whose compositional themes often came out of their spontaneous keyboard inventions.

Encouraging young music students to experiment with improvisation “nurtures their creativity and confidence,” says Mark Levine, the noted Bay Area jazz pianist and teacher who studied classical piano for many years. “It’s such a big part of music today. Kids growing up now, even those studying classical music, want to know something about improvisation. It’s great for ear training and getting young musicians to think.”

Skilled jazz improvisers, of course, need to know a great deal about harmony and theory; the music doesn’t just come out thin air. It takes years of practice and study to master the art. But for kids just starting out on their instruments, improvising—making stuff up on the spot—can be great fun and inspire them to want to learn more about music.

“With improvisation, there is no right or wrong answer, no judgment, so it makes kids feel good about playing,” says Susan Muscarella, the classically trained jazz pianist who founded and directs the JazzSchool in Berkeley. “That’s important. It makes them feel free, and accesses a different part of their brain. It encourages them to be creative, to be in the moment and listen.”

There’s a lingering notion that too much classical training can inhibit a musician’s ability to improvise. Muscarella and many other musicians and educators don’t buy that. “Not at all,” she says. “As improvisers, we’re coming up with a thought, a musical sentence, and we need to have the technique to articulate that thought. Not only is Western European music beautiful and artful, it helps students develop finesse, technique and musicality. I’m inclined to feel that everybody can improvise to a certain extent. It’s just that people like Keith Jarrett do it better.” (Jarrett was a classical piano prodigy who embraced jazz as a teenager.)

Sometimes older students who come out of classical music freeze up when they try to improvise because, as Levine puts it, “its’ been drilled into them at an early age that you have to be perfect. They don’t realize when it comes to improvising, there is no perfect.” The more exposure a kid gets to different kinds of music and ways of playing, the better. “It all helps,” Muscarella says. “I really feel that a student is best off with both—reading music and improvising. It not either/or." 

Jesse Hamlin has written for The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications over the past 30 years on a wide range of music and art, covering jazz musicians and symphonic conductors, sculptors, poets, and architects. He has also written for The New York Times, Art & Auction and Columbia magazines, as well as liner notes for CDs by Stan Getz and Cal Tjader.

Musical Training: Classical or Pop?

Electric ukulele at the Music School at Piedmont Piano Co.You may wonder, when researching music teachers, whether your child needs classical training if she or he is more interested in rock, jazz, folk or world music, for example. The past ten years have seen a proliferation of rock schools, musical theater programs, and world-drumming ensembles added to the traditional cadre of classical piano lessons, concert choirs and Suzuki violin studios.

Our national and state curriculum standards don't require adherence to any one genre and make the point that music of many cultures should be part of every students' music education. And research suggests that kids at the elementary school age are open to all styles of music; the real identification with pop styles doesn't strongly kick in until upper elementary and starts to get really strong in middle school. So how can parents and kids choose among all of the options?

Dr. Ruth Brittin, chair of the music education department at the University of Pacific, Stockton, says that the way to evaluate a teacher or program is not classical vs. pop, but rather "substantive, comprehensive, and effective", leading to interest and ability across "classical AND other". She says, “It is more important to have a comprehensive education, which depends primarily on the teacher. An effective teacher will make great progress regardless of the genre.”

Teachers and music programs, regardless of the style of music they are teaching, should focus on basic skills that will translate into good musicianship. Not every program does everything. Some programs, like choirs and rock ensembles, might not teach reading music, although that skill is essential to future musical development. It's also clear that the ability to improvise and develop advanced aural skills is important, and classical methods are often less strong on that aspect. Proper and relaxed use of the body is as valuable to the budding rock guitarist as to the concert pianist.

Unless your child is sold on one kind of music or another, Dr. Brittin says it’s good to find a teacher that’s accomplished in a breadth of styles. She says, “Look for ‘classical plus’ teachers....those teachers who have the best of classical training AND the ability (and willingness) to cross over into other genres in response to the students' interests.” 

Lisa Petrie earned a D.M.A. in flute performance from SUNY, Stony Brook. She has been a communications professional in the arts and education for 10 years, including work in Switzerland and Holland, as well as the Bay Area.

Should Singers Ever “Belt”?

Photo courtesy of Sarah Sloan voice studioTo belt or not to belt? This is often a controversial question within the singing community. Part of the controversy lies in a preconception about the term “belt” and how it is used in musical theater. Belting has a bright, often brassy tone quality with significant power.

When talking about belting it is useful to understand the terms head voice and chest voice. Chest voice, where the sensations of the voice vibrate in the chest, is often used in pop music and is used in the lower ranges of the voice. Head voice, where the sensations vibrate in the head, is associated with the female classical voice, is used in the upper range and is called “legit” (meaning “legitimate”) in musical theater. Belting can be defined as pushing the chest voice up past the natural transition into head voice; when done improperly it can result in a “break” or sudden flip into the head voice register.

With Broadway-style singing, a safe alternative technique that comfortably executes the demands of today’s musical theater uses a combination of both head and chest voice or “Mixing”. Ideally in mixing, both registers are blended to achieve a unified voice. To acquire this, the entire vocal range, particularly the head voice, must be strengthened and developed. Eric Howe, voice faculty at Holy Names University says, “The voice involves many muscles, and often some of the muscles need to be strengthened and coordinated to work with the other muscles.” Here are some things to keep in mind:

If you sing primarily in your chest voice, spend as much time as possible singing in your head voice to strengthen that sound.

  • Try a “top down” approach by coming at the pitch from the top rather than pushing up.
  • Do not scream. The voice should never feel forced. If you become hoarse stop immediately.
  • Keep the head and neck in a normal relaxed position. Do not lift the chin or allow the neck muscles to tense.

Unhealthy belting can create excessive tension in the throat. Vocal chord injury is common. So find an experienced teacher who can monitor your progress. Learn to mix in a healthy way and your vocal chords can enjoy a long and fruitful life.

Sarah Sloan is a classical singer and voice teacher in the East Bay. You can find her blog at

9 Tips for Practicing with Your Child

9 Tips for Practicing with Your ChildParents of young children learning music are advised to be involved in their daily practice sessions. These tips are provided by Suzuki string instructor Goran Berg specifically for the Suzuki method but may be applied to musical study in general.

  1. Be responsible for getting practice started. Sometimes children are very willing to take out the instrument and practice, but most kids will need a gentle reminder.
  2. Set a regular practice schedule and make an agreement about it with your child. Stay consistent and practice daily.
  3. With very young children, short practice sessions, even down to 5 minutes each, 2 to 3 times a day, are more effective than one long session. Set one goal for each session.
  4. Rule of the thumb: Stop before tears. Your goal is to end the practice with a smile on your child’s face!
  5. Stay with your child and practice with him/her. Remember that practice is lonely and children like company. Accustom him/her to the fact that you are the home teacher, and that you will be providing help and supervision.
  6. Don’t always start at the beginning. Locate exactly where a difficulty is in the music and try to limit the practice to those few notes or so. Repeat until you have corrected it for five times in a row. Then go back to the beginning of that phrase or piece and do the whole part in context correctly for five times.
  7. Always use the marked fingerings and bowings. Learning is much more efficient if these are consistent with the others in the group and in the program. Later, students might learn variations on those rules.
  8. Become accustomed to repetition and to continued use of the same repertoire over long periods. Remember the old Chinese saying: “If you want to see something new, walk the same path everyday.”
  9. Be positive. Make suggestions that don’t affect your child’s self-esteem. For example, avoid negations, like “don’t” and “no, never, wrong” and such. Express what TO do rather than what NOT to do!

Goran Berg is a respected teacher of the Suzuki method for strings, the owner of Sycamore Strings Academy and is on faculty at the Crowden Music Center.

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