How Teaching to the Test Creates Poor Musicians

I love to teach. I especially love to teach trumpet lessons. I’ve taught students with tremendous musical talent, and others whose strengths are in different areas. I’ve taught self-motivated students, and students who only showed up because their parents made them. I’ve taught quick learners, and kids with learning disabilities. I’ve taught students who truly love the trumpet, and those who simply love band for the social opportunities it affords. I’ve been tremendously blessed by each of them, and believe that I have been able to teach and connect with each of them through music in ways that other types of education simply do not offer.

Every student has different strengths and weaknesses, different goals and interests. There is one musical concept, however, that seems to be a common struggle for nearly all students: It’s okay to make mistakes.

So often, my trumpet students are paralyzed by performance anxiety and a fear of failure. They play timidly, in the hopes that their mistakes will go unnoticed. They do not understand that, because air support and confidence are such vital parts of good trumpet playing, their timidity is actually CAUSING many of their mistakes. The concept is foreign to them that playing with confidence, a good tone, and musicality is far superior — even when it results in a few spectacularly obvious missed notes — to playing all of the “right” notes with a poor sound. After all, when playing properly we only sound bad on the wrong notes (and even then, most audiences won’t notice), but when playing timidly we sound bad all the time!

Perhaps this is simply an area of weakness for myself as a teacher, and my students are the only ones who demonstrate this problem. I suspect, however, that this challenge is more universal, and is indicative of a much larger problem in how we teach our children in all areas of their education.

When students come to their after-school trumpet lessons, they are coming from a learning environment that has taught them that what is most important is knowing the correct answers on their homework assignments and tests, nevermind whether or not they actually have a firm grasp of the material. Why should I be surprised then when they feel that what is most important in music is the ability to play all the right notes, whether or not they are actually learning how to become a good musician?

And I’m not just talking about political issues such as “No Child Left Behind”, though I know few teachers who approve of that particular hand-tying legislation which forces them to teach in this manner. Our entire culture is plagued by this performance-oriented attitude that promotes the “what” at the expense of the “how”.

The great irony is that skills-based teaching results in better performance. Whether it’s math, science, or anything else, the students who go on to achieve the most success are the ones who have studied diligently to learn the fundamentals and theory of the subject. In music, this is especially important. You might be able to pass a math test by memorizing answers to a few problems, but you can’t cram for a recital or concert!

I’m so thankful for the opportunity to work in an environment that is structured in a way that so uniquely seeks each student’s success. It is tempting in any music education environment to feel like the recitals at the end of each semester are an end in themselves, but at our School of Performing Arts the recital is just one step (albeit a very important one) in the instructional process. It is the chance for students to apply what they have learned, to overcome their anxieties, and to share their gifts with others. Often, and perhaps most importantly, it is an opportunity for them to be rewarded — not because of their mistakes, but in spite of them — by the sincere applause of an appreciative audience. This helps students to overcome their paralyzing fear of failure and to learn the value of diligent self-application in the pursuit of “doing things the right way”. These are character-building traits that lead music students to become the disciplined risk-takers that will make them successful in whatever vocation, ministry, or course of study they pursue in the future.

I am indebted to my trumpet teachers, Alan Severs and Charlie Decker, who instilled these traits in me, and it is my driving passion to see each and every student that comes to our school go on to great things once they leave us.

7 comments on “How Teaching to the Test Creates Poor Musicians

  1. Emily Williams says:

    Thanks for this post! You are not alone in having students who think that playing the right notes is the most important thing, when instead they could be exhibiting good tone, technique and musicality by missing a few notes.

    Music is definately different than academic subjects and you’re right that you can’t cram for a recital even though you might be able to cram for a test. Very good point!

    With my own students I’ve found that the more I can praise them for the good things they do, even when missing notes, the more they come to believe me that getting all the right notes is not the most important thing. I know I struggled with this as a student, and I think it’s a difficult mentality to overcome.

    I also try to pick repertoire that my students can easily learn the notes on, so that I can show them the importance of all the other things we can work on in a piece. I find it so frustrating when I hear kids playing music far beyond their ability level and nothing is happending except they are hitting the right notes at the right time, barely. Whenever my kids need to “compete” I try to pick a piece that challenges them in one area, but that I know they can learn to sound good on by the time they need to perform…not just hit all the right notes. I love it when my students begin to grasp how “wide and deep” even a seemingly simple piece of music can be.

    Keep up the good teaching and thanks for the thought provoking post! 🙂

  2. John Gardner says:

    Good post, John. You are right that the private instruction teachers and setups such as your SPA can do a marvelous job of spending significant time on the “how” rather than the “what”. The Music Ed Departments at most universities are behind you all the way.

    Here’s the problem….at least from a local perspective. A student in the marching band program here will perform over 30 times during a school cycle. Non-marchers have about 20 performances. There is almost always a “performance” just over the horizon.

    Starting in our summer, there are three parades that happen even before school starts and three more after. Can’t give up a parade, tho, because we have students from each one of those parade towns…..

    The first football game is only 3 weeks after Band Camp, so there is a lot of teaching to that test. Can’t back out of any football games. Nope.

    There are about 5-6 marching competitions, but those are, in this program, the #1 reason students are in the program ….. whether it is the travel, the bus ride or the thrill of performing….. can’t give up on the contests.

    The first basketball game happens 2 weeks after the last marching band competition. 15-17 home basketball games. Can’t get out of any of those. Every home game for both boys and girls. Principals and Athletic Directors use the “Past Practice” argument…. With so many games, our basketball book has 48 pieces plus 26 school songs. In some weeks, there are 3 home games and we can’t play the same music, right?

    Oh, and at the same time we’re cramming for the basketball test, there is the Christmas concert to get ready for.

    As soon as we get back from holiday break, we have to get new music ready for the Middle School tour that has to happen early enough that we are recruiting BEFORE they sign up for classes.

    Spending 3 weeks for the MS Tour sets us behind on the Concert Festival process. Huge test there.

    Then there are only a handful of weeks after contest until the Spring Concert ….. but while getting ready for that, we also have to get the Graduation music together for the pre-event concert, the processional and recessional.

    Then, generally 1-2 days after graduation, Summer Band starts and the cycle goes again.

    So, other than some quality warm-up time and the few times we have additional staff to teach in small group sectionals (mostly in the summer), what you describe is quite the challenge for the larger public school program.

    So Music Education needs to 1) shift away from the performance craze (explain that one to the community, tho) or 2) rely more on private teachers and Schools of Performing Arts …. to assist with what we struggle to find adequate time to do well.


    • John Gardner says:

      I definitely understand the perspective of the public school band director. Here are two further brief thoughts:

      1) The band/choir/orchestra programs are not the root of this problem. If kids are getting to middle & high school before they encounter any sort of teaching that encourages them to put forth extra effort and focus on the “how”, then putting in the individual work necessary to contribute to a great band program is going to be a tough sell for the band director. The encouragement from a band director can be a great first step toward a solution, but it’s an uphill climb.

      2) One of the biggest common denominators among the most successful band programs is a high percentage of involvement by band members in private lessons. Ensemble classes, even in the best of situations, are not suited to teaching students how to play their instruments. The purpose of ensemble classes is to teach students how to play together. This is an important part of music education that private lessons alone cannot accomplish.

      So the real question is: How can school music programs and private instructors work together for the mutual success of all students, ensembles, and teachers? This is the end toward which we’re working here in Cookeville, and it’s pretty exciting to be a part of it. I don’t doubt for a moment that our efforts (by both our SPA teachers and the local school music teachers) will result in changing the culture of our community into one that fosters this type of progress… even if it takes a generation to come to fruition.

  3. […] Not on the Test Here’s a great satirical song by Tom Chapin to go with my last post: […]

  4. Emily Williams says:

    I agree that public teachers have a difficult task with trying to not teach to the test when there is a test over every horizon. I agree this is why public teachers and private teachers need to work together.

    I also think it’s a challenge for public teachers because (at least in our area) kids are not starting their instruments until late middle school. So, if they don’t take private lessons they don’t have the one on one instruction to be able to get down the basics correctly (since most public teachers don’t have for this kind of instruction) and then they are thrown into “test” situation when they aren’t even really comfortable with their instrument yet. While some band instruments can’t be started early, string instruments really should be started at 4 or 5. Then by the time kids reach middle school they have a good handle on what they are doing and can apply the “hows” to the “whats” that they are expected to do.

  5. Matt says:

    Don’t teach to a test. Teach them how to be musicians and make it fun for them.

  6. […] is much like something I wrote previously, about how I try to teach my trumpet students to play boldly. It is better to risk erring […]

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