From time to time, we can find ourselves stagnating when studying music (or any other topic). To help become immune to this, it’s useful to fully recognize our strengths and acknowledge our weaknesses. Every strength is an opportunity to improve further and if we can acknowledge where we are struggling then we can begin to grow much faster and reach excellence.
Ask yourself the following questions. Give yourself a grade (1-10) for each attribute. Teachers may use this as a guide to evaluate students. Take the evaluation here.
Are you enthusiastic? Do you find what you’re learning enjoyable? Do you want to know more? Do you come with preconceptions, expectations, or negative viewpoints from past experiences? If so, what are they?
2. Self Direction
Do you have a clear sense of what you want to achieve as a musician? Are you motivated to reach your goals?
3. Open to Suggestion
Are you willing to do homework assignments and follow your teacher’s recommendations?
4. Practice / Work Ethic / Goal Orientation
Are you able to keep your goals in sight, make decisions based on your goals, and work to achieve your goals on a regular basis?
Do you enjoy expressing yourself and making your own patterns? Do you really “play” when you play your instrument?
Are you able to understand the material presented? Do you see the forest for the trees? Do you see how the smaller details fit into the bigger picture?
7. Dexterity / Natural Talent
Do you find that with a reasonable amount of practice, you are able to play what’s given? Are you easily able to figure out music by ear?
Are you able to remember/recall what you previously learned? Are you able to apply what you’ve learned to different scenarios?
Now that you’ve given each area a 1-10 score, notice where you score high (your strengths) and score low (your weaknesses.) Now we’ll explore what each of these mean and where you can go from here.
How your strengths can serve you
If you scored high in ‘Attitude’
If you are naturally an optimistic person, you can learn anything you put your mind to. Being positive gives you the motivation and energy to accomplish your goals. You may find that many people want to work with you. If you utilize this in the face of challenges, people will be more than willing to help you because your good attitude will rub off on them.
If you scored high in ‘Self-Direction’
If you’re motivated to learn on your own, it will serve you well. Much of music, and any art form, is about finding your own style and being a proactive performer. It will help to always find your own approach to what you’re studying - even when a teacher is involved. Putting concepts into your own words and doing extra research can only help you.
If you scored high in ‘Open to Suggestion’
Being open to suggestion indicates that you have an open mind and are great at listening to the world around you. Always be ready to ask good questions and make sure to find a teacher who steers you in a good direction. Once you have this, you’ll be unstoppable.
If you scored high in ‘Practice / Work Ethic / Goal Orientation’
If you are organized and motivated, you’ll be able to achieve a lot. With patience for research and penchant for measured effort, you’ll be able to structure your practice in a way that includes new concepts. This will put you on a path to constant growth.
If you scored high in ‘Creativity’
Being creative is an indication that you are doing the right thing - studying an art form. Music is highly creative, even when playing pre-written music. If you’re writing music now, the best advice I can give is to just keep doing it and don’t be afraid to experiment! The more you write, the higher your quality will be. Keep listening to other music. Get feedback from others. Use any concept you learn (and just about any life experience) as inspiration for a new piece of music.
If you scored high in ‘Comprehension’
Your classic book-smarts will be highly beneficial to studying music. If you’re able to soak in information, learn as many different areas of music that you can! Read books that span music history, theory, method, and so on. Learn new instruments and constantly keep a lookout for new trends and ideas. When one is able to learn fast and apply what they’ve learned, there’s no limit to the heights they can achieve.
If you scored high in ‘Dexterity / Natural Talent’
If you’ve always found playing an instrument to be easy and comfortable, be very grateful to have that gift! If you hone your technique, you could become a virtuoso. You can then focus your studies more on non-technical exercises. Remember to constantly challenge yourself - no great musician ever considered themselves “done” at learning their instrument!
If you scored high in ‘Retention’
Having a sharp musical memory is very important. Since you scored high in retention, you’ll probably find it easy to cultivate your ability to memorize the pieces that you love. You’ll also find that any concepts you put your mind to learning will resonate with you deeply and contribute to your striking personal style. Inevitably, many will want to know your secrets. Share what you’ve learned because teaching is an essential ingredient for continued growth.
How to improve where you’re deficient
No new teacher fully knows what to expect when they begin teaching. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses which may baffle a teacher from time to time. Ever since I began teaching professionally in 2007, I’ve learned so much from my students. The following stories are about students who had some deficiencies that we were able to make significant improvements upon.
Bad Attitude Alert
Student 1 was great at Guitar Hero. He thought that learning guitar in real life would come very easily. He was mistaken. His preconceptions about learning being as easy as playing a video game prevented him from taking guitar seriously. I gave him what I thought were easy songs to work on and he would get very frustrated. I created some finger exercises and we took a more ‘game-oriented’ approach. He eventually was able to catch on to learning in a more traditional way and was able to play his favorite music on a real guitar.
Takeaway: If at first you don’t succeed, don’t give up! Work with your unique learning style and find very simple songs and/or exercises to master and make it fun. Be open to changing your learning mindset; determination, practice, and persistence will always trump natural talent.
The Road to Self-Direction
Student 2 had a vague idea of what he wanted to learn. He knew that he wanted to be able to strum chords and sing while sailing on his boat. We decided to focus on one goal: learning Jimmy Buffett songs. Since there were some challenging progressions, he felt like it was taking longer than anticipated. We hung in there, though, and he eventually mastered the chord changing techniques required and can now play a handful of songs from memory.
Takeaway: Choosing a concrete goal is very important. Find a teacher who can help do this and prioritize the goal-setting process. Afterwards, do whatever it takes to achieve it and don’t give up!
Not-So-Open to Suggestion
Student 3 got bored easily with his assignments. He would often pick something more entertaining for him to do. We began to do basic exercises to help his rhythmic timing. He was unhappy that we hadn’t been working on these from the very beginning because he was having a lot of trouble with them. I gave him a broad overview of all of the fundamentals of music and we persistently kept at the rhythmic exercises. He eventually was able to write and play more interesting music so that he was no longer bored.
Takeaway: Boredom is often a sign of anxiety to get better faster than is possible. Take stock of what you know and what you need to learn. Something important may be missed if you skip steps, so try to get an overview of musical concepts and practice the essentials regularly.
Not motivated to practice
Personal story: After graduating from conservatory and becoming a professional, I stopped practicing regularly for a period of time. I would just “play” or write and hardly spent time perfecting anything. I knew I could be practicing my own music or learning music, but I felt uninspired. I eventually discovered I was avoiding the hard work of accepting what’s challenging to me and using a practice log. Now, practicing and seeing growth is a joy to me again.
Takeaway: Musical growth comes from attention to details during practice sessions. Put in the effort to practice and learn new or challenging things, recording your progress can be motivating.
A Child’s Creativity
Student 5 was a very young student. She had a very particular way of learning and I was happy to work with her. However, she was not open to learning certain things. I felt like she was stagnating and missing out on certain concepts. I decided to make it a game: for her to write her own piece using the new concept I was trying to teach her. She loved it.
Takeaway: One way to learn a concept is to write your own piece including that concept.
I’m not really getting it…
Student 6 had a learning disability which made certain concepts difficult to grasp. While she was very eager to learn them, they just didn’t stick most of the time. It wasn’t retention, it was that she didn’t understand the concept fully in the first place. We finally determined that she could best understand concepts after learning a song she enjoyed, then using the song as a basis to teach music theory.
Takeaway: Everyone has a unique style of learning. Method books work well for some students, but other methods may be necessary if a short explanation doesn’t suffice. Taking the time to learn and understand the music you love will always benefit you, so try to find a teacher that will help you do this.
Why doesn’t this sound right?
Student 7 was very motivated to learn certain songs. The physical aspect of playing did not come easy to him. He found that the songs “didn’t sound right” while he was learning and was discouraged from practicing because of it. To solve this issue, I crafted some exercises that focused completely on technical issues, and told him “we were going to the finger gym” to make them fun.
Takeaway: Studying technique separately from learning songs is a great approach to learning and aids the student in avoiding frustration. There are many “etudes” (technique studies) that are satisfying to listen to; so learning technique doesn’t have to be a dry topic!
I keep forgetting!
Student 8 was very open minded and enjoyed guitar. The issue was that he continually made the same mistakes. We eventually crafted a routine which continually stressed the basics that we’ve gone over and we regularly reviewed pieces that he liked.
Takeaway: If you find yourself unable to remember certain things, begin each lesson and practice session with a warm-up routine that includes the concepts and pieces that need to be remembered.
What have you learned about yourself as a student?
Taking this evaluation has helped me as a musician and teacher in many ways - hopefully it can help you too. You can take the evaluation here and discuss your results with a qualified music instructor at SongMind Studios (instructions in the form). Otherwise, please share your experiences in a comment below!