Most of my students take music lessons because they want to have fun. We teachers are, stereotypically, the guardians of NOT fun. I have a ruler in my desk drawer, I have never used it on someone else’s knuckles, but when I was first starting out as a teacher I will admit there were times when the studio became an arena for a tug-of-war. I’d like to think I don’t do that any more… but at the very least, I feel like I’m motivated by an idea that’s new to me in the last few years, and still a third rail in some parts: student-centered learning.
Does it have to be fun to be student-centered? Let’s turn that around for a sec. Does it have to be a tug-of-war for it to be teacher-centered? Of course not. More than before, though, I’m aware that making music on someone else’s terms can produce trauma. My teacher Liz Wolff used to joke with me when it was clear I had no idea how i wanted to take on a phrase. She would say something like “Left hand finger 3 is experiencing trauma, it seems.”
Sometime in the last few years I started telling myself “it should be fun” — and now I believe it has to be fun, in other words, if it doesn’t produce joy, then it’s not worth doing.
To zoom out, and to steal a metaphor from I can’t remember where, it’s more like planting a garden than changing a tire. There’s a lot of joy in anticipation, but there’s also genuine joy in the process; and it’s worth noting that the more you design your garden according to your personal resources and abilities, the better chance you’ll have of experiencing joy.
To zoom way in, if you’re a piano student practicing a particularly challenging 2-measure phrase, how do you find the fun in it? Here we can take a page from the gaming world. I have been using an iOS app called Tenuto, which is not free but not expensive. It has a free web version, musictheory.net. Getting a correct answer is often accompanied by the app playing the thing you just played. Cue the dopamine hit.
So, what is success when you are tackling a bunch of dots and lines you can’t hear yet? Answer: it’s whatever you define success to be. If you decide success is playing just the left hand part correctly, with no discernable tempo, but with all the correct fingerings and notes in the correct order, 3 times out of 5, then you might be more likely to experience a feeling of joy than if you try to sight read the entire piece five times in 10 days. You’re also a lot more likely to get those two measures in your muscle memory.
So let the game(ification of your practice) begin!