Essential Skills

for Promoting a Lifelong Love of Music and Music Making
Working For A More Musical Tomorrow

part 4 of 4

By Gail Berenson and Scott McBride Smith

Gail Berenson, NCTM, is MTNA president-elect. Formerly MTNA vice president and Ohio MTA president, she is professor of piano and chair of the keyboard division at Ohio University in Athens. Berenson also is co-author of A Symposium for Pianists and Teachers: Strategies to Develop the Mind and Body for Optimal Performance.

Scott McBride Smith, NCTM, is an independent teacher in Irvine, California. he is president and CEO of the International Institute for Young Musicians, co-author of the piano pedagogy text The Well-Tempered Keyboard Teacher and president of the Royal American Conservatory Examinations.

Between the two of us, we went to a lot of graduation ceremonies last spring. Students, children of friends, a teenage nephew…even a 5-year old godson put on cap and gown to progress from pre-school to kindergarten. And, we heard a lot of quotations about the future. Not so many from the kindergarteners, actually-they were too busy rushing the cookie table to offer much in the way of philosophy and vision.

Quotes and more quotes. "The future is yours for the taking" was a favorite. Proust, T.S. Eliot, Ambrose Bierce, friends and relatives of the speakers-they all had a lot of ideas about the world to come, from what we heard. Even the spirit of Doris Day was invoked, from a hit song of the 1950s Que Sera, Sera:

"Whatever will be will be.
The future's not ours to see."

Editing this series of articles on Essential Skills has us both looking into our crystal balls, too. No matter what Doris sings, we believe we can see a bright future, and we know teachers can do something to bring it about. What shape would musical life in our country take if every student in the United States had access to top-quality music instruction and assessment? obtained the proper teaching to develop a pain-free technique? developed a strong foundation of music literacy? learned the inner and outer skills (we borrowed this term from William Westney's marvelous article in the June/July 2005 AMT) for a lifetime of joyful, creative music making?

Do you believe this could happen?

Our answer is "yes." We believe the time ahead begins now, in the studios of each and every MTNA member. It starts with a personal commitment: to be the best and offer the best of which you and your students are capable. How to do it? Look around your own local teacher group and study those who seem most successful-and fulfilled in their success. Happy, flourishing teachers have worked hard to develop their skills. But they never rest on their laurels. They seek new experiences. They never stop learning or cultivating people from whom to learn. They ask lots of questions: to deepen understanding, challenge outdated beliefs and formulate new ideas. They are not afraid to take a stand, admit a problem or seek new methods. And they are willing to share themselves with others.

Does that description fit you? If you're hesitating, perhaps it's time to take a personal inventory and check what areas of your professional life need a little tender loving care or some spit and polish. Here are some suggestions to develop your own essential skills.


No one can absorb everything they need for a successful music-teaching career while still in school. The ever-changing world we live in makes this impossible. And not every skill we acquire has to come from an institute of learning. Both of us have worked with legendary performers and teachers who do not have graduate degrees. There are more than a few who didn't graduate from college at all, and a not-insignificant number who had no high school diploma. It is their skills and their insight, their ability to work hard, their willingness to take risks and their passion for their art that make them legends-not a piece of paper.

This is not to denigrate fine academic programs or minimize the importance of college degrees. We each have several! But there is an important point here about the pursuit of excellence: it's open to everyone. Both of us travel extensively in service of music (Scott logged 150,000 flight-miles last year in the U.S. alone; Gail a mere 40,000!) and, frankly, we get tired of hearing teachers tell us "Oh, I (or my students) could never do that." Why not? "I wasn't a music major; I didn't graduate from college; I don't have the training in this area; I (or my students) are too busy; there isn't enough lesson time; my students don't practice enough; we've had too many budget cuts; our community (or my school administrators) don't support music…" It's a long list.

One of the essential skills of success is to learn to view yourself as someone who can gain the expertise to overcome these often real problems. We live in a world in which information and training is often just a mouse-click away. Your students don't work hard enough? Buy a book or go to a seminar on motivation. Learn how to establish goals and involve yourself in programs that provide student recognition. You don't have the training to teach a certain skill? Get some! Study with a local artist-teacher or attend a workshop. Not sure how to let the public know what you can offer? Read books on marketing and get involved in community organizations, such as a church, the Rotary Club or Kiwanis.

You will never rise above your own lack of knowledge. And you can't gain that wisdom and those essential skills if you don't think of yourself as someone who can learn and overcome-in an academic setting or out of one.


No one is really sure, but we think there are 400,000-500,000 piano teachers in our country, and a comparable proportion of instructors of voice and other instruments. How many of them belong to a professional organization? MTNA has about 24,000 members.

What are all the rest of those teachers doing? You may think you know, when you get a call from a transfer student who has been studying for five years and has never learned to read music. Or has been sitting on a simplified arrangement of Für Elise without progressing past the first page. In our travels, we have found that this is not the whole story. There are many fine teachers who have not yet been convinced of the benefits of association.

Recent statistical studies show us that the American public is supportive of music study. According to a poll taken by the Gallop Organization, American Attitudes Toward Music (March 2003), the overwhelming majority-from 79 percent to 98 percent of those queried, depending on the specific question-agreed that music should be part of a complete education, that it should be offered as an element of each child's regular curriculum, and that studying music makes one smarter, more disciplined, helps make friends and can be enjoyed for a whole lifetime.

Yet the number of students studying music continues to decline every year.

Scary as this is, many of our respected colleagues act like this has nothing to do with us. Paradoxically, although the overall numbers are decreasing, lots of fine music educators and schools have more students than they can comfortably serve. And, since music teaching is such an all-consuming, time-intensive occupation and avocation combined, many simply don't have the time to reach beyond their daily tasks for a larger view.

Public support for music education will start to manifest itself concretely-in higher profile (and bigger budget!) music programs, in increased respect and visibility for independent music teachers, in greater levels of public and private music-making-when we start working together to let people know we exist and tell them what we do. Invite non-member teachers to your local association and ask them to get involved in a project of mutual interest. Take a look at the programs your state association offers. Is it truly a professional organization serving the needs of skilled teachers? Or is it simply an arena for busy work and political struggles over who gets to be the boss? Reach out to members of sister organizations-MENC, ASTA and NATS, among others-and invite them to work with us.

Joseph D. Brown, professor of marketing at Ball State University, spent two days in 1987 interviewing leaders in the outstanding music education program of the Williamsport, Pennsylvania, area school district. He reported (Gemeinhardt Case Study No. 1, The Williamsport Image, 1989) that any successful music course should be "a program not merely on paper, but a vital program, which extends into the community and affects its cultural base." This means developing rich personal and musical relationships with students, their parents, community leaders, members of the media and the general public. Press releases, advertisements and public concerts play a role, to be sure, but more important are the efforts of individual teachers who get involved and, by word and example, let people know about the essential benefits of music study. 


Do you ever go to a party and tell people you are a music teacher? We do. We sometimes meet adults who play a musical instrument, but more common are the stories of those who studied for a while and then quit. Some of these tales are painful for a music teacher to hear. "I studied piano for eight years and never learned to read the bass clef." Or, "I can play only the two pieces I played on my senior recital. "I've played flute for a long time," said another lady, "but I can't begin to hear what the piece should sound like in my head."

How could someone study and not develop these essential skills? Teachers sometimes bear part of the responsibility. "I don't have enough time to cover the basics," said one educator. "I'm too busy getting ready for the spring recital." You could replace the last two words with any number of other choices: piano competition, local festival, Christmas program…it's another long list! Yet, there is much research that shows developing a lifelong love of music, both as a performer and as an active consumer, is predicated on good listening skills and being able to sight play.

Do you think including study of sight reading, ear training and theory is too much to include in a lesson? It's not. Research shows that developing these skills does not have to be time-consuming. It's a matter of consistent, daily practice in small increments over a fairly long period of time-monitored in a time-effective way at lessons.

Many instructors develop their own methods to teach these skill areas. Some have added a group component to their teaching, adding the capacity to deal with topics in greater depth and adding the benefits of peer interaction. If this doesn't work for your schedule, there are many fine texts available to be used in a private lesson, without taking too much time.


"I thought it was supposed to hurt. That's how I know I am challenging myself. I want to build endurance." While we keep hoping this "no pain, no gain" kind of thinking is disappearing, we know too many students still believe these statements are true. Making music should never feel uncomfortable. Physical ease is the vital key to joyous music making. Without that freedom, it is difficult to freely express the emotion of the music, to interpret the music and display the technical mastery that will enable the musical content to be conveyed.

Extreme fatigue, mild aches or pain of any kind is a sign the body is being over-taxed. Mindful practice, where one is paying attention to how the body feels and concentrating on what is happening at this moment in time, is especially crucial to avoiding injury. The most critical piece of advice: Pay attention to what you are doing and how you are feeling.

To avoid overtaxing the body:

  • Pay attention to cues from your body, whether it's negative (pain) or positive (feelings of effortlessness).
  • Give your full attention to what you are currently doing, putting all other thoughts out of your mind.
  • Never force yourself to practice when you are no longer able to fully concentrate.
  • Allow yourself frequent practice breaks to stretch, take a walk down the hall or get a drink of water.
  • Never repeat a technically demanding passage for a prolonged period of time, taxing the same set of muscles and tendons. Rest is important to allow the body to recover from physical stress.
  • When a technical problem presents itself, think first. Trying to solve a problem through sheer repetition is pointless and can be injurious.
  • Make sure that the repertoire you've selected is suitable to your body's limitations, such as hand size.
  • Check fingering to ensure it is the most efficient for your hand, as well as the most appropriate for communicating the melodic and rhythmic nuances of the composition.

Barbara Lister-Sink's article in the April/May 2005 AMT provides additional information.


Although singing or playing an instrument is a learned skill, it also is an art. Learning the mechanics, while important, does not automatically create a musician. What is the magic that separates a dull, mechanical performer from the sensitive and expressive musician? While some students might be innately musical, many develop musical expressiveness through exposure to all styles of music, by attending live performances or listening to CDs and nurturing their creativity. Whether a student's parents take them to symphony concerts from the time they were little or a teacher sets up field trips for their students every time a performing artist comes to town, these experiences form the basis for helping young students develop their ear and enhance their intuitive understanding of music and how it is interpreted.

Practicing affords consistent opportunities to deepen our listening experiences, to explore physical gestures and how they impact sound production, to try on different interpretations and to periodically do trial performances. Unfortunately, a number of students do not view practicing as a time of exploration. Some approach practicing as a time to perform, running through pieces at tempo from start to finish. Others view practice as a time to mindlessly exercise their fingers, drilling exercises or pieces.

It is not at all uncommon to hear students say, "I know how I want the music to go, I just can't make it happen." The right practice attitude may provide a solution. Figuring out an interpretive or technical issue is often a result of trial and error. Thinking of practicing as a time for exploration to determine what works/sounds/feels best can be an eye-opening experience. Trying different physical approaches and musical interpretations, listening carefully and assessing each idea can lead to the discovery of a wealth of information. This can be achieved without drudgery, clock-watching and mindless, boring repetitions. Exploring various technical approaches to create different sounds provides the opportunity to develop a palette of sounds to use as needed. So often technique is viewed as an end unto itself. In truth, it is only a vehicle providing a means for expressing the music. Careful thought and experimentation can result in the development of a technique that serves as a useful tool to express musicality.

Since the bulk of a student's time will be spent working on his or her own, the practicing strategies and mindset the teacher promotes will be crucial. Taking the time to talk through practice priorities is time well spent. This includes helping them learn to independently work through musical or technical problems that they encounter. It is our responsibility to broaden a student's vision of what practicing is. Here are some possible diagnostic questions students can ask themselves as they practice. Although some of the questions below might be more appropriate for more advanced students to consider, these same types of questions can be rephrased for younger students.

  • Is my posture the same as what I would want in a performance setting?
  • Am I rested and able to fully concentrate?
  • Have I sung through the melodic line to know how I want it to sound-where is the climax of the phrase, does this phrase lead directly into the next or does it end?
  • Am I paying attention to balance (between hands/between voices), register changes, cadences and transitions from one section to another, texture changes, tonal shifts and so forth?
  • Does the music flow? How many pulses am I hearing in each measure-should there be more or fewer? Am I leading across the bar line?
  • Does the music breathe? This helps the music and the performer to be physically at ease.
  • Does my fingering work in tandem with the musical and rhythmic content of each phrase?
  • Are my physical gestures in sync with the music and the sound I need to produce? Do I feel comfortable as I produce these sounds?
  • Am I experimenting with sound, carefully listening and constantly re-assessing to determine whether one idea works better than another?
  • Have I tried different gestures and articulations to change the sound or to make a challenging passage easier?
  • Have I experimented using less pedal or more pedal to create a different character?
  • Have I experimented with a variety of fingering options to see which feels more natural and fits my hand the best?
  • Have I tested out a variety of interpretive options throughout the composition, particularly at cadence points, transitions from section to section and at the end of the piece?

As students take a more pro-active role in their practicing, they begin to feel more independent, self-sufficient and in control. Westney refers in his article (June/July 2005 AMT) to the benefits derived when he asked students to prepare a composition entirely on their own and performing it with no input from anyone else. We, too, have asked students to prepare a composition independently. It is a very useful diagnostic tool, demonstrating clearly what a student knows and doesn't know. Truly priceless is the student's feeling of success and sense of accomplishment they experience after going through this process.


Mary Beth was a conscientious music therapy student who arrived at her lessons fairly well prepared, but somehow seemed unable to bring her repertoire to a refined, polished level. When I encouraged her to consider the idea of sharing a recital with one of her classmates, serving as a culminating event for her undergraduate piano study, she was both flattered and slightly panicked. Her degree program did not require any kind of recital requirement, and she had primarily regarded recitals as something done mostly by performance majors. Mary Beth knew I would not have suggested this to her if I had not believed that she could successfully handle the challenge. Suddenly her work took on greater purpose. In the process, she began to demand more of herself, discovering a focus and desire to learn that was present all along, but which she had left untapped until this occasion. Her note to me following her recital, which began, "Thank you for believing in me!" indicated how proud she was of her accomplishment and reflected her newly found confidence in her ability to rise to the challenge.

—Gail Berenson


Being a teacher is truly an awesome responsibility that extends far beyond teaching students to play a musical instrument or sing. Our actions can instill a love of music and the desire to learn, can nurture a sense of independence and the self-confidence to take on challenges and solve problems, and can enhance their self-esteem. When a student comes to a lesson, a unique individual walks through the door with thoughts and feelings that extend beyond the lesson environment. Providing students a safe, supportive and non-threatening environment motivates and encourages productivity, independence and self-esteem.

Most people love what they believe they do well. Providing students the opportunity to become independent is empowering to a student. This may be the impetus that prompts a student to want to learn, to improve and to strive for a higher level of musicianship; the real desire originates from within.

There have been times when we have been amazed when a student rose to meet a challenge. By gradually raising the benchmark and establishing new objectives, "rising to the challenge" might become a regular occurrence. An important reminder: we always have to make sure our students possess the skills to handle the challenge. Without those skills or knowledge, a student can easily become frustrated or discouraged, and may begin to doubt his or her ability to play well.

Providing our students the tools to succeed and believing in their ability to achieve will help them mature into confident musicians. This holds true whether they perform in their living rooms for their families or on the Carnegie Hall stage for the world.

In all the Essential Skills covered in these four articles, big and small, there is one constant: the crucial responsibility of each teacher to serve as a healthy role-model, demonstrating caring and excellence that challenges each student to become committed, to whatever degree talent and aspiration allow. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, "Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn." Many thanks to our co-authors for involving us in the learning process about essential skills, and thanks to you, MTNA members, for all you do to build a more musical tomorrow.