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  • Writer's pictureIlan Morgenstern, Bass Trombone

About Teaching Music with Dr. Colleen Conway Pt. 1

Updated: Mar 25, 2021

Dr. Colleen Conway is Professor Music Education at the University of Michigan, author of several best selling books on Music Education including Private Music Lessons: A Manual for Teachers, editor-in-chief of Arts Education Policy Review, and is on the senior editorial board at Oxford University Press.

I met Dr. Colleen Conway while pursuing my Masters degree. I was one of Dr. Conway's assistants in her Instrumental Methods class, and took her class about Teaching Music in Higher Education. At the time I didn’t frankly feel I knew enough about teaching at a high level to even ask the right questions, let alone come up with the answers myself. Ten year later now, and with dozens of students in my background, I asked Dr. Conway if she would be willing to talk about this part of my education that I have been practicing since I left school, with some success (I hope!) on the one hand, but without formal credentials on the other.

Below is the first part of our conversation.


IM: I often feel like I live in a state of perpetual cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, any time there's a teacher’s strike or labor dispute of some sort with public school teachers, I feel very empathetic towards their position, specifically that teaching is a profession, that these people are experts in their field: They studied how to teach and they are specialists, and need to be appropriately supported and compensated. But when it comes to what I do, I of course feel like I'm a pretty good instructor, even though I have no formal training in pedagogy or teaching. And so I was hoping we could start by reflecting on what training I'm missing, and what are ways that maybe I can seek out some of that information to better what I do, and frankly, to be a more proficient teacher.

CC: This is an interesting question. At U of M I interact with performance majors because, like yourself, they assist me in teaching the methods class. Additionally, I teach a class that's called Teaching Music in Higher Education, which is required of DMA students, and is also offered to masters students. The idea behind the class is to learn how to be a college professor. I noticed a pattern of having 10 or 15 master students every semester take that class, and I’d say to them, what are you doing here? You're not going to get a job teaching in higher ed necessarily because you're not a doctoral student. And their response was often to say something like “I just want to know more about teaching”. And so literally, after a decade of hearing master students say “I just want to know more about teaching”, I began to understand what that meant. What that meant was that, for example, my master saxophone student at Michigan, with degrees only in performance, is now teaching Johnny-tenor-saxophone-player-from-Ann-Arbor at one of the middle schools, and feeling like they know some things, but also like maybe there are some things here that they just don’t know. So really, I started teaching five years ago now, a class at Michigan with a concentration on teaching private lessons to middle school and high school students.

So in a way, I feel like your question was very much the rationale for starting this class for performance majors. It's not a class about how to be a band director, and it's not a class about how to go into the schools to be a public school music educator. But it is a class about how to work with students in that one-on-one environment.

Regarding the second part of your question, what are the things that maybe you don't know because you didn't have a degree in teaching? I would say that there are four areas that I feel we have to think about as we're working with “children”, as I'm going to call them, because even at 18 they really are still children in a lot of ways.

These areas are: Musicianship, cognition, physique, and the social-emotional realm.

As a result of our training and experiences as performers I think a lot of times we feel the musical things are obvious, like “I know how to play the trombone, so I think I know how to teach it”. But to me, one of the things we really want to make sure people understand is that all of the musical characteristics that it takes to be successful as a musician all have sequences to them.

Let’s look at Texas for example. One of the things that works in Texas is that they have K through five elementary music where they're singing and chanting and dancing and moving, and that's sequenced in a curricular structure so that by the time they get to band, they’ve been in these musical environments where being musical is not unfamiliar to their bodies. And so then they get a trombone in their hands and they say, OK, well, I can hear the difference between B-flat and F. That’s extremely important! My guess is in Vancouver, and it happens here in Michigan too, that we have students who come to study instrumental music who've never been in musical environments before. They walk in the door, they want to play an instrument, but they haven't been singing or been sung to or they haven't been moving. And so I feel like understanding, even if you're teaching a 12 year old on the clarinet, that your job as a private teacher has to be teaching those musical fundamentals as well as the instrument fundamentals is often the biggest challenge in my private lessons class.

I find that the University students are often like, well, isn't that what the school teacher is doing? I mean, why should I have to teach them to sing and move and read notation and know how to count? Well, in some cases there wasn't a school teacher to start with. In other cases, there were ninety-five kids in the room and one music teacher and the teacher attempted to teach a counting system, but ninety three out of the 95 didn't know the context. And so as a result the school-based learning doesn't always support those kind of fundamentals.

So even in the musical realm, I think we know that if you haven't spent a lot of time around children, the cognitive piece, the physical piece, and the social emotional are all going to be new. But even the musical piece which we might feel we are experts at can be new. Really understanding, for instance, if you see a dotted 8th and 16th, how are you going to talk about that? What are you going to call it? How are you going to get the child to be able to understand that? How are you going to teach 6/8 versus 4/4? And what are you going to tell them about that? How are you going to teach how many sharps in the key? Because those things fall to private teachers in a way that I think sometimes private teachers don't realize that that's going to be their job.

Then there is a cognitive piece. This can include, for instance, how do analogies work when I'm talking to kids, and how do I make sure that I'm using vocabulary that they're going to understand? Additionally, there's a whole cognitive piece of like, where is that learner on this cognitive realm?

And then also there's a whole physical realm. For instance, as a trombone player, if you're starting a fourth grader and you're saying seventh position B naturals down here, not to be too obvious, but just understanding the effect of physical characteristics I think are a piece of it.

So musical, cognitive, physical are the first three. And then the other one that I like to talk about is this kind of social-emotional realm. For instance, to choose maybe a slightly more extreme example, what do I do when they're crying? It's a huge part of when you don't have experience with children, you don't know what to do.

And so I believe you that you've been teaching long enough now that I think you probably are good at it. It's just you had to learn a lot of that on the job because you were not taught in advance.

IM: In fairness, experimenting on other people's children isn't what I would call an ideal teaching method.

CC: Exactly. Which is why I've been trying to convey the idea that every undergraduate performance major really should have to take a class on teaching lessons to middle school and high school students. Maybe more classes are appropriate as well, but there should be at least some sort of an offering. Here at Michigan, I’m really excited that starting next fall we are offering a minor in teaching and learning that will include sixteen credits of related classes. My private lessons class is one of those classes, but other offerings will include Suzuki training, etc. The minor ends in a community-based fieldwork piece, that will culminate in supervised private instrumental lessons at the Ann Arbor Community Music School, where students will get feedback on their teaching from University faculty.

I hope we'll get a lot of students to take on this minor, because really only in that college environment, undergrad or grad school, do you ever have the opportunity for that kind of feedback.

IM: In the peculiar context of one-on-one instruction, especially between an adult and a child, feedback, specifically negative feedback, can be extremely frustrating to the student, and that frustration can manifest itself in a variety of ways. What are clues that then you can look for as a teacher to know when you’ve crossed the line between encouraging and frustrating feedback?

CC: I mean, I think it's back way up to what is social emotional learning in my mind. One question you’ll want to ask yourself is “does the student recognize that the teacher cares?” It starts with that. I call this Ethics of Care. In other words, yes, I want you to be the best flute player you can possibly become, but at the end of the day, I also want you to have a happy life, and I care whether or not you're well today.

It’s important to set up every lesson in such a way that the student, at least over time, will have overall positive experiences in your lesson. They should get the sense that they can have a bad day, they can have a week where they say, didn't practice and you don't just scream at them. So I think at the macro level, there has to be this kind of sense that the student believes that you care. And if that's in place, then you can have the moment where the student begins to cry and the teacher is able to say, oh, gosh, I didn't I didn't mean to push you over the edge.

I think I talk a lot in my class about the fact that you really can't teach a student anything, especially with the peculiar relationship of one-on-one, without this ethics of care. It just doesn't work if the student doesn't think that you like them, and that goes along with the developmental continuum.

So if you start working with a student at 10 years old, and they might be coming into an unfamiliar situation. For instance, maybe they've never been alone around other adults outside their family before. That's the first time they've ever had an interaction that wasn't with an aunt or uncle or a grandparent. So you have to recognize it right up front that that is really peculiar. And you have to take advantage of the fact that a lot of those first lessons are just them getting to know you: There might not even be musical goals at first.

IM: Ok, and so related to that, but not exactly on the same topic are the issue of maybe emotional development and/or cognitive development issues. For me that is one of the things where as a private teacher, I prefer not to know if a student is diagnosed, because it really feels like an invasion of their privacy, at least in younger students.

CC: I might argue with you on this point. I mean, to some extent, I think as much information as you could possibly have about a student would be helpful. One of the things in my private lessons class they have to do in the final assignment is a student handbook that includes all the information they will provide parents and students. I suggest to my students that they do is include a statement that says something like “should you have a diagnosed disability or just something that you think might affect your ability to process our lesson, I would be very happy to understand what accommodations you might need” or something like that. Because if it's just a matter of “I don't learn verbally very well”, or “I have to see things rather than hear them” and the like, that can be addressed! As a private teacher, I can make sure that instead of just talking, I put something visual in front of the student to work on it better. I feel like inviting students to be as honest as possible about a potential issue, whether it's a diagnosis of something that really is a disability or whether it's just let me know if something's not working for them; I think it always really helps us as teachers.

IM: Speaking of different types of learners, what are clues I can look for in a student, and how does this information apply to me sitting in a room alone with another trombone player?

CC: You know, sometimes just looking at the student can help: you might catch that moment where you can see a look in the child's face that says “you just said something that I really didn't follow”. Additionally, I think we have to learn to ask what I call assessment questions. So we tend to ask students things like, did that make sense? Well, what do you think is Johnny-eighth-grader going to say in response? No? We love to say things like that almost more for ourselves. I think we have to change the vocabulary to what I would call assessment questions.

Say I teach a student a way to figure out how the minor is related to the major. Rather than go through a big long thing, and than saying, do you get that? Do you have any questions? I think you have to say: I just suggested to you that C major and A minor are related to one another. So now let's move it around. If I give you E flat as the major, can you tell me what the minor is? And if they can't tell you C minor, then you don't need to ask “Do you have any questions?”. You can just tell yourself, oh, they don't understand what I'm doing. And I feel like even for concepts like tongue and embouchure and whatever, I tend to try to say, gosh, that sounded a little bit better. What do you think was happening there? What did you do differently? So I think changing to what I call assessment questions: Always trying to figure out from them what they are processing and what they are hearing? And then if you have a student who is slow or has a cognitive disability or whatever, you'll start to see it and hear it. You'll start to realize that there's a disconnect between their ability to listen to what I've just said and their ability to use the information. Now, I don't know how you snap your fingers and fix that for every student. But step one is recognizing that maybe they're not processing what you just said, and maybe that means rather than saying it again, you switch to a different teaching technique, like modeling, or assigning a recording, etc.

IM: So speaking of students and their individual capacities, we should discuss the recent TMEA debacle, advising band directors to choose Bassoonists who possess “intelligence, self motivation, socio-economic status, pre-packaged musical knowledge, stable home”. Now, realistically, I can believe this person was trying to be helpful and ended up coming across so very poorly and offending many people in the process, people who were rightfully offended.

CC: I know it's a sign of the times. This TMEA incident was unfortunate because I think we are now starting to understand the inherent privileges, including white privilege as well, that is implied when saying “in order to play Bassoon, you have to have enough money to play the Bassoon”. You know, there are a lot of communities here in Michigan, particularly rural communities, that really go out of their way for the school to provide the funds so that they can still have Bassoons. But even once they have the instrument, it's still going to cost 18 dollars per reed for it to be played.

As a band director, what you're kind of getting at, well, given the investment, who do you find to do it? You're not going to spend 18 dollars per reed of the band booster's money if you're not going to go after a kid who you think's going to be successful. I think you're right that these are really complex issues: I want every child to be able to feel as if they could choose any instrument, but there are some things that can make it harder to play one instrument than another. For instance, I'm a horn player. If I have a kid that comes in and can't sing back a simple interval, that makes me apprehensive about putting them on the horn. There are other instruments that might provide less resistance for developing those aural skills. I think it's all really dicey, and in a good way, I think we're starting to disrupt the thinking about this very standard.


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Feb 28, 2021

This was a great, great read! I really wish I could take a that class Dr. Conway talked about - for how important one-on-one teaching can be, I think a lot of performance majors find themselves winging it. And while a lot of people have winged it (wung it?) long enough to become great teachers, I agree that it's not ideal. It's weird - in my experience this gap in a performance major's education was acknowledged all the time - but only in terms of "you should start teaching lessons to children so you can get the experience needed to run a studio as a professional". Looking forward to part 2!

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