The T Word

This is the final post in our January series inspired by an interesting confluence of December submissions from our contributors around how perceptions of who can and can’t make art affect their teaching practice. Enjoy! —Malke Rosenfeld, ALT/space Editor


Sharing a table with several parents at a school event, conversation came around to my being a music teacher. In the course of the conversation comments came out of a type I have come to accept as inevitable when discussing my field with those outside it. If I had to categorize it I suppose it would be something like this “Talent: those who have it and those who don’t.” It tends to crop up in relation to some child or another, my having it as a professional in the field, or poignantly, the adult’s perspective that they themselves do not possess this “talent” which is required to make music.

It boggles my mind how universal this perspective is. I have heard the same tone, the same assumptions from individuals for many years. As to the source of such perspectives I can only speculate although I have learned of an alarming number of instances where an educator has informed some child that they “cannot sing.” It seems apparent to me that many individuals have years of practice envisioning themselves as “non-musicians.”

As I think back to this particular evening it occurs to me that this issue around talent plays heavily into any teaching of adult music students who, even though they come to learn music skills and expression, often harbor deep reservations about their own ability. Over time I have developed some sequences of activities to address this issue which are introduced with dogged positivity. My position is that people need a “safe space” in which to create, they need to feel that it’s okay to make their sounds, like singing in the shower. Here’s a brief tale of one adult student who was able to make it.

Marco came to class a beginner; he was in his early thirties and had purchased a guitar several years before. He was very attentive and put in the time between classes to learn the skills we covered. Right away he stood out as one of the best players in the class. This made it easy to achieve my first goal: establish an open and positive relationship in the context of trying out new things on the instrument and with the music. His ability to succeed on first or second try saved him the anxiety that students commonly feel in attempting to make a sound (the “right sound”) and failing.

How did I facilitate all of this? Actually, my method is simply to listen and watch acceptingly – I tend to make students feel at ease in this way,  structuring my comments to first support what is good and effective in their playing. Marco tended towards shyness but I think that my support and his skill resulting from good studying helped him to get his first successes as a musician.

After our nine-week class ended, Marco continued by taking private lessons with me. Near the beginning of this time he happened to mention a song he wanted to learn and this request brought about the next level of this student’s comfort. It was a song he liked and I knew it was within his reach to learn it.

When a person learns to perform for himself a song that has already earned a favored place in his heart, it is truly magical. It goes beyond mere achievement; it creates a bond with the individual and the music. As we sat there in our little room playing and singing this song together I could feel him gaining confidence and enjoying the sounds he was making. My backing him up was also very helpful—it’s a technique I use often that allows us to participate together and, at the same time, allows me to cover him up just enough so he doesn’t feel overexposed.

Each achievement described here helped Marco build the foundation for the next. Crucial to this work was that Marco allowed himself the very new experience of performing music.

I had given him composition exercises along the way, and experiences with improvisation too, but one day we started talking about writing a whole song. I helped him set parameters such as key, chords, structure, topic to help him make sense of the many-faceted task of songwriting. Marco came back with the entire song in a workable draft. After a few more lessons revising it settled into what we both felt was a pretty final form.

His song was beautiful. The lyrics were subtle and witty, with a charming balance of poignancy and humor. The melody and harmony were perfectly suited stylistically. It was simple and effective, I was thrilled. He played it, I played it for him, we recorded him playing it, we wrote out a lead sheet for it.

Talent: Not innate, simply the ability to persevere, learn new skills, take risks and enjoy the challenge.

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