American Idol And Finding Your Voice: A Music Teacher’s Perspective

My family loves to watch American Idol as well as The Voice.  These competitive singing shows are fun and introduce a new audience to a lot of great songs, old and new.   The shows are both well produced and fun and get you involved with each contestant’s story so that you care whether or not they make the cut.

One thing that stands out for me is the subject of song choice.

So many of the judges comments on these shows go something like, “That was the perfect song for you.”  But who’s helping these fledging artists make these choices?

Last night’s American Idol had a lot of interesting re-workings of old songs in such unusual ways.  There was a slow, introspective almost morose version of “You’re the One That I Want” – the song from Grease.  There was a female singer doing a version of an Adam Sandler song!  That is probably the first cover he ever got.   So interesting!  Talk about “making it yours.”

A&R is not Accounts and Receivables

In the early days of the recording industry, there were specialists at the record companies.  They called them “guys with ears.”  These Artists & Repertoire or A&R men (they were always men) were the specialists in matching the singer with the songs.  This art of song selection is the true magic behind some of the greatest music stars.   The most famous of these A&R men are guys like John Hammond who discovered Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday to name a few.  Other legendary music executives could be considered “guys with ears” like Clive Davis, who discovered Whitney Houston and ran several record labels, or Ahmet Ertegun who founded Atlantic Records.   Clive was a lawyer, so how he came to be a guy with ears was just pure passion, innate talent and personal interest.

Nowadays, most artists are expected to write their own music or have a very specific view of the kind of material they are looking for.  Everyone needs to know what is their “own music.”

So how does this relate to teaching music?

Find the perfect song for the student and you are golden.  You no longer have to TRY to motivate them.  The student is so self-motivated – it’s what they want to do.

To do this, you need to get to know your student.  What makes them excited, not just musically, but in life?  What are their interests, passions, causes, fears?  What do they care about?  Who do they love?  Who loves them?

The material you select together will be putting words/ideas/feelings in their mouths and mind.  It becomes a part of them, their reality.  The choices you help them make become a part of what makes them unique.

When you find that next song, don’t just play it like everyone else.  Experiment to find what is their own way.  Change it up.  Make it faster, slower!  Do it with a reggae lilt.  Do it in a bossa nova style.  Change the key.  Make it a minor key.  Most of all, make it their own.  Play it like it they wrote it!  Find their voice.

The “song” can be more than a song

It’s the same in every subject, whether it’s soccer, physics, macramé or Chinese lessons.  Having a mentor to guide one on a personal path can be the difference between passion and drudgery.

Find the song, and the next, and the next, and the life path will be clear.   At every stage, a different “music” is required to guide, lift and release into the exact place of purpose, whether it’s on the stage of American Idol, or any other field of endeavor.  Every lesson is a lesson in life.

Finding Your LIfe Path, Photo by Des D. Mona @ Flickr
Finding Your LIfe Path, Photo by Des D. Mona @ Flickr

“I am circling around God, around the ancient tower, and I have been circling for a thousand years, and I still don’t know if I am a falcon, or a storm, or a great song.” – Rainier Maria Rilke

Teaching Strategies For Growth Mindset

What is the most important factor in a student? Many people would say it’s talent, or effort, or persistence, or luck or some combination of these.

Behind all of this is something that is more important – the proper mindset. Recent research (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007) has shown that there are two different mindsets among students:
1) intelligence as a fixed, static trait or you got what you got
2) intelligence is a changeable, flowing trait, in other words:  you can learn whatever you put focus and effort to

Most of my music students do have a growth mindset, but may need some extra encouragement.   To do this I need to use a specific way of communicating.

The Dangers of Praise and How To Do It Right

Researchers have discovered that if you just praise the intelligence of the child, there are negative consequences.  So just being positive and saying “Good job!” is actually detrimental and has a backlash because given a new challenge, the child would rather not participate (quit) in order to “save face” and live up to the expected standard.  Rather if the child was praised for their effort, the next harder challenge was met with more effort.

Communicating Learning Goals

Almost daily I have a student who complains
“That’s too hard! I want to just stay on the same song!”

Here’s some things I say and you can too in your classroom, studio or with your own children.  Though I’ve made these specific to music, you can apply a variation of these to any subject.

  • Learning music is like playing a video game. Once you achieved the last challenge, we’re on to the next level.
  • You’re not supposed to know this already, this is brand new.

High Expectations For Forward Motion

  • I KNOW that you can do this, that’s why I’m showing you this.
  • This will be challenging, but I’ve seen you do amazing work before.
  • Remember how hard _____ piece was? And now you can play it so well. This is like that one only better.

Struggling Even With Effort

  • You are not there…YET (emphasis on the yet)
  • If you’re feeling overwhelmed, just remind yourself that you can’t do it…YET.
  • Let’s take a break and come back to this tomorrow.
  • I admire your persistence.
  • I appreciate your effort and focus on this.
  • I love how you never gave up on that last piece. Let’s do it here too.

Struggling But May Need Help With Strategy

  • Let’s work on just the one spot giving you trouble
  • What part is giving you trouble? Let’s just look at that.
  • How about we make a plan to learn this piece? You can do section A today and then section B tomorrow and then back to A…

By setting the proper belief system in place at an early age, we can guide our children to future success in music, and in life.

For more information, read this excellent article from Prinicipal Leadership, a magazine aimed at school principals.

For a free download on Growth Mindset Framing. You’ll have to register but it’s free and you can download a pdf.