Demonstration, Imitation, Improvisation, then Notation!

The traditional reliance on a notation-based approach to teaching elementary repertoire has turned most people’s early experience of instrumental playing into a process whereby a set of difficult and complex puzzles have to be solved. Only if the student can remember the letter names, the fingerings, the correct embouchure, etc., and the note values before finally managing to bring these together for a whole string of notes, will the result be recognisable as a tune. Not only is this frustrating for students, but in many cases, the greater part of the guidance they receive from their teachers comes in the form of reminders, corrections or admonitions. It is almost certain that most players at this stage leave their lessons with only the faintest aural impression with which to compare their own performance.

In order to enable beginners to play music that can mean something to them (for this it needs to be  related to their previous experience) without getting ‘bogged down’ in solving notational problems, it is best if the teacher demonstrates a particular phrase, passage, note or technique first and then encourages the students to imitate. This bypasses the verbal, notational and conceptual maze the student would inevitably be caught up in otherwise. Think of that popular trick that children play on their friends or parents by asking them to describe a spiral. In most cases (probably 99% or more) the answer involves a gesture delineating a spiral and hardly any verbal explanation at all! In fact, most people find it extremely difficult to describe such a concept, and I suspect that an accurate explanation would be so complex in mathematical terms as to be largely incomprehensible to all except a few professors of mathematics!  We, as instrumental teachers, can identify with, and learn quite a lot from, this!

So, in the early stages, simple phrases and later familiar tunes can be learned simply by the student observing and copying what the teacher does. The degree of accuracy and detail – in for example, articulation, phrasing or nuance – that the student is able to introduce will be considerably more than if he/she is bogged down in note reading and the teacher can gradually demand more and more. By doing so he/she will be developing musicianship alongside technique.

The more striking a student’s experience of the excerpt in question; when played accurately with clear articulation and exemplary tone quality, the firmer will be the impression on which they are able to base their own attempts. A clear aural image of how the instrument should sound may only be built up if they repeatedly hear playing of a high standard during their lessons. The same principle applies to the music itself. If students are able clearly to recollect how the music they are learning is supposed to sound, their efforts away from the lesson are more likely to bear fruit (see also Excuse me, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?). To facilitate this, it is helpful to get them to sing the tunes they are studying as well enabling them to hear them played correctly.

Seeing how an experienced player negotiates the often uncomfortable physical contortions associated with playing a particular instrument such as how to hold it while retaining satisfactory posture and relaxation, how to position fingers, set the embouchure etc, is every bit as critical. An intimate understanding of the nature of the interface between students’ bodies and their instruments will be developed all the more quickly if verbal instructions are reinforced visually at every available opportunity.  Not only will this prove an invaluable aid to learning, but also, since a demonstration is so much more immediate than an explanation, it will help in making the most of the available lesson time. The resourceful teacher will take steps to supplement his or her demonstrations in lessons with recordings, be they audio or video – very easy since most students will be carrying a video camera and sound recorder in their pockets, in the form of a cell phone!

Conscientious students will find it of enormous value to have the opportunity to refer to these during their practice sessions at home. “One showing is worth a thousand tellings” said Confucius. This particular fragment of wisdom could hardly have more relevance than to instrumental teaching.

Much more inside!

In a teaching methodology that leaves notation completely on one side, to begin with, the earliest materials to be learned will be short fragments or phrases copied from the teacher’s demonstrations.  From here, it will be possible to ask the students to come up with their own fragments, having laid down some obvious ground rules concerning the speed, number of notes, etc. It is, of course, necessary to keep sight of the fact that the skills being taught at this stage are primarily those of instrumental technique.

Depending on the instruments being taught, the very first fragments will vary from sustained and or repeated notes – possibly on a single pitch, to very simple melodic fragments employing two, three or more pitches. Much of this, by itself, may not be very exciting for most young students, so it is essential to create a musical context for these early ventures.  Even the first efforts at sustained or repeated notes can be given an enormous ‘lift’ by adding an accompaniment, either on CD, electronic keyboard, computer or played on the piano by the teacher. Once the basic principles of technique have been grasped, it will be possible to introduce phrases with a little more rhythmic interest. Such a fragment might be along the following lines;

Example 1

Imitation Eg1

With some guidance as to the notes to be used and to some basics ‘rules’ for example that the rhythm has to be similar, the student might respond with something like the following;

Example 2

Imitation Eg3

Or if the student is asked to reverse the order of the notes, this might become;

Example 3

Imitation Eg2

If asked to devise a contrasting fragment using the same notes, he or she might produce something like this;

More on instrumental teaching



4 thoughts on “Demonstration, Imitation, Improvisation, then Notation!

  1. Excellent article! This will certainly help me when working with very younger students.
    I already have a method for teaching youths and adults, but there is some added ammo here that will help teaching them as well.


  2. I was classically trained and reading came very easy to me. I love sight reading new music. But, I have started playing with contra dance musicians who can not only play by ear, they can inprovise and harmonize on the spot. It leaves me feeling inadequate, frustrated, and very ” paper trained.”. I am currently struggling to get my ears in shape after playing for 40 years! I never had to do that, and I graduated from a conservatory of music! I have been teaching for 28 years now and am determined to give my students a more well rounded approach…using imitation, exploration, notation, familiar songs, and joy. I have come to have a lot of respect for musicians who can’t read, but have the music in their souls. I am still working towards that.


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